A recent report from marketing research firm Technomic projects large gains in the social catering space for limited-service restaurants. Consumers' use of restaurants for catering is expected to grow at annual rates of 5 percent or more.

Broken down by segment, fast casual players are positioned to gain the biggest share, with projected growth at 12 percent, followed by quick-service sandwich concepts, at 8 percent.

As a group, restaurants are now capturing four times the revenue of retailers for catering occasions, at $19.3 billion versus $4.0 billion.

"Improvements in food quality, especially at fast casual and fast-food chains, appear to be a significant factor in restaurants' recent gains with catering consumers," said Melissa Wilson, principal and director of the Parties Off Premise (POP) study. Wilson explains that limited- and full-service restaurants hold the strongest shares of this market (36 and 34 percent, respectively) and appear to be taking share from independent caterers and retail foodservice operators.

Other findings from the study include:

  • At $27.5 billion, the size of the consumer catering opportunity is significantly larger than similar opportunities with business-to-business users (corporate/pharmaceutical representatives), estimated at $15.8 billion.
  • Twenty percent of surveyed consumers would now consider quick-service restaurants as a source for at-home catered occasions, compared to just 7 percent in 2009. In contrast, warehouse clubs have slipped 7 percentage points in shoppers' minds, from 26 percent in 2009 to 19 percent.
  • Social catering occasions can provide a consistent stream of business from core customers. While seasonal peaks are evident for specific occasions, the majority of users average more than two of these purchases each month.
  • With improvements in the economy, some at-home occasions have reverted back to on-premise dining. Still, Wilson says the future looks bright for many segments of the business, pointing out that 36 percent of surveyed consumers expect to entertain at home more often within the next year, while only 5 percent say they will scale back.

With the holiday season in focus, catering has been promoted heavily by QSR chains such as Subway and Chick-fil-A. Other chains, such as KFC and El Pollo Loco, have also jumped into the catering space, while Cold Stone Creamery announced its new catering program this week.

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