Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Outback's idea lab refines another

Any initiative from Outback is going to be scrutinized like a Playboy magazine in the hands of a teenager. But the company’s agreement to open an Italian market inside a Publix supermarket is in a we-interrupt-this-broadcast class.

It’s not the development per se that’s so intriguing, though it’s hardly news-as-usual. As Nation’s Restaurant News reported online yesterday, Outback is adapting its Carrabbba’s Italian Grill concept to a retail setting. The test facility slated for a Publix in Sarasota, FL, will feature a wood-burning pizza oven and grill. Shoppers can choose from an array of “hand-prepared recipes” that change daily, according to promotional materials. Presumably the choices will be marketed as ready-to-eat dinners that patrons can bring home to their families.

And that’s why the experiment will be watched as avidly as a Super Bowl. Today, with many of the casual chains offering near-seamless takeout services, we forget how difficult it was for the full-service sector to get to that point. During the late 1980s and early ‘90s, sit-down brands tried a variety of ways to tap the off-premise market, from third-party delivery systems, to offering takeout at their bars, to setting up sections inside their waiting areas specifically for pick-up. Yet the set-ups were typically clunky, inefficient, and an afterthought to what was happening in the dining room. The attempts just didn’t deliver.

Then Outback launched its Curbside Takeaway service. It spent big bucks to retrofit stores—really re-engineering a way to sell take-home meals, instead of merely trying to bolt that sales effort onto the core business. It worked, beautifully.

Pause the replay of the earlier failed efforts to focus on a concurrent trend, exemplified by the likes of Eatzi’s, Boston Market, Cracker Barrel’s Corner Market, and McDonald’s Hearth Express. There was a pronounced sense—an intuition still with us—that consumers would embrace a retail-foodservice hybrid that enabled them to carry home restaurant-quality fare for a reasonably priced dinner in front of the TV. The list of well-capitalized but unsuccessful attempts to fill that need is longer than the phone books of decent-sized cities. Home-meal replacement became the industry’s Edsel.

Now comes the attempt by Outback to crack the code. Will the company nail it again? Will the new endeavor be the winning execution that eluded so many hopefuls, the way Takeaway delivered on the promise of full-service takeout?

The Carrabba’s Italian Market opens in 2007.


  1. A Playboy in room full of thirteen year olds? What does that mean exactly? You lost me at the first sentence.

  2. Sorry for the confusion. Hopefully I clarified it with a quick edit.