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.

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