When Richard Hodges started in the restaurant industry as a cashier in 1985, he was working at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Dallas and going to college. During his time there, he worked in every hourly position the restaurant had to offer and by then he was hooked.
He graduated from the University of Texas and then went into restaurant management. In 2002, Hodges joined the operational team at la Madeleine and held positions as the director of technology and training. Now, Hodges serves as the senior director of operations services and has worked for the past three years to grow the chain’s catering and off-premise business. (Click here to download a la Madeleine catering case study.)
1. What is your approach to restaurant catering?
The la Madeleine focus for catering is generating business to business sales. Event or social catering is fun and certainly aligns to the needs of our core retail guest. However, our focus on delivering a catering experience to businesses that is more special than just a tray of sandwiches t has shown to be a much larger and sustaining portion of our success in catering.
2. What experiences have led to your approach to restaurant catering?
Event catering is wonderful – huge big chunks of sales make everyone happy. However, developing a relationship with a client that does event or social catering two to three times a year is hard to sustain as a successful business model. It is even harder to compete with the legions of small caterers whose primary focus is just event catering.
When we get to do business with the same client 2-3 times a month as opposed 1-2 times a year, we develop better relationships, more consistency in our efforts, and are able to create a more sustainable catering business. The individual check averages may be smaller than some of our big social event catering invoices, but the total volume of business in B2B is far greater and allows us to make it more of repetitive business process that we get better and better preforming.
3. What are the three biggest factors to creating a successful catering program?
- On-time delivery
- Accurate orders
Yes, in that order: especially in B2B catering. We may be selected for catering because of our outstanding reputation for amazing food, but we will only be asked to do it again if we provide 1) On Time delivery, everything exactly the way it was ordered. Finally, once we set a table with our catering – the order placer perceives they have gotten something worth what they paid. The key is that it is not just our reputation we need to worry about – it is the reputation of the person that places the order that is more important than our perceived reputation. If we screw up – and we do – we fall on our sword and will do everything we can to make sure our client is still a hero.
Catering is not just about making a sale. It is about creating a sustaining business relationship. If we are always just looking for first time only one time clients – we will not be catering for very long.
4. What were some of the biggest changes you made to the la Madeleine catering program and why?
Probably the biggest change for us – we are still managing. We are fast casual restaurant people operating outside of our comfort zone with developing our catering business. The language of sales is new to us. We are creating new training materials, creating and testing new positions, and trying new ways to build the business.
We are learning that catering is more than just delivering to-go sandwiches on a bicycle – we will never and do not want to compete on that model. We want to be much more than that. We have had to shift our expectations on our associates and managers to get out of the four walls in new ways.
5. What was the outcome?
$4.5 million in catering in our first year, and $5.7 million in 2014. You can imagine we are budgeting to do even more in 2015.
6. Looking ahead, what role do you think catering will play in the future of la Madeleine and restaurants in general?
If we continue down this path and our catering business continues to grow like it has, we will absolutely be the world class leader of our segment in average unit volume. Those sales dollars I mention represent less than 4% of our total sales. The upside is huge when we have competitors who are at 10 percent to 20 percent of their business in catering and we are close to them already in average unit volume. The gap is narrow and its closing fast thanks in large part to our catering business.