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Five Tips on Starting a Catering Program at Your Restaurant

Stephanie Ganz of The Apple Cart

cateringOnce you’ve established a following at your restaurant, you’re bound to start getting the same question repeatedly: Do you cater?

If you’re prepared to answer yes, you can start to increase your revenue per square foot without adding any seats and that can be great for business in the long-run.

But, as always, there’s more to catering than meets the eye, and it doesn’t do you any good to set up a catering menu without really understanding the ins and outs of what can be a very time-consuming enterprise. Here are five tips for catering newcomers to help you avoid the common pitfalls of restaurant catering.

1. Keep the Menu Simple and Straightforward

When conceptualizing the catering menu, don’t reinvent the wheel. Catering should be a natural reflection of the food you are already making, not necessarily a way to try new things, at least not at first. Think about your existing menu critically: how well will the food you offer hold up over time and travel? Look for other ways to utilize the ingredients that you already purchase to avoid bringing in inventory that you only use occasionally and that may go to waste.

Look at menu formats from full-scale caterers and other restaurants in your area to see what kind of packages people are offering: Are they charging by the person or by the pound? Then decide what makes the most sense for your brand.

If you offer barbecue or something similar, charging by the pound makes perfect sense. Just make sure your customers understand how many people a pound of food will serve. If your concept is more refined, with plated apps and entrees that you will be translating to a catering style, it might be better to charge per person. In that case, let customers know what is included in the per person cost. Is it food, travel, set-up and break-down time, service, linens, trash, disposables? A good rule of thumb is this: if it costs you money, you should be passing on that cost on to the customer. Sometimes bundling all of those costs into a per person fee can make customers feel less nickel-and-dimed.

2. Hire (or designate) a Catering Manager

The number one thing you can do to make your catering program run smoothly is to designate one person on staff to manage inquiries. This cuts down on the confusion of having several different employees handling catering inquiries and creates a system that makes catering intake easier for staff and for customers.

You can hire this position as a part-time, seasonal employee if holiday catering is the focus; or you can find someone on staff who is great with customers (especially answering potentially tedious, repetitive questions), who is very well-organized and self-accountable to be your go-to catering manager year-round. You can provide incentive bonuses for this position, based on catering sales, or simply compensate on an hourly or salary basis for the work they do.

Then, when inquiries come in, you can direct them to the catering manager and have other staff do the same. You may find, especially if this person has other roles in the business, that setting regular catering intake hours is helpful. In that case, let people know about those hours on your website and voicemail: “If you are inquiring about catering, please leave a message, and our catering manager will respond to you between the hours of X and X.”

3. Get the Word Out

It doesn’t do you a bit of good to set up a catering program if you’re going to keep it a secret! Let your regular customers know in a variety of ways about your offerings:
  • Add a message to customer receipts: “Did you know we cater? Visit our website for details.”
  • Include a marketing piece and/or menu with the check at the end of the meal.
  • Send a note to your email list giving them a sneak peek at your catering menu before it’s available to the public to give them an “insider” status.
  • Send a press release to local media, including the catering menu, catering manager contact information, and some high-quality photographs.
  • Schedule a tasting event to share your catering menu offerings with media, influencers, and VIP customers. Get photos of the event to use on social media and other catering marketing pieces.
  • Consider including incentives for early orders. “Order by X, and receive a free dessert for up to X number of guests.” Or “Receive $50 off of orders of $300 or more.”

 On social media:
  • Create a boosted Facebook post that includes your catering menu and a few great food shots. You could attach an incentive to this post to get extra eyes on it. Everyone loves a good deal!
  • Use Twitter to start a conversation about catering among your followers. Consider fishing for input in the menu development stage: “Want our food on your table? Catering coming soon! Let us know what dishes you can’t live without!”
  • Use Instagram to show specific menu items and to set a scene of how your catering will create a stress-free entertaining situation. This is all about painting a picture where your customers can imagine themselves being a part of the party.

4.Train Staff on Catering Separately and Specifically

Catering is a totally different animal from regular restaurant service. It requires attention to detail and good organizational skills, plus the ability to adapt to the host’s location with usually little experience working in that environment. Whether your staff is serving from someone’s home, a barn, or a remote corner of the woods, protocol should be the same.

Take a few days and train your staff on your catering policies and expectations, including reinforcing attire and grooming standards, appropriate break times, cell phone and smoking policies, and guest interaction.

Often catering jobs are a “hurry up and wait” situation, where staff is very busy on the front end of the job, with less work during the middle of the party, and another onslaught of activity at the end. Make sure your staff is aware of what tasks they can be helping with during the party and how you expect them to behave during down time.

During the busiest catering times, consider hiring staff to come in to prep during off hours to avoid competing for prepping and cooking space with cooks who are preparing for that evening’s restaurant service. It may be worth hiring some seasonal help for catering prep if the program really takes off.

Add catering-specific language to your employee handbook, and share this update with existing staff. You can also create a catering checklist for loading up, including items like gloves, side towels, trash bags, and plastic wrap; plus the other equipment you’ll need to get the job done.

And always remember to bring extra side towels! You’ll need them.

5. Invest in the Best (and partner for the rest)

Adding full-service catering can necessitate purchasing some new equipment, like chafing dishes and serving platters and utensils. Invest in quality pieces that reflect the brand you’ve created in your restaurant that will hold up over time. Don’t forget to shop Performance Foodservice’s Equipment and Supplies site for a variety of serving ware and back-of-house equipment options.

For disposables, consider the needs of the guest. You’ll want to use heavy plates to avoid leakage or breakage. No one wants to be holding a soggy plate full of meatballs at a party! This is an opportunity to get some branded disposables printed that will leave a lasting impression on the guests at the party--napkins, coasters, cups, and more can all be printed with your company logo so the guests at the party will know where all that great food came from!

When it comes to catering equipment, you can’t buy everything; and it can be difficult to keep enough equipment on-hand for big parties or for days when you have multiple catering gigs at once. In that case, find a rental company in your community to bring on as a referral partner. Take the time to meet with this business, learn their inventory and their practices before you make a commitment. Once you do, you may find you are getting good referrals from that company and vice versa.

Creating a catering network with resources like rentals, djs, musicians, bounce houses, and even venues can help you promote your own services while making the overall experience better for your guests.