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Catering at-home parties a boon for restaurants

CHICAGO Catering to the growing number of consumers choosing to eat and entertain at home is a largely underserved sales opportunity for restaurants, according to a new report from Chicago-based consulting firm Technomic.

While the recession has taken a considerable toll on restaurant-based private parties and business catering for corporate lunches or meetings — sandwich chain Così said catering sales plummeted 27.5 percent decline in its last quarter — the restaurant industry has a $33.3 billion opportunity to grow consumer catering sales, Technomic found.

Technomic principal Melissa Wilson said the Chicago-based research firm was surprised that the potential for providing catered food to consumers’ homes was this large. As the recession continues to drive people to their homes for entertainment, she said, restaurants need to follow them there.

“This is where your customers are,” Wilson said. “They used to use restaurants as social venues, but now they’re entertaining at home. They’ve told us they plan to continue doing so because they’re enjoying socializing with friends at each other’s homes. In fact, 40 percent of consumers say they expect to entertain at home more often over the coming year.”

The study, titled “POP: Parties Off Premise,” pointed out other key findings related to consumer catering. For instance, restaurants already lead the way in catering to consumers in their homes, with $23 billion in sales, or 69 percent of the total market. Consumers told Technomic they are just as likely to buy food from restaurants as they are from other food retailers when hosting social gatherings at home.

Wilson said Technomic couldn’t quantify the growth potential of consumers’ preference for restaurants over other food retailers because this first report has no prior comparable data. Moreover, she said, nearly all restaurants that include catering as a line item in their financial records don’t distinguish between sales of catered meals to consumers or businesses.

Technomic also found that broader shifts in consumer behavior make consumer catering a year-round sales growth opportunity, not just at the holidays, when such consumer catering activity usually spikes.

Deerfield, Ill.-based Così was not the only bakery-cafe chain to attribute a slip in same-store sales to weak catering numbers. In reporting a 0.7-percent decline in same-store sales for its June 30-ended second quarter, Panera said continued softness in its catering sales negatively impacted the company’s average-check growth.


The operators interviewed for Technomic’s study tended to garner about 10 percent of sales from catering, Wilson said, but restaurants could positively impact their bottom lines with slightly smaller investments in that aspect of the business.

“No question, we found that when operators put resources against it and say we’re in this [segment of the business], they definitely gain traction,” Wilson said.

As with everything, she added, catering sales is a share game, but restaurants have a potential advantage over competitors like wholesale clubs and grocery stores because of inherent convenience aspects like curbside carryout and dedicated pickup windows.

Marketing products and deals for consumer catering isn’t widely practiced yet, Wilson said, though she did point out Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Buca di Beppo and Corner Bakery as chains starting to make such an effort.

Technomic’s report was based on a nationwide survey of 1,000 consumers who had catered a social event at home in the past 60 days with food from a restaurant. The firm also interviewed between 15 and 20 restaurant operators for insights in the study.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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