A 4-step plan to boost holiday catering sales

| by Cherryh Cansler
A 4-step plan to boost holiday catering sales

Tis the season of catering, and fast casual brands hoping to gift themselves an increase in catering dollars must have their systems wrapped up tight.

"Our priority is to make the process as easy as possible for our guests, whether it's a pharmaceutical rep bringing food to his docs, an executive springing for lunch for his employees or a coach providing a healthy meal for his team," said Don Davey, franchisee of 12 Firehouse Subs units in Orlando and two in Wisconsin. "Everyone is busy, so from the minute a guest contacts us we try to make it as effortless as possible for them."

Making a customer's experience as easy as possible is key, agreed Tiffani Lee, catering manager for Newk's Eatery, which relies on catering to make up about eight to 15 percent of sales.

"Many of our primary clients are constantly on the go, so they appreciate being able to text me their order," Lee said. "We also keep return client info on file, so we have their preferences and dietary restrictions at our fingertips and immediate recall."

But with more catering competition than ever, brands must do a lot more than simply offer customers an easier holiday experience. Brands striving to increase catering sales this holiday season should ask and answer the following questions.

1. Who is your customer?

Identifying your catering audience is the first step toward developing a solid catering program, but there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach for each brand. Every market is different, said Lee.

"The way one seeks to build revenue in a city like Oxford, Mississippi, is very different from the way they would do it in Mobile, Baton Rouge or Orlando," she explained. "Knowing the market and key revenue drivers is critical to targeting the right audience. Ask yourself questions like, ‘Where are the jobs? Where is the money coming from in this community? Thinking that way should help pinpoint the top employers in the area."

Pharmaceutical reps account for a significant portion of Newk's catering business, Lee noted.

"A great way to connect with them is through the advanced search feature on LinkedIn, as well as through doctor's office managers, who often serve as their points of contact for scheduling luncheons," she said.

Davey, who said catering accounts for about five to seven percent of sales across his locations, said his bread and butter is local businesses. Many, for example, like to offer "Firehouse Friday" or "Turkey Bacon Ranch Tuesday" as a perk to their employees. 

"A local trucking company hires us once a month to set up our slicers, steamer boxes, meats, cheeses and condiments on-site and serve our hot sandwiches to their drivers as they come off of long 8-12 hour rides," he said. "SeaWorld, Disney and Universal Studios hire us to feed their employees during busy times. College and professional sports teams hire us to provide box lunches for their teams when they travel. Our goal with catering is to bring the same exceptional dining experience our guests are accustomed to inside our restaurants to their place of business."

2. Is my staff up to the task?

One of the most important components of a good catering program is training, Lee said.

"Having all your general managers and shift leads in each store trained on taking and assembling catering orders is key because a great deal of catering orders come in during the evenings when most catering managers have left for the day," she said. "That extra training helps ensure no orders slip through the cracks."

Lee urges each Newk's unit to have at least two team members whose roles are specifically dedicated to catering but who are cross-trained on other lines for slow catering times.

"(This) allows for the attention to detail needed for seamless catering operations," she said. With dine-in, correcting orders is an easy process. But with catering, you've left the building so leaving an element out is major."

In 2013, Davey hired a full-time catering manager and partnered with ezCater to get the word out about his catering options.

"This focus has really paid off," he said. "Five years ago, less than one percent of our sales came from catering,  and now we're well on our way to bringing that up to our goal of 10 percent." 

3. How can you use technology to enhance your catering experience?

Brands should view technology as another tool to help with catering, Lee and Davey said.

"We're currently testing the LinkedIn Sales Navigator software which allows Newk's catering sales managers to more easily identify and track new sales contacts or leads," said Lee, who is also in the early stages of implementing a comprehensive cloud-based catering platform.

"This software will not only make it more convenient for customers to place orders online but also streamline the management of customer relationships for our area catering sales managers," she said.

This platform will also help Newk's centrally manage a location's capacity for orders, providing a centralized order schedule that ensures all necessary product is ordered in advance of heavy volume days.

"You can't sell what you don't have," Lee noted. "Catering orders frequently come in 24 to 48 hours in advance or less, and that's not enough time to get in additional product. The ability to anticipate those orders is the difference between maintaining and growing your revenue."

Firehouse also relies heavily on technology. It recently implemented online and mobile app ordering systems, has partnered with UberEATS to offer speedy delivery for traditional and catering menus, and began leveraging marketing tools via ezCater, an online catering marketplace that allows individuals to order food from local caterers in the U.S.

"Over the past three years our business catering orders from ezCater have grown 651 percent," Davey said. "The best part about this is that as we have grown our catering business, we have also seen an uptick in our dine-in business.

"This makes sense because when we serve 100 guests at an event, a handful of them may have never been to a Firehouse Subs and will want to then come check us out. Our food is so good that once people try us, they almost always turn into repeat guests."   

4. Are you letting the community know about your catering offering?

Actively marketing the catering program to the community is the final component of a successful catering program.

"One way to do this is through local chambers of commerce because they will often refer business to their active members," Lee said. "Also, because Newk's managers and hourly partners are trained in catering orders, it gives me the opportunity to go out into the community and seek out that business. It's an internal infrastructure that really helps us get out there, realize our catering goals and deliver the best quality to our customers."

For systemwide efforts, Newk's marketing department also utilizes newsletters and social media avenues.

"We have a separate database for contacts made on sales calls and for those of current and past clients — information we utilize for e-blasts, event invitations and additional outreach."

Davey also focuses on developing community partnerships as a way to grow his catering business.

"Our catering manager visits schools, churches and businesses with samples of our catering menu," he said. "We have revamped our in-restaurant POP to feature catering and have added our catering menu to our online ordering system."

Topics: Catering

Cherryh Cansler

Before joining Networld Media Group as director of Editorial, where she oversees Networld Media Group's nine B2B publications, Cherryh Cansler served as Content Specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City. Throughout her 17-year career as a journalist, she's written about a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry and technology to health and fitness. Her byline has appeared in a number of newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine. She also serves as the managing editor for FastCasual.com.

wwwView Cherryh Cansler's profile on LinkedIn

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