For more than 25 years, Wendy Ewers has been building and directing the restaurant catering channel, first with Brinker International and now with Dallas, Texas-based On the Border. Ewers has been responsible for the development of On the Border’s strategic direction, and has designed sales programs for both external and internal sales teams. All of her efforts are designed to grow On the Border’s catering program, which was launched in 1993.
The On the Border catering program has grown substantially since that time, garnering $12 million in annual sales.
In this catering leadership profile, Ewers talks about the strategic alignment needed to launch a successful catering program and the sales tactics she’s developed and implemented to increase sales and grow company catering profits.
1. How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?
I started my restaurant career as a server and quickly moved to bartending while attending college. Within a year, the organized chaos sucked me in and I went into restaurant management. I had no plans to ever work in a restaurant or the hospitality industry, but the people I was fortunate to work with early on pulled me in and I quickly found my home and my career path.
2. What led you to the opportunity of restaurant catering?
Early on I had a passion for event planning and creating experiences for people. Coupled with my business drive to build a successful career for myself, I looked for opportunities. I quickly noticed the restaurants I was managing had party rooms that the company was not really leveraging, so I built and proposed a banquet model and it grew into offsite catering. Our brand was on fire. We were well-known in Dallas and we had great food that traveled well so it was easy money to go get! I just had to sell the new service – taking food to the customers!
I started with one location and quickly added eight additional locations while setting up a centralized ordering system. Back in the 1990’s that was not common, but I had a strong belief that to be successful in this segment I had to make it about connections. I wanted every inquiring guest to get their call answered and ensure they would talk to the same person throughout the planning and booking process. I also knew that managers were busy running the restaurant and the key was having a dedicated staff to accept calls. The model took off and within a few years we took the model to Georgia and Mississippi. It was a true test to see how a toll-free national based model would be received back when very few did it.
3. How did you apply that opportunity to Brinker International and On the Border?
I started with On The Border and when we were purchased by Brinker I had a great opportunity to develop a multi-chain catering department, working with at that time six different brands. I basically took all my lessons learned while setting up the OTB Catering model and applied it to each of the concepts we choose to include. I was fortunate to have great partners and leaders that believed in the model and agreed with my vision to leverage our assets and the buildings we already have to introduce our brand to a whole new set of consumers. I thought I coined the phrase: “Catering, it’s marketing you get paid for,” but now I hear it all the time.
I also knew that as consumers evolved and grocery started becoming the meal replacement spot for large ordering that we had a huge opportunity to take part of that share. We had better food, we had the knowledge, we had the staff and the resources. By investing in a small team to concentrate on what I call “back door” business, we improved not only top line sales for some challenging units, but also improved overall margins due to leveraging existing assets.
4. What were some of the lessons you learned along the way?
Thousands! I swear I should write a book. You have to have your entire leadership team aligned to support balancing a catering model with your overall brand objectives. The key is getting operations to own it and believe in it! I spent many lunch meetings pitching the value of catering to GM’s who thought it was a bunch of work and extra cost. You have to integrate the processes into the restaurants routine and make it as simple as you can. I honestly believe if the general manager is not behind it you will fail. So from the very top of your corporate infrastructure to each team member delivering food you have to be aligned.
The other lesson I learned is that I could not do it alone! I had to quickly identify roles and responsibilities to ensure we could sustain growth. And that by working on my relationships with the field and using our resources, we could thrive.
5. What sales tactics have you implemented for both the internal and external sales teams?
Discipline and follow up. We had plans, scripts and a drive to build relationships since the beginning. We are not just selling a product, but an experience. Early on I always coached my call center team (internal team) that we were not 1-800 Flowers! We are not order takers. We are sales people. We get to know the guest, we suggest items, we smile when we talk and every detail we discuss has to be noted for the field team to deliver – no pun intended! We had a similar philosophy for the external team: make connections! Ensure you can benchmark realistic goals and measure them against sales results. A solid CRM platform has been instrumental in taking both our sales teams to another level. Set your benchmarks early and assign stretch goals monthly.
Lastly- data, data and more data. Make sure you have insight to all of your data and use it to improve your sales strategies. It’s much more than tracking orders and dollars; it’s tracking referrals, industry segments, spending patterns, sorting accounts, understanding what motivates your consumer, and all-in-all measuring the results of everything you do. Not to mention watching if you’re losing any orders or contacts. You have to remain nimble!
6. How do you measure the program’s success?
Sales, margins, guest feedback and maintaining accounts. You have to look at more than one measure to ensure you can sustain long term growth.
7. What future role do you think catering and off-premise will play in regard to the restaurant industry?
I believe catering will continue to grow and make up a larger share of the overall meal replacement spend of our consumers. It is a way to connect with a whole new set of consumers that may not have even tried our brand. As I mentioned earlier: Catering is marketing you get paid for.
As consumers continue to balance the high-paced lifestyle technology has fueled for us they will continue to expect more. Catering is becoming an expectation. People’s time is the most precious commodity and if you can save them time by delivering your product and making sure the ordering process is as quick and simple as possible, we all win. In my 26 years watching the industry, I have never seen more people doing it! So to answer your question in one word, a HUGE one!