Catering is often an afterthought, but done correctly, can be a huge revenue source for restaurants.
Maritime Parc restaurant in Jersey City, New Jersey, has been so successful with its catering program that it has launched a separate off-site business and is expanding its consulting services to other restaurants. Catering now constitutes 70 percent of sales.
The restaurant opened in September 2010 and opened its catering space (around 20,000 square feet upstairs) shortly afterwards.
“So we got two businesses off the ground at the same time,” says Chris Siversen, owner and executive chef.
The catering business is now so popular that it’s booked up months in advance. The company had 250 events booked for 2011 before the year started, and booked another 50 events throughout the year.
Siversen runs the two operations (the restaurant and catering) as separate businesses but they do play off each other, he says.
“Staff is kept separate, food costs are combined but we do break out high cost items for a theoretical cost for the restaurant,” he says. “Beverage is broken down between the two [since] most products differ restaurant vs. catering.”
To run these two businesses concurrently, “you have to be very organized, but they play off each other so well,” he says. “Guests come for one and learn about the other and then come back.”
Communication is key to marketing a catering business, Siversen says.
“Within the company it is imperative all people are on same page. Once everyone understands the goals and everyone's roles, it is easier for everyone to know what the expectation is. Every day there are issues that arise and the companies that address them the quickest are the most successful.
“On the customer side, knowing what the consumer is looking for and how you portray to them your ability and how an event will run, is key. Too many times not all aspects of an event are disclosed and the customer is expecting something different. Upfront detail on what is provided and all costs associated to the event are given as well as a clear understanding of the level of food, beverage and service to be provided.”
And it’s important not to say yes to every single job, he adds, as well as being honest with clients if you don’t see things working in the way they envision it.
“You need to let them know or walk them down the road that works and that your company does best.”
And now Siversen’s expanding his business again. He recently joined forces with Lyon and Lyon restaurant in Miami. He’s now a consultant there, helping the restaurant with its catering business. He plans to take this model of business to other restaurants, other cities.
Another successful caterer, The Bristol Bar and Grille is a multi-unit locally owned business in Louisville, Kentucky. The restaurant started offering catering soon after it opened in 1977 but by the 1990s it was going so well that it opened an off-premise catering facility and commissary kitchen
“We made it separate so it didn’t impact the restaurant business,” says Emilie Pfeiffer, director of marketing and sales.
Despite the economic slump, The Bristol’s catering business continues to do well.
“Business dropped a bit in 2009 but we’ve picked up with weddings and done more in the last three years than we’ve ever done,” Pfeiffer says. “We already have 24 weddings and rehearsal dinners booked for this year and I’m still getting calls every day.”
And now, almost 30 years later, The Bristol is about to move into a brand new, larger facility, with three catering spaces with space for 700, 225 and 100 guests. The kitchen will be larger and there will be catering offices and a tasting room for clients.
It will be win-win for everybody because costs will be less since the operation won’t have to haul food, equipment, and labor somewhere else. Plus it’s centrally located.
“It will also be a morale boost,” Pfeiffer says. “Our staff has all been here a long time—some for 24 years—and catering has always been the stepchild to the restaurant. But not now.”
The catering kitchen also acts as a commissary for both the catering business and the five restaurants. Breads, sauces, desserts, and other items are all made there, which brings consistency to both operations and keeps repeat clients happy, she explains.
Pfeiffer gets the word out about Bristol’s catering through fervent networking. She’s a member of Meeting Planners International, on the board of the Kentucky Restaurant Association; a member of the Louisville Independent Business Association and of the local Frankfurt Avenue Business Association. She also does a lot of networking with wedding professionals.
She also markets the business through social media, even though it’s very well recognized in its communities.
“We’ve been going a long time but you do want to keep your name out there; there is a lot of competition,” Pfeiffer explains.
The company has a very active Facebook page, where Pfeiffer posts photos of events—she includes food, floral arrangements and wedding dresses to give a full idea of what the events entail.
When the catering menu debuted in the Dayton, Ohio, market, catering sales manager Peggy Sparks supported it with an active LinkedIn page.
“Being an individual with a large market to cover, I joined the maximum groups allowed on LinkedIn and do monthly posts relating to upcoming events (i.e. holidays, city events, sporting events),” Sparks explains.
“I also search for connections such as marketing, administrative and human resource personnel who would typically be responsible for ordering food and utilizing catering services for their offices.”
It’s not always easy, though, she adds. There’s no direct connection to many people, but she says she “[posts] in hopes that the right person will see it at the right time. As they say in sales, timing is everything. One benefit is that people know you before they need you and then use you because they already have an established connection.”
And it’s worked. T.G.I. Friday's Catering expanded into the Cincinnati market in 2009 and has since exploded and moved further afield, into Northern Kentucky. The company now averages between five and nine events a day.
Sparks continues to use LinkedIn throughmonthly posts in all her groups and she continues to connect with new contacts, reach out to existing ones, and update the company’s status at least three times a week. “This gives our connections ideas on previous bookings such as wedding, corporate events and various other events.”
She’s also setting up a Facebook page to continue this marketing.
By Amanda Baltazar