Window to the future

Cycling into the City from my home in north London recently, it suddenly struck me how many foodservice businesses seem to have installed hatches and counters for takeaway orders and for serving customers seated outdoors. From French Crepes and Forks & Green on West Green Road to Mira Food Store and De Beauvoir Deli Co on Southgate Road, I passed a growing number of food businesses using such a servicing method.

The serving hatch at Mira

Many companies adopted such practices, either by installing new hatches or merely serving from existing windows and doorways with makeshift counters, during covid-19, when takeaway only service was enforced. While many companies, especially pubs, have jettisoned these practices, there are many others that appear to have adopted them for the long-term.

Such hatches are nothing new, and pubs frequently used them to serve takeaway beer in sealed containers to children who would dutifully carry them home to their thirsty parents. Pre-dating this practice by some years were the wine windows – buchette del vino – of Tuscany. In a recent episode of the excellent TV series Searching for Italy, the actor Stanley Tucci enjoyed a bar crawl around the city of Florence that included the use of these so-called “little doors of paradise”, which involved dispensing glasses of wine through small hatches built into the ancient brickwork.

The serving hatch is ever more popular

There are around 250 such windows scattered around the region, including 149 in the historic centre of Florence, dating back to Renaissance times, when the aristocratic families of the time sold off wines from their vineyards to passers-by. These windows proved very useful in the 17th century, when the bubonic plague struck, but they then lay dormant until the enterprising owners of the Vivoli ice cream parlor used them to serve gelato and coffee during covid-19. Nearby wine bars followed suit, and a number of these venues continue to use their wine windows post-pandemic including Babae, where Tucci enjoyed his drop of vino.

A Florentine wine window

Yes, this all makes for good television, and no doubt adds a bit of theatre to these establishments for tourists. But as foodservice businesses the world over find themselves with chronic staff shortages and wobbly economics, then maybe such hatches make financial sense. While some businesses here in the UK run them alongside their indoor service offerings, others close down their interiors at quieter times and can operate from a hatch with a single member of staff.

The rise of online ordering and home delivery is also fueling interest in the hatch, as a growing number of operators recognise that adding venues with no indoor seating – and instead having the equivalent of a hatch for service and collection of orders – works incredibly efficiently for time-strapped customers and employee-strapped businesses. Starbucks was on the case before covid-19 struck, with its first pick-up only outlet opening in New York City in 2019, and since then, many further branches have been opened at a cracking rate around the US.

Chipotle has also factored the walk-up window into its strategy and uses them as a complimentary element to its indoor service offer. A number of its new units have included these windows, which work especially well in urban locations where the company cannot incorporate a drive thru Chipotlane. Similarly for its existing estate, the service windows have been added where a drive thru is not possible. The strategy has proven to be margin enhancing and is helping drive throughput, according to Tabassum Zalotrawala, chief development officer at Chipotle, who says: “Those units in an urban environment are spaces that are physically smaller, longer, or with narrower storefronts, and so we thought what if we added walk-up windows, like a human lane, if you will. So, if you were a customer that used the app and ordered ahead, you had no reason to go inside the restaurant, particularly those smaller footprints where you might find some congestion.”

The strategic rationale for embracing hatches seems pretty broad, and it certainly looks like they are worth investigating by businesses of all types, because they appear to be an economic solution for a variety of pressures that currently afflict the industry. Anything that proved itself during the bubonic plague and covid-19 must have sufficiently robust merits to warrant some consideration.

This column was first published on Propel where Retail Insider editor Glynn Davis writes a weekly column. We are grateful to Propel for permisson to reproduce the column here.