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Restaurant Catering 101: First Steps for Foodservice Designers

Catering sales at restaurants are way up, according to a just-released study by Technomic. Sales for both consumer social and business catering — meaning drop-off catering platters at office buildings and other business-related locations — has increased 20 percent to a whopping $52.3 billion since 2012.

Business catering leads the way with an average annual increase of 7.2 percent during the past 3 years. In contrast, consumer catering has posted an average annual increase of 6 percent during the same time period. Technomic found that businesses spend on average $1,611 on catering per month compared to $984 just 3 years ago when the firm conducted its last catering research study. And 63 percent of consumers place catering orders at least once a month, or more often, for social occasions.

Technomic attributes this growth to the lingering effects of a recession when the last study was conducted. Another potential reason could be due to the fact that many Millennials are pressed for time, would rather not cook and look to their favorite restaurants to feed their parties and events.

Either way, the findings are significant. For foodservice designers, the bump in catering sales means they should consider allocating space in their designs to help their restaurant and foodservice operators build out this premium service.

The hard part is figuring out how much space to allocate. Here, Jody Birnbaum, founder and president of Caterconsult, Inc., a Chicago-based consultancy providing catering and restaurant services for the foodservice industry, shares a few foodservice design tips that can help operators and their supply chain partners get started. For the purpose of this article, we're focusing on pick-up or drop-off catering, which most restaurants focus on, rather than on full-service, event catering.

Step 1: Due Your Research
According to Birnbaum, catering has many benefits: it can drive more dine-in business by attracting new customers; build brand awareness and customer reach; allow for more effective and efficient use of labor and provide a culinary team another creative outlet.

"Catering is definitely an investment," Birnbaum says. "Yes, it can create an additional revenue stream, but there is a learning curve and you have to do things right."

As a result, the first step in building a catering program is doing your due diligence. Study the competition; "find out who is catering in your demographic," says Birnbaum. Restaurants can also survey their customers to see if they're looking for catering opportunities. It's also important to determine projected costs and projected revenue of catering to make sure it's worth the investment.

Step 2: Consider Operational and Design Adaptations
"Evaluate your space," says Birnbaum. Prep space might require an adjustment or schedules modified to accommodate the extra catering prep required. And then there is the extra space needed for the platters, utensils and other packaging needed.

While some restaurants might have delivery vans or even food trucks, many don't. The good news is that any number of third-party delivery services would be more than happy to transport larger catering orders. GrubHub is one notable service, and then there are newcomers Postmates and DoorDash as well as local and regional companies. While some of these services have fees, in addition to dropping off food, they can help attract new customers and have their own built-in marketing; restaurants are listed and their menus posted for everyone online to see.

On the flipside, as more food truck companies open brick and mortar restaurants, operators use these vehicles to support catering and on-site events. "Food trucks are really especially great for successful restaurants as a branding vehicle and especially when it comes to catering," says Birnbaum. "Not only can you decorate them with logos and catering information, you can bring them to festivals and farmers markets and other events. If you have a restaurant where you can cook most of the food, the truck can be used for finishing dishes and prepping food at once for large groups. Set up a pop-up tent or trailer with a small buffet and you can feed 150 people all at once."

Step 3: Develop the Catering Menu
Not all regular restaurant menu items will be appropriate for catering. Some menu items, like fried food, without the right packaging, just don't travel well.

"Think if you want to create new menus for catering outside of your existing menu or just pull from the current menu," says Birnbaum. "You also want to create a menu that's doable by your operation and staff, or that can be prepared in advance during off-peak times."

Then you have to account for the pricing in terms of food, cost of labor, equipment, packaging and transport.

Barbecue – like ribs, pulled pork and all the sides – works well in catering. Roast chicken works, too. But fried chicken and burgers and fries can be challenging.

Step 4: Choose the Right Packaging
That said, choosing the right packaging for hot foods is important.

Birnbaum points out a grilled cheese chain that has worked with a manufacturer to develop a proprietary delivery box to prevent the sandwiches from getting soggy in transport.

"Many of the ventilated boxes the pizza industry has used for years are now making their way into restaurant catering and delivery," says Birnbaum.

Birnbaum also recommends renting or buying large coolers – 55 gallons or larger for cold items with ice packs – and plenty of insulated food carriers for restaurants transporting food themselves. Watch out for plastic containers, which can steam food that you don't want steamed, and if not marked BPA-free, plastic can leach into the food when warmed.

"Make sure that hot food traveling has a good moisture content to it," she says. "If you're serving chicken, make sure it transports with some sauce, and add extra chicken broth or other liquid on hand for rewarming mashed potatoes."

Step 5: Train Staff, Promote, and Market the Catering Program
"Establish standards for prepping and packaging catering orders, which are different than regular menu prep," says Birnbaum.

You can also use staff to upsell catering and talk to customers about the program. Aside from in-house flyers and promotions, consider optimizing a website to handle online catering orders.

"If you're a restaurant doing 2 or 3 million you can easily add a half a million or million more in catering if you go after it," says Birnbaum. "But you have to have all these things in place. That's where consultants can help their restaurant clients make the right decisions."

To learn more about catering at restaurants, consider attending The Catering Institute's symposium on Oct. 13 at the Omni Hotel in Dallas. In this one-day workshop, consultant attendees will learn new strategies for helping restaurant and foodservice clients set up brands for sales success in catering as well as tips for targeting and acquiring new catering customers and learning the ins and outs of operational and design changes involved. Visit this site and enter promo code "CaterConsult" to save $85 on the admission.

Catering Gear Checklist At-a-Glance

  • Cooking caves
  • Stero
  • Thermal ice chests and ice packs
  • Insulated food carriers of all sizes
  • Hotel pans in all sizes
  • Folding tables
  • Rolling racks with trays
  • Plywood for rolling racks
  • Rentable refrigerators
  • Portable induction cooktops
  • Gallons of water and extra ice
  • Ice packs
  • Gloves
  • Serving utensils
  • Servingware: trays, platters, bowls, gravy boats, etc.
  • Portable handwashing station
  • Panini maker
  • Sternos and chafers
  • Microwaves