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Smokey Bones in June opened its first drive-thru program. It’s open to individual orders and catering and embraces the main menu and those of its virtual brands — Wing Experience, Burger Experience, Tender Box and Bowl Market. It combines a digital menu board, digital-order confirmation, quality audio, a drive-up window for express pickup and parking spots.

Casual-dining catering gets a full-scale makeover

For full-service restaurant brands, catering is becoming a significant part of the off-premises experience.

Casual-dining brands have seen off-premises sales skyrocket since the pandemic began in 2020, and they are continuing to innovate to provide ease of use as they find those sales remaining elevated into 2023.

Catering, in particular, has experienced a renaissance that casual brands are tapping into, leveraging their newfound off-premises muscle to support the channel.

Applebee’s, Smokey Bones and other casual-dining operators have tested drive-thru pickup windows to ease catering orders and added their virtual brands — designed to support delivery sales in the worst of the pandemic — to their catering mix. And many operators, such as Bloomin’ Brands’ concepts, are teaming with third-party platforms to provide further ease of use.

Bonefish Grill, a division of Tampa, Fla.-based Bloomin’, launched a nationwide catering program in August of last year, offering its seafood and wood-fire grilled items for larger gatherings and special events.

“We’re excited to offer a fantastic catering menu for both work events or gatherings with friends and family,” said Michael Healy, Bonefish Grill president.

Bonefish Grill’s catering choices also include a Taco Bar, a presentation of fresh catches or one of several new seafood pastas. Add-ons include gallon-sized beverages. Each catering package, for up to 10 guests, also includes salad, fresh bread with pesto and cookies.

Bonefish’s Bloomin’ sibling brand, Outback Steakhouse, launched catering at more than 480 locations nationwide in April of last year and was expanding the program.

Brett Patterson, president of Outback Steakhouse, said in a statement: “We’re particularly excited to cater to employees as they return to the office, because we know the power of sharing a great meal whether it be for recognition or a social gathering during a busy day.”

Outback offers boxed lunches and buffet-style options for parties of 10 or more.

Bloomin’ Brands expanded its partnership with the third-party provider ezCater in late February, offering all its restaurant concepts, including Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Aussie Grill by Outback, on the ezCater Marketplace. More than 1,000 restaurant locations were in the corporate-oriented marketplace.

“Food for work is different. It’s complex and high stakes, and customers want variety,” said Mike O’Hanlon, chief partnerships officer at Boston-based ezCater. “As food becomes even more integral to the workplace experience, the partnership’s growth is a testament to its success to date and how corporate catering programs can truly boost restaurant sales.” 

Executives at ezCater, which has more than 100,000 restaurants on its platform, said they can help restaurant operators manage and analyze their catering businesses.

A representative for ezCater said the 245-unit Smashburger, which has a major ownership from Philippines-based Jollibee Foods Corp., launched with the platform just before the COVID pandemic was declared.

Smashburger turned to ezCater to launch a catering program, adding 30 locations to the ezCater Marketplace in March 2022, and expanded to more 170 locations in four months.

“ezOrdering was added to their website as their online ordering solution for catering,” a representative said. “They were able to launch online ordering immediately from their existing menus on ezCater by simply adding their ezOrdering links to their website. They used ezDispatch to add delivery functionality for catering to quickly and efficiently scale their off-premises options and say yes to more orders.”

Smashburger said all of the ezCater orders were incremental to the brand.

“Just in the first few months with ezCater, we’ve already generated in excess of $2.5 million in catering sales,” said Carl Bachmann, Smashburger CEO and president. “We’ve grown from 2% to 4% of our business, and we have this goal of hitting 10% of our business in partnership with ezCater.”

The data from the platform also helped the brand hone its menu offerings.

Emily Romme, senior brand manager for Smashburger, said: “They have all the data, so they gave us options of what sells the best, what categories are underserved, [and] dietary restrictions that are most important to guests.

“It gave us all the foundational building blocks to create our menu,” Romme said.

Smokey Bones is another full-service chain that found success with catering. Nichole “Cole” Robillard, chief marketing officer of the Aventura, Fla.-based, 60-unit concept, said the brand’s leaders are always looking for ways to improve the guest experience and exceed their expectations in the process.

Smokey Bones — which brand CEO James O’Reilly calls a casual-dining “meat candy shop” — in June opened its first drive-thru program. It’s open to both individual orders and catering and embraces both the main menu as well as those of its Wing Experience, Burger Experience, Tender Box and Bowl Market virtual brands.

“Innovation has been a big driver of our growth, especially as guest preferences have shifted, and we’ve strived to meet them where they are — anytime, anywhere,” Robillard said.

“We believe drive-thru is a next-generation initiative for casual dining and has the potential to redefine what 'fast casual' really means,” O’Reilly said about Smokey Bones’ drive-thru development.

The drive-thru combines a digital menu board, digital-order confirmation, quality audio, a drive-up window for express pickup and parking spots for customers ordering food that takes more time. Customers can drive up and order just like at a standard quick-service restaurant.

Update March 8, 2022: This story has been edited to correct the year Smashburger began its marketplace program.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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