Mobile Order Ahead

How Portillo’s Caters To Group Order-Ahead Cravings

Order-ahead is taking order size and security to the next level. In this month’s Mobile Order-Ahead Tracker, PYMNTS chats with Portillo’s VP John Holmes on how it has super-sized its menu options by adding group lunches and dinners, while keeping consumer payment data secure by minimizing touchpoints.

Quick-service restaurants (QSRs) cannot afford to ignore customers’ changing or expanding service preferences, and those faced with a rising share of customers who prefer eating off premises are now rolling up their sleeves and building out such offerings.

Keeping current — and competitive — means catering to new consumer trends. For iconic, Chicago-based QSR Portillo’s, that meant robust mobile order offerings were necessary.

Portillo’s executives John Holmes, vice president of IT, and Nick Scarpino, vice president of marketing and public relations (PR), recently spoke to PYMNTS about this effort, explaining how the QSR’s mobile order-ahead service grew over the past two years to support greater customization and enable individual meals, group tickets and orders for the supplies needed to prepare food at home. That includes French bread loaves, a pound of beef and even a heating kit to keep it all warm.

Designing A Smooth Pickup

With more than 50 locations, Portillo’s is known for gravy-dipped Italian beef sandwiches, Chicago-style hot dogs and chocolate cake — and, often, for hectic lines. The company claims some of its drive-throughs are so busy that police have been needed to help control traffic.

As such, Portillo’s has worked to use its existing customer and staff flow layout — separate lines for in-store orders, drive-through and catering pickup — to keep order-ahead progressing in a quick and orderly manner. Stores often assign additional staff to the pickup lines to keep things moving, Holmes explained, and may allow online order pickup through drive-throughs.

Controlling these processes has meant ensuring orders are carefully timed to avoid overloading the kitchen. That’s especially important because orders can be sizeable.

“With mobile ordering, the average check is up to two times [the size of] what the normal check is at Portillo’s,” Scarpino said.

He believes this reflects customers’ tendency to include food for other people in their orders.

The QSR’s system determines how long it will take to prepare each element when firing orders to the kitchen. It then prompts staff when items should be started, so customers’ food will be ready just before they arrive for pickup. In addition, French fries aren’t added to the bag until a customer comes in, thereby guaranteeing they stay hot.

Translating that in-store fulfillment approach to mobile orders required ensuring the app would not display pickup options for a time sooner than a meal could feasibly be made.

Feeding Families, Catering To Co-Workers

Mobile orders are most popular in the evenings, Scarpino said, with most of Portillo’s order-ahead customers snagging dinner for their families on the commute home. There is also a notable demand in the afternoon, particularly among hungry office workers.

The QSR began offering group meal bundles — which include enough of a given menu item to feed eight people, a number Portillo’s selected following testing — after it noticed that several workers often piled on to one lunch order. It also noticed that customers often ordered plain sandwiches with toppings on the side, to add them when they were about to eat. The QSR adjusted its packaging accordingly to support that practice, Scarpino added.

Customers placing mobile group lunch orders or quick dinner pickup orders usually select the soonest possible collection time, but they can also place orders up to a week in advance. That feature is typically used for catered or large supply orders to prepare food at home for around 20 people.

Enhancing And Securing Order-Ahead

Portillo’s has made other adjustments to its mobile ordering service over the past two years. Customers initially had limited options when customizing meals within the app, Scarpino said, including only a few topping options for sandwiches and salads. As requests piled up, though, the company had to find a way to accommodate them within the platform.

That strategy involved a system suited for both staff and customer needs, Holmes explained. When customers were speaking their orders to cashiers at service counters, the technology could focus on presenting menu information in a way that was easy for cashiers and food prep staff to parse. With mobile ordering, however, the menu needed to be clear and easy-to-understand, without complicating the process for staff.

“In the past, the ordering experience was done from the internal perspective — such as a cashier ringing up food,” Holmes said. “Now you have to expose that same menu to someone outside the company, [who] doesn’t have the same experience of the [internal] menu side. You also have to take that order and get it into your system in the same way that the folks making [the] food are used to [seeing], so they can get it out fast.”

Designing its mobile ordering service meant thinking carefully about security, too. One measure enacted requires customers to show a photo ID when picking up orders above a certain size. On the digital side, Portillo’s had to consider payment card industry (PCI) compliance, encryption and other protection aspects. It sought to minimize the number of touchpoints through which mobile-order payment card details were sent, better securing customer information from potential hacking. That meant skipping the transmitting information to a store’s point-of-sale (POS) system, and instead sending it directly to the QSR’s platform.

Portillo’s is always looking to feed customers’ cravings for quick, secure takeaway experiences. Paying attention to trends and expanding its mobile offerings are helping the company fulfill family dinners and office lunches, provide supplies to feed a party, and everything in between, hopefully with no traffic control necessary.

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