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Building the Off-Site Catering Business

Portable snacks help foodservice operators tap into off-premise business opportunities.

Fortunately for office workers everywhere, sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch — and it often comes with snacks.

Corporate-sponsored meals and snacks trays can help ease the pain of an all-day meeting or reward employees for grinding through a major project.

U.S. catering revenue

These perks for the cubicle set also yield dividends for foodservice operators offering off-site catering. Catering is a value-added service that allows operators to drive higher per-person checks, and offering items such as packaged snacks can provide a high-margin add-on.

Increasingly, consumers are looking for brands they know and trust in the foodservice arena. Packaged snacks provide that familiarity. In addition, consumers want variety and the ability to customize their foods. Offering a section of snacks — such as crackers with cheese, and/or other dips such as hummus — allows caterers to meet those demands.

“Catering is a great way for restaurants to increase revenue,” says Jody Birnbaum, president of Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based Caterconsult, a business management consulting firm that seeks to help restaurants grow their catering businesses. “Catering in general can create a whole new revenue stream for them.”

Most of the demand for restaurant catering comes from corporate clients and is focused on the lunch daypart, Birnbaum notes. This means that restaurants seeking to enter the catering business might have to create a lunch menu even if they don’t normally open for lunch.

Once a catering lunch menu has been established, offering additional snacks can be a highly profitable strategy way to build upon that offering, she says.

“Snacks can often be held in inventory, and there is no labor involved,” Birnbaum points out. “It’s a convenience, and you can charge for that.”

Operators might also consider offering a fruit plate, or a snack-plate combination of fruit and cookies, she suggests. Some might consider offering their own signature snacks.

Breakfast catering — a growing aspect of the business for corporate clients, says Birnbaum — also can provide an opportunity for snack add-ons.

“Mid-morning snacks could go out with the breakfast,” she says.

Seth Makowsky, chief executive of Makowsky Restaurant Group, a food and beverage consulting firm, agrees that operators can build check averages in the catering business “by offering unique and craveable add-on options such as signature beverages, desserts and snacks.”

“Restaurants that offer their catering clients specialty items have successfully increased check average and order frequency,” he says. “Not only are they satisfying their customers’ needs, but they're also building their brand.”

A well-executed catering program, with the right attention to quality, service and packaging, can be a powerful marketing tool.

Makowsky suggested that a restaurant’s catering representative could package snacks and sample offerings as part of a marketing strategy to target new businesses, enhance current customer relationships, or to represent the restaurant’s brand at community or charity events.

Restaurateurs in the fast-casual and quick-service segments in particular have tapped into the multi-billion-dollar catering industry, and more full-service casual chains are jumping on board as well.

Togo’s Eateries, the San Jose, Calif.-based sandwich chain, offers fruit and veggie platters and chips to accompany the sandwich boxes on its catering menu, says Leslie Lopez, Togo’s brand manager, channel marketing.

“Add-ons are always a great way to build the catering check average,” she says, noting that Togo’s encourages catering customers to consider ordering one or two of the chain’s four salad offerings.

Togo’s cookie and brownie boxes also are popular among catering customers and help build sales volumes, Lopez says.

The chain recently updated the branding of its catering business with new, stackable branded sandwich boxes that are more environmentally friendly than previous packaging, along with a new color catering menu to reflect the new packaging.

Paul Mangiamele, chief executive of Bennigan’s Franchising Co., in Dallas, sees off-site catering as helping to promote the Bennigan’s brand and fill seats inside its restaurants.

“It is increasingly important that you must get outside your four walls,” he says. “The battle for market share will be won by a combination of the in-store operations, the delivery piece, the catering piece and the online ordering piece.”

Like many restaurant operators, Bennigan’s takes a deliberate, gradual approach to implementing catering. The program starts with a simple menu of cold sandwiches and wraps — offered with a bag of chips instead of fries — before advancing to the more complicated arena of hot foods.

“You have to take a look at your menu and figure out what travels well,” Mangiamele says. “It is incumbent upon the operator to figure out how to make sure whatever is hot stays hot and whatever is cold stays cold. That means figuring out the optimal set up for that — the proper packaging and the proper merchandising.”

At the approximately 30 percent of Bennigan’s units that now offer catering, Mangiamele says the program has helped drive increases in average check size of about 15 percent to 20 percent.

Several other chains that have entered the catering business in recent years, including Chipotle Mexican Grill and Corner Bakery Cafe, have also reported strong sales gains driven by the initiatives.

“There’s a beautiful boomerang effect by building traffic in-store through catering,” says Mangiamele.

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