The COVID-19 pandemic slammed the brakes on traditional catering, but operators quickly adjusted their offerings to meet new demands and serve new customers in the form of emergency workers and homebound families.
And now, many of the changes that restaurants implemented during the pandemic — such as individually packaged meals in lieu of buffet-style service — are expected to remain in place, operators said. Overall, restaurants are bullish on their catering programs, citing efficiencies in their menus and lessons learned from their refined focus on off-premises dining.
The pandemic hit at a particularly bad time for Irving, Texas-based Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, which was in the process of ramping up its catering offering in early 2020, said Kevin Rychel, VP of operations. The company had begun working with Boston-based catering platform ezCater in 2019 and was seeing considerable growth until mid-March of 2020, he said.
After shifting its focus away from catering to support other sales-driving initiatives early in the pandemic, Fuzzy’s soon found catering opportunities among medical professionals and other essential workers, Rychel said. Rather than offering its typical “build-your-own” catering service style, however, the company instead offered grab-and-go items such as Burrito Boxes and Breakfast Taco Packs. Fuzzy’s also began offering individually packaged versions of its BYO Taco Bar with two tacos and two sides, along with individual portions of chips and salsa or queso.
“We plan to keep these options on the menu moving forward to provide options for our guests,” said Rychel.
Catering sales have increased throughout 2021 and into 2022, he said, as consumers have become more comfortable dining in groups and as businesses have welcomed back their workers. In the meantime, the company updated its catering menu design, made some upgrades to its packaging and partnered with Olo to launch an online catering ordering platform that is fully integrated with its POS.
Fuzzy’s plans to feature catering across its system in the second quarter of this year, including a targeted digital media campaign with connected TV, social and geofenced display ads.
“Increasing catering sales is a top focus for us this year,” said Rychel. “We are teaming members of our corporate team with select franchisees to ensure our catering programs are best in class and ready to support the growth we have planned.”
Phoenix-based Postino WineCafe said it continued to focus on building its catering program during the pandemic.
“While catering was the first department to go for many companies during COVID, we instead retained our team and refocused efforts on where the guest needs were shifting,” said Marissa Travis, director of catering at Postino.
The company activated its online ordering for catering, reengineered its catering menu to include individual boxed lunches and other offerings, and developed programs to allow local residences, hospitals and medical clinics to place large group delivery orders.
“Adding the boxed lunch option has helped account for the corporate need to maximize on additional catering opportunities and for some things to be individualized for the corporate catering clientele,” Travis said.
Additionally, Postino partnered with an event planning group to organize micro-wedding packages at its indoor-outdoor private dining space, Postino B-Side. For now, all of the changes the company has made to its catering program will be retained.
The catering program volume has been on the rise, which the company attributed to pent up demand after many weddings and special events were postponed during the pandemic.
“We're also seeing people return to the office, and employers are eager to provide a safe and enjoyable environment for their teams,” Travis said. “We feel very excited to partner with them on that.”
Postino plans to continue investing in its catering program. “Our food travels well, and our menu tends to accommodate a broad spectrum of occasions,” she said. “We see it as another exciting way to serve our community and a natural extension of what we do.”
Barbara Blackwell, director of catering at Atlanta-based Chicken Salad Chick, said her company adapted to the pandemic by focusing on its individual lunch boxes for catering, along with its grab-and-go Quick Chick meals for other off-premises solutions, rather than its traditional sandwich platters and family-style sides. The lunch boxes include a single scoop of chicken salad or a sandwich, along with a side such as chips.
“This was an instant hit with our evolving customer base,” said Blackwell. “We definitely see the demand for our new lunch boxes in catering continuing long-term.”
She said the individual meals now represent about 75% of the company’s catering product mix.
“Overall, we’re already seeing double-digit catering sales increases over 2020,” she said.
Jersey Mike’s also shifted to individually packaged sandwiches for its catering program during the pandemic, introducing a new catering strategy in August 2020, said Marco Panicali, co-director of operations for Jersey Mike's Franchise Systems, based in Manasquan, N.J.
“Although planned before the pandemic, our updated catering program addressed the need for individually wrapped meal options requested by so many of our customers,” he said. “We designed the program for simplicity — keeping it easy, secure and cost-effective for our customers.”
Before the pandemic, Jersey Mike’s did a lot of catering for corporate events and large parties, Panicali said, but like many restaurants soon found itself catering to smaller family gatherings at home and to essential workers who remained on the job.
Jersey Mike’s now offers Subs By The Box, which feature individually wrapped and labeled subs. Each box feeds 12 people and includes four sub varieties. It also offers Individual Lunch Boxes, which come with a choice of two sub sizes (regular or mini). Each box includes a bag of chips and a fresh-baked cookie, with the option of adding a 20-ounce bottled drink. Cookie and brownie platters are also available.
Since April 2021, catering orders have been on the rise — up 41% over pandemic levels and 20% over pre-pandemic levels, said Panicali.
“We expect catering orders will continue to grow,” he said. “After our recent systemwide retrofit, all of our more than 2,000 locations nationwide have a second line behind the main counter that can easily handle digital and catering orders.”
Customers can place catering orders in-store, or through Jersey Mike’s website or the Jersey Mike’s app for no-contact pickup at the door.
Like many other restaurant companies, Glendale, Calif.-based Applebee’s had been ramping up its off-premises offerings, including catering, before the pandemic.
A few months prior to the beginning stages of the pandemic, the company made several changes to the menu offering, including expanded menu serving options for boneless and traditional wings, salad portioning and additional sauce variety and customization options across all menu items, said Vicki Hormann, executive director of off premises for Applebee's Neighborhood Grill + Bar.
During the pandemic, Applebee’s shifted from catering for large groups to focusing instead on developing meals for a family of four, she said.
Applebee’s catering menu is now available in all restaurants, with more than 600 locations offering catering options via third-party catering platforms such as ezCater, Hormann said.
“We continue to see month-over-month sales and ticket growth,” she said.
Denver-based Modern Market tallied about 10% of its overall sales from catering before the pandemic, following three years of double-digit increases from 2017 to 2019, said Beth Hardy, VP of marketing, and Erinn McCully, director of off-premises sales.
During COVID, Modern Market launched its “catering with confidence” initiative to let customers know that it was still catering, but with increased care. Traditional group buffet-style offerings are now available individually packaged, and the company also started marketing its lunch-box items more frequently. Those remain popular, McCully said. The company also streamlined its catering menu and replaced group offerings such as grain bowls with a la carte versions.
“All of these changes will continue going forward,” she said.
Modern Market has slowly been recovering its catering sales volume and is optimistic that it will continue to recoup catering sales going forward, McCully said.
“When our catering sales do fully recover, it will be additive to our overall sales, which are already stronger across our system versus 2019 without catering in full swing,” she said. “We're going to continue offering individually packaged options for our group offerings and streamline our catering menu even further to assist with consumer confidence and ease of operations.”