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<p>One-third of business meals catered onsite are last-minute orders. Preparation is key if you want to capture this segment.</p>

Business catering: 5 questions to ask

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Catered-in food is no longer a “nice to have” for many businesses—it’s a must. While sales reps used to take decision-makers out for lunch or dinner, today who has that kind of time? Now reps are expected to bring food to clients’ offices and feed the entire team. In addition, more and more businesses are ordering lunch two, three, or five days a week for their employees. This perk, unheard of years ago, is almost expected by Millennials, especially in high-tech jobs.

These trends have driven businesses to spend $19.6 billion annually on drop-off catering in the U.S. alone (up from $16 billion two years ago). Drop-off business catering can be a lucrative new revenue stream–if you’re ready for it. It isn't for every food provider.

Is business catering for you? Here are five questions to help you decide:

1. Is my operation reliable enough?
In your restaurant, people come to you, in an environment you control, during your hours. But business catering is the exact opposite. Plus, many of the events you’ll cater have high stakes: important sales pitches, board presentations and the like. In our experience, the top criterion for the business professional placing the order is “Don’t embarrass me!”

Of course, it’s even better if you make them look good. That means having the food set up on time (and not too early—many offices have no place to hold food that’s delivered early), bringing everything they ordered, following all of the customer’s special instructions and, of course, providing great food. Great food, on time, zero hiccups. What could be easier, right?

2. Can I handle the internal workflow?
Drop-off business catering has its own demands. Can you track an order across many shift changes? According to ezCater data, two-thirds of business catering orders are placed more than 24 hours in advance, and five percent are placed at least 10 days in advance, so you need a process to store and plan for these orders.

And what about the one-third of business catering orders placed less than 24 hours in advance? That means an order for 23 people (the average business catering order) drops in your lap with less than 24 hours’ notice. What if you get two—or 10—of those orders for the same day? As you’re thinking this through, note that most of the orders you’ll get will be for lunch. In our experience, 15 percent of business catering orders are for breakfast, 78 percent for lunch, 4 percent for dinner and the rest for snacks at odd hours. 

3. Do I have the right supplies for catering?
An executive administrator in Texas once told me, “I can’t stand that guy with a smelly jacket and his hat on backwards who hands me 15 smushed bags. I need something much more professional than that.” That’s the voice of business catering. Do you have trays, bowls, doilies, disposable serving and individual utensils—and the space to store it all? What about bulk drinks and ice (and cups, sweeteners, etc.)?  Condiments? Can your staff arrange a tray so it looks crisp and appealing? Do your drivers look polished?

One of the great things about catering orders is how little waste they involve. Since two-thirds of orders are placed more than 24 hours in advance, perhaps you can procure many of the supplies on a just-in-time basis as well. Note, though, that nearly six percent of orders get canceled as late as the day-of, because meetings get rescheduled, people are called out of town and the like.

4. Am I equipped to make deliveries?
You will need to have a lot in place before beginning business deliveries. You’ll need appropriate vehicles, reliable drivers who are trained in set up and proper equipment to ensure that food arrives as it’s meant to be served.

Other issues: Do your dishes travel well or do you need to tailor your menu to ensure a quality product? Will you deliver yourself, with your regular restaurant staff, or with outsourced drivers? Check with your insurance broker and your lawyer to make sure you are handling this appropriately. Catering delivery requires organization and investment to be legal and successful.

5. Am I reaching a business audience with my promotional efforts?
Business people tend to be technologically savvy, so traditional marketing tactics like direct mail and newspaper ads may not resonate with them. Of course you should advertise your catering in your restaurant, and offer printed catering menus so your best customers can take them back to the office (and drop them off with a delivered order, too). But most business catering orders will come in via the internet, so you need a good website and an active social media presence.

You’ll need to invest in making sure your website shows up in Google and other search engines. You’ll also need to spend money on Google and Bing ads. It’s also important to remember that businesspeople are pressed for time, so it’s vital that you provide a quick and easy online-ordering experience.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to do it all yourself. The key to reaching business people online is to be offered as an option when and where they are seeking catering. The good news is that you don’t need to become an expert digital marketer to grow your catering business. Plenty of resources and technologies can help you reach business customers.

Online catering marketplaces, for example, are a quick and easy way to put your brand in front of businesspeople at just the moment they are seeking catering. Best-of-breed marketplaces not only bring you new customers and take care of order processing, but they also manage communication with business customers so you can keep doing what you do best: serve great food.

Business catering can be a fantastic way to grow your business. There is little waste, you get extra use from your kitchen and you get the opportunity to have working professionals in your area experience your food. But, like any business venture, off-premises catering requires a deliberate startup strategy. While every restaurant is different, be sure to consider these questions while developing your plan, and you’ll set yourself up for success.

Stefania Mallett is c.e.o. of Boston-based online catering portal ezCater. Reach her at 800-488-1803.

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