The catering game has changed. No more are restaurant operators worried about who is adding on the service for their customers. They are worried, instead, about if they’re not.
“Catering now is and will be what we’re selling in the restaurants. There are no so many restaurants in catering that we have more competition for a finite number of occasions,” said Don Fox, CEO of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Firehouse Subs. “The one thing that’s changed dramatically is it’s a much more competitive space.”
Fox has quickly seen what other operators know as well: catering is an industry within an industry and it pays to do it well. It also is here to stay.
With the official May launch of the company’s cold sandwich line, Firehouse Subs executives are looking to increase an already substantial number of catering sales. When they started their box lunch program in 2003, there were no versions of the company’s signature hot sandwiches on the catering menu, which led to a less than stellar customer experience. (There were also a lot less stores in the system.)
“Even back then, the success of catering depended on the enthusiasm of our general manager, but we did have some who embraced the opportunity,” Fox said. “We saw cases of people who were having success drawing substitute sales with meager resources so the next step was to step it up a bit.”
The company made a larger commitment to catering in 2006 and put its focus on individual sales rather than business-to-business and turned their focus to branding, packaging and menu development. And it continued to evolve from there.
“We started to better understand the needs of business client and understand who we were selling to,” Fox said. “While today it’s still a fraction of our business and we’re still focused on traditional sales, I do think we have more opportunities now to reach that niche audience. Do I believe we can grow our catering business? You betcha.”
Every Firehouse Subs location now offers catering although sales vary among units between 1 percent and 30 percent, Fox said.
“We have some operators who have done a great job at catering and from people whom you would never expect,” he said. “We hold those operators in high esteem.”
It’s that easy … Or is it?
For Jeff Drake, president at Le Duff America – Brioche Doree, Au Pain Dore, Michel’s Bakery Cafe – catering success depends on two things: on-time delivery and order accuracy.
“That’s everything in terms of creating credibility,” Drake said.
He built the catering business at Corner Bakery Cafe long before fast casual was an industry term because he had a team who believed in its success and business model.
“They were very dedicated to catering although it was still a segmented part of the business. All the stuff that seems obvious today wasn’t so obvious in the mid-1990’s. Catering was virgin territory,” he said.
Yet Corner Bakery, then owned by Brinker, continued to receive the parent company green-light when it came to developing its catering program. The company hired a general manager to drive the business and that’s when things really changed.
“We then really drove the collaboration aspect and made catering part of the Corner Bakery Cafe experience,” Drake said.
For example, the company took steps to formalize its catering program and worked on the development of marketing materials to educate consumers about the experience Corner Bakery could provide.
“We had some challenges growing the business but there was a concerted effort to grow top-line sales and launch catering in other markets. Corner Bakery Cafe was very committed to catering and so was its executive leadership. The mantra was to build catering sales, not just answer the phone,” Drake said.
As sales grew, so did the emphasis on catering best practices. Corner Bakery, once hesitant to use call centers for incoming catering orders, decided to make the change. They also focused on training delivery drivers and ensuring they had a driver program in place that nurtured on-time deliveries.
“We are very hesitant to use a call center because we didn’t want to lose the relationships with our clients, but we got to a tipping point where we had to centralize. The client was then better served by making that transition,” Drake said.
In regard to drivers, each one was fully integrated with the production and sales teams, and in some cases, two drivers were required per vehicle. They also had to wear the same uniform as the other employees and have a high-level of communication and customer service skills in order to better speak with customers on location.
“People today can be overwhelmed by what some of the other brands are doing well, but they too have loyal customers that are having events. Just by answering the phone, you get the business,” Drake said.