Pear and Gorgonzola pizza is just a phone call and a car ride away.

California Pizza Kitchen Inc., based in Los Angeles and known for creating unusual toppings, is among many local restaurant companies now embracing curbside service. In a twist on conventional takeout, customers ring restaurants from their cell phones to place an order, and the prepared food is delivered straight to their cars.

It's an effort to stay one serving ahead in the ultra-competitive restaurant industry. The eateries are vying for diners not only with direct rivals, but also fast-food joints, grocery markets and big-box stores, many of which have expanded their prepared food sections in a bid to draw customers from restaurants.

Powerhouse chains, including Tampa, Fla.-based Outback Steakhouse Inc., Overland Park, Kan.-based Applebee's International Inc., and Romano's Macaroni Grill, owned by Dallas, Tex.-based Brinker International Inc., pioneered the curbside concept. Often with spacious real estate not found in L.A. eateries, these restaurants sensed that they could turn parking lots into revenue generators.

But L.A. area restaurants are coming around. They've done it by turning mall parking and valet pull-up areas into delivery zones, and by designing units to handle increased curbside traffic as takeout continues to become a larger and larger part of the restaurant experience.

"Curbside has really taken off and, in my opinion, it is the wave of the future," said Bob Spivak, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Grill Concepts Inc., which has the Daily Grill and Grill on the Alley restaurants. "It makes too much sense. Once they (customers) use it, they love it. There is no way they are going to park and pick up their food."

Of its more than 20 restaurants, Grill Concepts has curbside service available at four units in El Segundo, Irvine, Newport Beach and Santa Monica. In those locations, the restaurants had adjacent parking or easily accessible valets. Spivak said that curbside will spread to other locations as the company figures out the best manner to incorporate it.

Grill Concepts' takeout makes up about 17 percent of the company's sales, up from around 8 percent about 20 years ago. In the last few years, takeout service has held strong at 17 percent, and Spivak said it hasn't given way to competition at least in part due to the introduction of curbside.

Takeout takes off
Across the country, Chicago-based market research firm Technomic Inc. reports takeout at full-service restaurants grew 11 percent from 2004 to 2005, and 10 percent from 2003 to 2004, when that business was valued at about $20 billion. At restaurants known for takeout service, including California Pizza Kitchen, Applebee's and Outback Steakhouse, Technomic estimates takeout typically makes up 9 percent to 15 percent of total sales.

Tom Miner, a principal at Technomic, said that curbside dining is making people think twice about cooking their own meals. Curbside also is a way for restaurants to pick up business from customers who are turned off by long lines or by waiting for tables.

"What is leading to the growth is that full-service restaurants have dedicated parking, dedicated workers and really tight operating systems," said Miner. "They have made it real easy for customers."

California Pizza Kitchen has accommodated curbside customers even at urban sites without parking right near the restaurant. At its location in the shopping center complex on Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards, CPK sets aside space in the below-ground lot and sends workers down with food from the above-ground restaurant. CPK is also working to make curbside delivery even faster by using cameras to spot cars driving up.

Larry Flax, the co-chief executive of CPK, said curbside service is all about convenience. With the competition for dining dollars fierce, customers are demanding more from restaurants and going to those that make their trips the most hassle-free.

"There are a million reasons why somebody might not want to come into the restaurant," mused Flax. "People don't want to get dressed or come in their shorts to pick it up. They may not feel well. They don't want to put on makeup."

Kitchen competition
Flax acknowledges one of the primary reasons to boost CPK's curbside service was to keep up with its rivals and the myriad other lower-end but fast options in the dining realm. The numbers are growing, too. Earlier this month, Minneapolis, Minn.-based Target Corp. said it is adding more deli-style offerings, including soups and salads, at its SuperTargets.

Spivak said restaurants originally had a leg up on the competition when families began eating outside of the home and cooking less as their lives became busier. But supermarkets Austin, Tex.-based Whole Foods Market Inc. being a notable example adjusted to the dining landscape by increasing its selection of hot items and even adding in-store seating for those who didn't want takeout.

For sit-down restaurants, a major breakthrough came with cell phones. To operate curbside service, customers call from their cell phones prior to picking up the food to inform restaurants they've arrived. Before implementing curbside service, Grill Concepts discovered 90 percent of its customers used cell phones an overwhelming figure that made curbside worth the investment.

To beat competitors, curbside service is upping the ante. "Curbside is an advantage that we now have. The restaurants are gaining back on that market of high-quality cooked foods consumed at home," Spivak said.

Miner said sales at limited-service restaurants, which include fast food and eateries with counter service, haven't declined, but they haven't increased as much as they could have if sit-down restaurants hadn't taken a chunk of their business with curbside.

But the competitive response to curbside may have already begun. The spread of quick-casual restaurants, such as Richmond Heights, Mo.-based Panera Bread Co. and Denver, Colo.-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., addresses the desire of many customers to get good food without spending the time to eat at sit-down restaurants.

Miner said the battle between the quick-casual restaurants and sit-down restaurants for dinner business has already become more intense.

Other dining options have an edge on sit-down restaurants in certain situations. For instance, it's nearly impossible for sit-down restaurants to do curbside service at dense, downtown locations. Spivak said the downtown Daily Grill, located on busy Flower Street, may never be able to handle curbside. Flax mentioned that the California Pizza Kitchen on the seventh floor of Chicago's Water Tower isn't a good fit for curbside. In those cases, fast food may remain the best option for eaters who need the quickest possible service.

Curbside consideration
Even in ideal locations, curbside can be far from flawless. Janet Lowder, president of consultancy Restaurant Management Services, said she's heard curbside service is often not as fast as advertised. "I don't think it is going to work for everybody," she said. "The big thing is the timing for the customer and the quality of the product."

With competition nipping at each restaurant's heels, slow curbside service can mean the loss of a customer forever. And when the quality of the food suffers with takeout, customers can get the impression that the full-service fare is equally mediocre.

Sit-down restaurants struggle with ensuring the food delivered curbside is up to their standards. At Agoura Hills-based Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill Inc., co-founder Eric Anders said that food is served in containers in which the hot items are separated from the cold items so the cold ones don't cool the hot ones and vice versa. If someone is running late for an order, Wood Ranch won't just keep the food sitting around, but will warm or cool items where it's appropriate.

At Grill Concepts, Spivak said he was initially worried about takeout service because he didn't want the food quality to diminish. He even refused to allow french fries for takeout when the company first started the traditional service decades ago. "I found myself being looked at as a zealot over this," he said.

Spivak has grown more comfortable with the takeout service. He said people don't expect takeout food to be exactly the same as food served at the table. Instead, they compare the takeout food of one restaurant with the takeout food of another.

And they compare curbside waits, likewise. To reduce waiting time, Anders said four to six employees at Wood Ranch are dedicated to takeout alone at peak hours. That's out of the 40 or so employees that work at a Wood Ranch restaurant at any given time.

Most restaurants specially train their employees to deal with takeout orders. Flax said that takeout specialists must have extensive knowledge of the menu and "a great demeanor with customers."

And restaurants are getting more adept at curbside service because they have to it isn't going away any time soon.

"Curbside is becoming a real integral part of our business," Spivak said. "This is going to be a very common way for people to get their food."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.