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Does Taco Bell Know Something You Don’t?

Why Your Restaurant Needs to Up its Catering Game

The consumer has spoken! Today’s eater is brand-loyal, expects the best in service, and wants exactly what he or she wants—right on time. Using our smart phones, we simply search and click. And everything appears at our doorstep, from transportation to furniture to food.

Photo courtesy Taco Bell

This holiday season, major quick serve restaurant brands jumped into the catering world in a big way. Panera Bread posted catering tips for consumers on its website. Taco Bell offers customizable party packs and even opened its own wedding chapel in Las Vegas. Olive Garden ran TV ads throughout the holiday season, reminding consumers that they should sit back, relax, and enjoy their families while someone else did the cooking.

The secret is clearly out—catering can be a huge and profitable business for restaurants of all types—from fast food to gourmet. Yet, many restaurants avoid investing in a catering operation. Many of their reasons are valid. Now, you may also believe more than ever that you are David to the giant QSR Goliath. But remember how that battle turned out! It was all about perseverance and creativity.

You may not be a big brand (yet), but you have a loyal customer base in your own community and by developing the right menu, infrastructure, technology, and service you can see a huge and ongoing revenue stream.

The challenge may seem daunting. Even without the “big dogs’’” marketing budgets, you can take steps, starting in 2019, to increase your income  and profit margins.

1. Learn from the successes and missteps of others. At Catersource 2019, we’ll be hosting specific sessions on restaurant catering, including one led by David Scott Peters, renowned restaurant/catering expert. You can also hear Erle Dardick’s real life story about how he turned a local deli into a $2 million catering operation.

2. Open your eyes to technology. Just as Seamless, Grubhub, Doordash and other apps have become part of consumers’ vocabularies when their stomachs grumble, ezCater (which raised $100 million this year in Series D funding) may soon become the go-to solution for restaurant catering. If you’re not online, you’re invisible to the future consumer.

3. Operations…operations…operations. Every detail, from menu options to food prep space to delivery details needs to be considered. We’re not under-estimating the amount of work that goes into large-scale food prep. In fact, I was recently at a bagel shop where 30 customers waited on line while the counter staff prepared party platters for the holidays. That type of “we don’t care about our individual customers” can be deadly for a local restaurant.

4. Have an integrated marketing/sales plan. Incorporate the human touch. Make sure that your loyal customers know that you’re in the catering business, but also focus on wooing new customers. NYPD Pizza (a Phoenix establishment) recently sent an “ambassador” to a new co-working space in the area. She brought a free tasting lunch, menus for all the companies in the space, and a smile. Despite the impact and reach of technology-based marketing, putting a face (and food samples) to the brand can go a long way when a consumer is deciding who to call (or text) for her next catering order.

The catering + events show of the year is back! James Beard Award winners, TED style keynotes, influencers galore, and food for days. See all that’s in store here!

Take full advantage of seasonal opportunities too. Super Bowl parties, graduations, and summer picnics are all times when consumers will be looking for more than one sandwich and a bag of chips. Make sure you’re available when your customer needs you—with the right menu, prices, and delivery.

5. Get smart. If you’re serious about launching or expanding your catering business this year, learn from the pros. In addition to reading restaurant management blogs and talking to your own local business advisors, you need to ask lots of questions and compare notes with people who’ve “been there/done that.” Especially with big brand competition heating up this year, smaller restaurants will need to be especially creative and innovative—with both product and service—to win the restaurant catering wars. Although attending a conference may seem like a costly and disruptive investment, it can pay back 10 times over in catering revenue.

Nancy A. Shenker

Founder/CEO | theONswitch

Nancy A. Shenker is Founder/CEO of theONswitch marketing and a professional content strategist, writer, and speaker.

She has spent more than  30 years in the events, food, retail, and small business worlds, focused on delivering meaningful and memorable experiences and bottom-line results.