Ed Keller started his career at Boston Market in 1995, when he was hired as the company’s senior director of learning & development and operation services. Twelve years later, Keller was promoted to vice president of catering and has worked ever since 2008 on growing the company’s off-premise catering business.
While business proved difficult during the economic recession, Boston Market’s catering sales accounted for 8 percent of company revenue in 2011. Today, Keller oversees the $45 million department, which now includes home delivery services and food trucks, and a team of more than 100 people, such as catering sales directors, call center operators and catering sales specialists.
In this catering leadership profile, Keller talks about the leadership skills he developed while working in the restaurant industry and how those skills have applied to Boston Market’s catering department.
1. How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?
I started working in restaurants when I was 16 as a dishwasher for Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour Restaurant in the Denver area. It was my first job ever and I ended up staying there 4 years, working my way up through all of the job functions to my first management position. Over time, I have worked in fine dining, full service dining and fast casual dining in various operations and training roles.
2. What has the industry taught you about leadership?
1. Treat the people who deal directly with the customer like gold. They have much more direct influence on the business than you do. 2. Listen. Listen to what your customers are telling you. Listen to what your team is telling you and act appropriately. 3. Empower your people. 4. Situational leadership is critical. Not every person nor every situation can or should be managed the same way. A successful leader has the ability to adjust to the situation.
3. How have those lessons applied to your current position and the growth of Boston Market’s off-premise catering business?
The catering business is not exactly the same in every market. So while the principles apply everywhere, we need people who can think on their own to analyze the business and help us determine what is needed in their area. And many of the things we do came from the people who execute it every day – there is a wealth of ideas there if you solicit them.
4. How did you work to provide the catering platform that Boston Market currently uses?
The key to building the catering business is to develop a relationship with the customer and drive frequency. They need to know they can count on us and the two most important things to any catering customer are 1. be on time and 2. do not have any missing items. We have developed a highly successful program based on this through tight operational procedures that include checklists and job aids; having the proper delivery equipment that maintains the quality and temperature; and hiring delivery drivers to ensure proper execution. This allows the operators to focus on running their restaurants and not having to run out on a delivery. Our drivers use their own vehicles and insurance and must adhere to specific guidelines, including uniforms and vehicle inspections. These drivers can also be used to drive sales by canvassing for new business after their deliveries each day.
5. What role does the menu play in appealing to catering clients?
I believe people come to you for the food and return because they trust you can execute to a high level. Catering customers are very unforgiving. If you are late or you are missing items, the person who arranged for the event is put into a position where they are embarrassed and uncomfortable because there are a bunch of hungry people looking at them. In most cases you get one chance to prove yourself – fail to execute properly and you are out. Keep in mind with the menu that you cannot be everything to all people. Focus on what you do and do it well. It needs to be something that travels well and that you can maintain the proper serving temperature on. Keep in mind that catering customers do not get to see the nice brick and mortar location you have. The quality and temperature of the food, the packaging, the equipment that you bring the food in, the appearance of the delivery driver and the service you provide are the impressions that people will have of your restaurant. So while menu is important – variety, price, etc. – there are a lot of other things that appeal to catering clients.
6. In your opinion, what are the elements needed to launch and sustain a successful catering program?
You need to come to grips with the fact that restaurant companies are driven by the restaurant operations team. You must get the people that execute the orders every day on board with the program and integrate it into their daily routines. It cannot be a business you run on the side or as an afterthought. You need to let the restaurant operators do what they do best – prepare and package the food and figure out what the proper support team looks like – from delivery people to sales support. The commitment to an off-premise program needs to be driven by leadership and roles for every level of the organization within the program need to be established.
7. How do you think catering and off-premise sales have impacted the restaurant industry?
Off-premise catering represents one of the most effective methods to increase a restaurant’s sales. Catering sales in the United States increased last year and the forecast is for that trend to continue. Meetings, training sessions, celebrations and office teams working overtime hours are just a few examples where the catering opportunities exist. The average business spends $1,000 per month on catering with some industries spending substantially more. An average catering order amounts to $220, with many orders substantially higher.
While catering orders can be requested any time of the day, the majority of the events are during the lunch hours of 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Catering can essentially become a third day part for a restaurant (in addition to lunch and dinner) as the cooking, preparation and packaging for lunchtime events occurs before restaurants open their doors at 11 a.m. This allows a restaurant to capture sales hundreds of dollars at a time with catering versus traditionally one person at a time through the front door. It also allows you to maximize your labor cost efficiency by utilizing the people already in the restaurant prepping and opening for the day.
8. What future role do you think catering and off-premise will play in regard to the restaurant industry?
Off-premise catering is the fastest way to grow sales. And those sales are more profitable than traditional base business sales. Someone has yet to convince me why you would not want to open your restaurant each day with several hundreds of dollars already in the register. By going off-premise, it allows you to extend the reach of your brand to people who may not normally be exposed to your business and it allows them to use you in ways they may not have ever thought of. If you do a good job of establishing the off-premise business and building solid relationships with your customers, it will also allow you to better withstand downturns in the economy, which tends to have a big impact on base business sales.