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Grab and go salad components that can be mixed and matched to provide some form of customization is one way to make some grab and go items more appealing.

Grab and go grabs the spotlight

Venue restrictions, safety concerns, convenience demands and emerging tech innovations drive a move to more pre-prepared takeaway.

Grab and go used to be the tail on the onsite dining dog—the quick alternative for customers in too much of a rush to custom order at the serving stations—but is now threatening to become the whole beast, or at least a good hunk of it. The reasons are myriad, but a lot of it has to do with COVID, as does so much else today.

As the pandemic forced operators who remained open to restrict the number of people in a dining venue at any given time, many turned to offering pre-prepared, packaged items for takeaway that required minimal customer time on the premises and little or no interaction with dining staff. As a bonus, grab and go meals allow streamlined production in onsite kitchens struggling with staffing or in offsite commissaries where economies of scale can be leveraged.

Once pandemic began to recede over the past year with the advent of vaccines, more traditional forms of foodservice started to re-emerge, but the grab and go component has still continued to thrive, prompting some operators to bulk up their pre-existing grab and go displays or even convert counter service or shuttered self-service space (e.g., traditional salad bars) to this function.

With the recent surge in infections brought on by COVID’s Omicron variant, some operations have been forced to once again close their serveries and go all grab and go or pre-order/takeout. The Omicron-driven restrictions are supposed to be short-term, but then so were the “two weeks to flatten the curve” shutdowns implemented in spring 2020, so who knows?

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Smart fridges and other high tech extensions of the vending machine model can put premium grab and go items into previously unreachable spaces and help build sales by intercepting potential new customers.

(For the purposes of this discussion, “grab and go” is defined as food that was pre-prepared and packaged in a production kitchen and sold “as is” in contrast to pre-ordered meals that can be customized and prepared to individual preferences).

Between them, grab and go and pre-ordered takeout constitute a growing market share of total number of meals served by onsite dining programs across most segments, and there’s little doubt that they will continue to do so even if COVID was shot dead tomorrow. This is driven on both the demand and supply side by factors ranging from cultural demands for more convenience and safety concerns to production efficiencies and technological innovations.

Here are six areas to consider when looking to boost grab and go sales…

Explore new customer niches in additional outlets

Grab and go displays traditionally were placed in existing venues like cafeterias and retail outlets such as c-stores and cafes, where they could easily be replenished as part of the regular schedules restocking those venues. However, given the falloff in customers at traditional locations, operators looking for additional sales may want to explore installing units in previously un- or under-served areas where they can intercept customers who may not be willing or able to go to the traditional locations. These include outbuildings, emergency rooms and waiting areas in healthcare facilities, dorms on college campuses and break or recreation areas in workplaces. Some of these locations were traditionally served by old-school vending machines but might represent opportunities for upsells to the more sophisticated kind of fare grab and go packaged items represent.

Give home meal replacement another look

Most traditional grab and go focused on serving customers who remain onsite but require something they can take away and eat while at workstations or between classes. However, the pandemic uncovered and expanded another market, which is for grab and go meant to be taken offsite—in other words, what used to be referred to as “home meal replacement.” As operations look for new market niches to replace lost revenues from reduced onsite customer counts, adding grab and go items specifically meant—and conveniently accessed—to be taken away by customers leaving for home could represent such an added revenue stream, especially if the in-house dining operation already enjoys a reputation for quality food.

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Grab and go has continued to find favor and increased sales as customers look for convenient but quality meal choices they can get quickly.

Leverage technology

Equipment costs and space/labor allocation are major factors in deciding whether added outlets for offering grab and go are worth pursuing, but advances in automated service are helping mitigate some of that. Unmanned retail has been around for a long time, as simple vending machines and later as micro-markets, but recent innovations have reduced the kind of space traditional micro-markets required while enhancing security and expanding the kinds of products offered. “Smart” fridge units and AI-enabled retail spaces have made service outlets offering grab and go items and other products feasible in areas where it would not have made fiscal or operational sense before. Encouragingly, as these tech solutions proliferate, they can also expect to become more affordable for more operators as vendors leverage economies of scale and look to expand their markets beyond big-budget early adopters.

Use mix and match to add some customization

Earlier, we defined grab and go as an “as is” product category, but that doesn’t mean some customization can’t be offered, for instance by having various salad components—greens, toppings, dressings, etc.—packaged separately so that customers can then mix and match for themselves. K-12 schools can have mix-and-match components that students can put together based on individual preference to assemble a reimbursable meal combo. While not quite as flexible as pre-order meals, this compromise solution does provide grab and go programs with some customization features.

Expand menu selections

Sandwiches, wraps and salads have formed the core of most traditional grab and go menus but as customers gravitate toward more takeaway, expansion into more sophisticated selections has gained importance. The challenge is to develop items that can be efficiently prepared, especially in bulk, can maintain integrity while sitting in grab and go packaging and can appeal to customers looking for something they can take away and consume in a convenient way. This is why cold options have dominated grab and go but re-heatable selections may become more prevalent as grab and go takeout continues to find favor with customers.

Don't forget the packaging

No discussion of strategies to increase grab and go sales can be complete without an allusion to packaging, which affects both visual appeal and product integrity. While this is a product category that has been especially hard hit by recent supply shortages, securing attractive and secure containers for grab and go should be a priority for operators looking to enhance their programs, with transparent covers highly preferable as customers are more likely to select something if they can see it through the packaging. Containers that look high-end also helps boost the perception that the food inside is also high end, helping justify an increased price point that can also help offset the increased cost of the packaging.

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