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Panera Bread trucks in your neighborhood?

That’s a good sign.

As a rabid football fan—born, raised, and living in Boston—I have been spoiled by the unprecedented success of my beloved New England Patriots. In pursuit of our fifth championship and eighth Super Bowl appearance this millennium, I recently wondered, “Excluding the six states that comprise New England, why do football fans from the rest of the country enthusiastically root for the demise of my team?”

A local sports columnist recently nailed the answer: “Because nobody roots for Goliath.”  

Bingo. David vs. Goliath…the biblical story recounting how a young, physically inferior shepherd rose from obscurity to defeat a mighty warrior.

I follow with a similar question, one I am regularly asked: “How does my business (David) compete against the Paneras (Goliaths) of the world?”

For starters, unlike David, it is not necessary (or realistic) to slay the catering Goliaths in your marketplace. There is room for you both.

Should you keep an eye on your competition? Sure, but only to a point. Your primary goal is to build the best business you possibly can, rather than replicate what others are doing. If you see Panera Bread trucks delivering catering in your area, it’s a good sign. It means there’s business out there waiting to be captured. Three decades of experience have taught me that the road to success is straighter if you focus on what you do, and do it phenomenally.

 

It can’t be catering

Panera’s 2014 Report to Stockholders stated that its 1,880 locations had grossed $2.13 billion, and catering sales figures revealed double-digit growth for the last two years.

QSR magazine estimates that the big six of Chipotle, Panera, Noodles, Qdoba, Potbelly, and Panda Express combine for an estimated $13.2 billion annually in catering sales. Catering is in italics to illustrate a point. It wasn’t until 2013 that Chipotle (with revenue almost twice that of Panera’s) decided it was time to enter the catering market. After a substantial investment to launch the new division, it appears they stumbled—badly—out of the gate. Apparently someone forgot to check the definition of catering, because what it currently offers is a pick‑up service.

Today, its website’s Catering FAQ page sheepishly states:

 

We don’t offer delivery right now, but we’ve gotten the message loud and clear, and this is something we’re looking into for catering orders.”

 

Oh, and all orders are COD. (Actually, CO P-U). Again, from their website:

Q) “Can I set up a House Account, PO Number, or be invoiced for catering orders?”

A) “Not yet. We’re working on getting a system in place though, stay tuned.”

The lesson? Bigger does NOT automatically mean better. Goliath is far from perfect.

 

Leverage your independence

Let’s start by dispelling the myth that it is safer to do business with large chains because they have systems that ensure a better customer experience. In fact, to boost their bottom line, the Goliaths of the world will sometimes make impactful compromises in both their products and services. A board of directors, people who may have no clue as to what being on the front lines is all about, decide that their spreadsheets need to improve.

Easy,” they hastily conclude. “We’ll cut back our portion sizes a bit and trim the number of drivers making catering deliveries.”

These decisions may be penny-wise but are often pound‑foolish. Entire customer bases may suffer the consequences. Over time, these consumers begin to look elsewhere.

As an independent operator, one of your definitive competitive advantages is the ability to feel and react to your own pulse. Because you are not constrained by the rigidity of large corporate environments, you can be more in tune with your customers’ needs. This lets you quickly address issues and fix problems. Inevitably, the value of individual clients will be greater for David than for Goliath. This cumulative impact, over time, can be substantial.

 

Yay, you!

The independent businesses in your area are rooting for you to succeed, as they reflect well on the whole community. Consider this: You decide to landscape your front yard. Soon after, your next-door neighbor does the same, followed by the house across the street. Over time, the whole block follows suit. Eventually, the entire neighborhood is more attractive, demand increases, and the value of all homes spikes.

A strong independent business community won’t drive Goliath away. In fact, it may attract their swagger to the area. Embrace this, because if daily foot traffic increases, your location becomes more desirable and valuable.

Time magazine reports, “When consumers buy from local businesses, twice as much money stays in the community, which means those purchases are twice as efficient in terms of keeping the local economy alive.” Furthermore, an increasing number of businesses are embracing the buy local mantra, because “there is a profound economic impact on how those dollars affect the communities around the nation and the world.”

That is powerful information. Remind your customers that you are a local business.

 

Missed menu opportunities

Panera describes its product line for catering as, “Baked goods, salads, sandwiches, soups, beverages.” This is actually a somewhat limited menu. It doesn’t offer hot entrées or hors d’oeuvres—both significant product lines for corporate catering.

Chipotle offers fajitas and burritos for pick-up/catering. This is a very limited menu. They don’t offer breakfast, sandwiches, or a hot entrée variety.

 

Find a niche within your niche

Goliaths often spend their advertising dollars on mass markets, thereby paying less attention to the smaller niches. By using targeted marketing as a strategy, you can fill the needs of specific industries that desire more menu variety and diversity, including dietary-specific and allergy-sensitive items.

 

Connect with your clients

Ask questions. Why do they order catering from one of the chains? Suppose they respond, “I know they’ll always be here on time.”  

Try this dialogue:

 

“It sounds likes on-time delivery is your number one priority?”

 “Yeah, I guess it is.”

 “Great. How would you rate their food?”

 “It’s fine.”

 “If a caterer was able to provide on-time delivery and food that you would rate as better than “fine,” perhaps “really good” or “great,” would you consider ordering from them?”

“Absolutely.”

 “Perfect. WE are that option.”

 

Bring your unique value to the marketplace

We tend to underestimate our value as independent operators. When you’re making a business transaction, who would you rather deal with—the owner or manager of a local establishment (David); or a disconnected, massive call center (Goliath)?

Your inclination may be, “We need to emulate their slick and shiny packaging or their best‑selling menu item.” But you don’t. You don’t need to expend energy and resources in an attempt to mimic your competitor’s business model. Instead, focus on what you do better and what makes you unique. There’s a reason that customers and clients order from you every day. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t be in business. Embrace who you are and the brand you have created. David will be proud. 

P.S. Go Patriots!

Michael Rosman

Michael Rosman

Owner/Founder, The Corporate Caterer, Boston, MA

Michael Rosman has over three decades of experience in the catering and restaurant industry. His career began in the management-training program with Creative Gourmets in Boston, where he spent five years working in different corporate dining facilities and catering venues throughout the city. He then purchased an existing café in Boston’s financial district and eventually took ownership of a nearby pizzeria. During this time he began creating the infrastructure for a corporate drop-off catering operation and five years later, he sold his client list to the largest independent catering company in the city.

As Director of Corporate Catering with Via Lago Café and Catering in Lexington, MA, he built an almost two million...