Corner Bakery, Dickey's, Uncle Smoke give tips for tapping $77B US catering market

| by S.A. Whitehead
Corner Bakery, Dickey's, Uncle Smoke give tips for tapping $77B US catering market

Business dining is booming to the tune of $77 billion. Yes, that's with a "b" and it's also just what's happening in the U.S. annually, according to business dining marketplace, Dinova. Clearly, business dining and its sub-category of catering fill a deep pool with potential restaurant revenue that beckons restaurant brands worldwide to dive into, but first chain leadership must know how to swim in these particular waters.

Pictured left to right: Dinova's Macchio, Dickey's Matthews, Uncle Smoke's Patheiger & Corner Bakery's Keller. Photo by Willie Lawless

In fact, that was the objective of a panel featuring three brand execs at last month's Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit in Louisville. Dinova Vice President for Strategic Partnerships Joe Macchio lobbed the questions at the trio of chain leaders, including: 

  • Corner Bakery Director of Off-premise Sales Ed Keller.
  • Dickey's Barbecue Pit Vice President of Direct Sales Michelle Matthews.
  • Uncle Smoke Cookhouse partner and Head of Business Development Chris Patheiger.

Macchio kicked things off with some general guidance and data on the potential that exists within catering and other forms of business and group dining.

"Yes, we're in a digital marketing world, but it's about being persistent.  ... I wholeheartedly believe you have to get out there and hoof it a little bit. ... And the incentive to do that is there with catering because it's the quickest way to grow your sales, so why not do it?"                                                                                                                                                                     -Ed Keller, Corner Bakery

He said the primary bookers for group dining events in the corporate world include everyone from the CEO's executive administrator and pharmacy reps to more cost-scrimping procurement managers, policy-compliant travel program managers and big-booking event planners. In fact, that last group — event planners — may hold the greatest potential for volume catering since they typically spend a third of their travel budgets on catering. 

Macchio also provided the following statistics and research about the business of business dining: 

  • 40 percent of all corporate travel-related expenses comes from just 12 percent of employees.
  • Most corporate "road warriors" spend mid-week, which comprises 85 percent of their total spending. 
  • They typically have much higher average checks than other customers. 
  • They are more profitable customers because they order more booze and desserts and tend to be less price-sensitive.

The panel then launched into a great question-and-answer session, parts of which we share with you here.

Q: How does the catering business differ from your other restaurant business and how you approach it? 
Keller: It's really a relationship business and if they know they can count on you, the potential business they can bring you is just amazing. 

Patheiger: I agree. So it may be hard to sell somebody a wedding and then sell them more wedding (catering) to that same person. ... But if you do the job right handling the catering for that customer, you can take that and you can build on it. ... Then suddenly you're getting all sorts of reach and extensions from that. 

Matthews: Yeah, you really have an opportunity to brand yourself and it gives you an opportunity too, to leave behind market4ing materials. 

Q: Is this the type of business you can sell the customer in your store on and if so, how?
: Yes, and I think it's about letting people know the different ways they can use us. ... So it's about striking up conversations with customers ... and then also, I think you have the ability when you take catering on-site somewhere to influence dozens of people at a time. 

Matthews: Absolutely, and I hear that especially all the time when I'm answering our catering hotline, where someone says, 'Oh, you catered a wedding I went to and that's how  heard of you.'

Q: So how, especially when you're starting a catering program, do you get the word out that this service is available? 
I think everything from grassroots (efforts) and referrals and bounce-backs (offers) to catering loyalty programs ... and in-store collateral as well.

Patheiger: It's about being where customers are — business diners. ... Like when I travel, I want to know where I will sleep and eat and I use the tools I have, like Open Table, so if you're not (in those types of places) you don't have a 'seat at the table.' ... Then, to step back some, yo have to have a marketing strategy and marketing plan for catering. ... But the last thing for me, again, is the relationship and marketing to that business customer because you have the opportunity at every event to brand yourself. 

Keller: Yes, we're in a digital marketing world, but it's about being persistent. It's not up to them (customers) to remember us —  we've got to keep ourselves top of mind with them. ... I wholeheartedly believe you have to get out there and hoof it a little bit. ... And the incentive to do that is there with catering because it's the quickest way to grow your sales, so why not do it?

And I'm not s salesperson at heart, but I can sell the heck out of catering. And I think the phone is critical and then getting out there with a plan. But the phone and internet are critical to help get you started.

"You need to recognize also that you're actually conducting a different kind of business that requires different skills than those you use when running a restaurant."                                                                                               -Chris Patheiger, Uncle Smoke

Q: What about developing catering in other areas that may be far away from your location?
Yes, if someone has a brand that's opening all across the country, my team can help them get all of that set up.

Keller: Ultimately, with this type of business you're looking for that decision-maker and trying to find out the scope of what they want to do. So it's about finding that decision-maker and making a match for what they need.

Q: What kind of potential is there within the medical/health care market for business?
Pharmaceutical reps — that is a huge market and it's got unlimited potential. ... So we usually go to medical offices and try to get them to influence where (pharmaceutical reps bringing in) meals are coming from. 

It's a different beast though and you have to go after it in different ways. Like, I've been kicked out of a lot of (medical) office buildings, so you really try to get to a lot of offices before you get kicked out.

Matthews: It's important that you make it easy to do business with you in this realm, so after a (catered) event with you, you need to call, email, text them and whatever it takes to make it easy for them to reach you the next time.

Keller: And be on time! If not you'll lose them.

Patheiger: We've had a lot of success with medical office buildings. ... I have found that once you have a (pharmaceutical) rep working with you, they're basically just providing clients to you no matter where you go. 

So we have one example of a doctors' office where all the doctors are on the ketogenic diet. In fact, it's kind of bizarre when have doctors that are saying you really need to have more really fatty brisket in your (meals), but the fact is we did that. ...

So when you get some (account) like that, why wouldn't you take it to 50 more offices to see if you can get more of that? The impact can be massive.

Q: How important is packaging and the look of the catering?
Matthews: It's really important, so we have all travel-friendly packaging that maintains temperatures and we set everything up in a very specific way to make sure it looks good.

Keller: Yes, that's critical that the quality and temperature of the food is right. So, you want to control that and set everything up for them, then place some business cards around. Likewise, I'm not big on discounting catering, but I am big on premiums like I'll throw in free fruit salad or something like that. 

Patheiger: That's one thing you're losing when you're sending food out to an office is the (in-store) experience. It's very hard to provide that experience that you have in your restaurant where you can really control that, particularly when you're catering and you don't set it up and leave it to chance. 

You need to recognize also that you're actually conducting a different kind of business that requires different skills than those you use when running a restaurant. Like it's really important to make sure you don't run out of anything ... and you need to know that something that works well in your restaurant may look like crap when you're 45 minutes away from your restaurant.

Want to join the learning, networking and fun? Join us at the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit, July 16-18 in London. Registration is now open.

Feature photo: iStock

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Catering, Communications, Customer Service / Experience, Equipment & Supplies, Franchising & Growth, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Operations Management, Packaging, Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit, Staffing & Training, Trends / Statistics

Companies: Dinova

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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