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How to start catering in time for the holidays

How to start catering in time for the holidays

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If you’ve ever thought about adding catering to your restaurant business, now is a great time to start. Fourth-quarter catering sales are the highest of the year. And if you’re a successful restaurateur, you have a built-in audience for sales because you have customers who are already familiar with your food.

Although it’s a bit later to plan than is preferable, you can get your piece of that catering pie this year by doing three things: test, promote and prepare.

1. Test what travels.

Because catered food isn’t picked up from the hostess stand, but is packed and travels out the back door of your restaurant to another location, you have to make sure when it’s delivered, it’s right. Create some catering menus—making sure you know what all of your recipes cost to make—and test how the food travels.

Ask some friends if they’d be willing to host you for a test run. Prep it, bake it, pack it, take it to a location, unpack it, reheat it, then serve it at your friends’ house 60-90 minutes later. If the quality is to your standards, then it passes the test and can be served at a catered event.

2. Promote your catering services.

I coach many restaurant owners who struggle in this area. To get you started, here are some promotion ideas:

• Use your existing email database or social media to announce your new catering division. Email tends to get a better response than social media posts. The subject line is critical. You must write something that grabs their attention because most of your customers will think that you are promoting a special at your restaurant, not your catering. The word “oops” in a memo line gets a huge open rate. Last year, I made a mistake and needed to get the error corrected to our database. I put the word “oops” in the memo line and the open rate was 49 percent compared to our regular 29 percent open rate!    

• Provide guests at your restaurant a complimentary amuse-bouche—a single, bite-sized hors d'oeuvre—that is NOT on your menu. When asked what it is, train your staff to say it is an item from the new catering menu. Or, when you give the customer their check for payment, provide a one-bite dessert from your catering menu.

• Another idea is to provide a mini catering menu with their receipt. Do NOT put flyers on their car windows. If your restaurant has valet, place a small menu or tiny bite size dessert on their car seat.

• When a charity calls for an auction item, don’t give something from your restaurant. Give 10 boxed lunches a month for six months to a local business. Be warned: don’t give a free catered dinner. It takes too much time and the ROI is not good.

• Highlight your new catering division on the restaurant menu and your website. Be sure to provide a separate email and phone number for catering. THIS IS CRITICAL! You don’t want a customer calling the hostess stand at 11:30 a.m. on a Friday for a $5,000 catering event only to have your hostess say someone will call them back.

3. Finally, be prepared.

If you have done a good job with promotion, customers will start contacting you. Besides the separate email and phone number for catering, you must have a live person answering that phone from October through mid-December. If customers get a voice mail, they will just call another caterer. 

When the customer contact is made, be prepared to send them sample menus and pricing within hours of contact. Follow up within 24 hours of the email to make sure they received your catering information. Try to set up an appointment at the venue as soon as possible. Visiting the site is part of making sure you have covered all of your costs. It also helps cement your relationship with the client and increases the odds that you will close the sale.

If you decide right now to start a catering division for the 2015 holiday season and have questions, please email me or call 866-484-3056. If you don’t have any questions and do start catering this year, shoot me an email and tell me how it went. I would love to hear from you.

Sandy Korem is the c.e.o. and founder of The Festive Kitchen, a one-of-a kind catering company based in Dallas. Her company, The Catering Coach, helps restaurateurs maximize their off-site catering potential. 

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