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Catering-4-Rivers-Smokehouse.jpg 4 Rivers Smokehouse
4 Rivers Smokehouse is offering special packaging for items through its website and Goldbelly.

Restaurants tap into catering opportunities for winter

From Noodles & Company and CAVA to Chuy’s, Biscuitville and 4 Rivers Smokehouse, companies offer a variety of options

Restaurant companies big to small and old to new are tapping into the catering channel this winter holiday season.

Catering programs were a big topic on public-company earnings calls this past month and smaller companies were promoting their catering offerings as executives saw potential in the off-premises channel as the deepest impacts of the coronavirus pandemic began to fade. Companies saw this as a continuation of a trend that emerged last fall.

Dave Boennighausen, Noodles & Company CEO, said Tuesday on an earnings call for its third quarter ended Oct. 3 that the Broomfield, Colo.-based company, which has more than 450 restaurants, was focusing on its catering program as a sales-building initative.

“During the third quarter, catering grew 35% over prior year, and we continue to believe the opportunity is much larger,” Boennighausen said. “The variety inherent in our menu, which eliminates the veto vote, combined with how well our food holds for the catering occasion, provides the opportunity to substantially grow this part of our business. As we enter the holiday season, we feel well positioned to further expand the program.”

EzCater, the national platform for corporate catering, on Wednesday released results of a survey of 1,000 full-time employees nationwide and 4,000 workers across 10 different major U.S. cities for region-specific data.

EzCater cited on opportunity for the workers who never take a lunch break away from their workstation, saying the number had increased 40% year over year.

And 48% said they skip lunch at least once per week, EzCater said, saying an opportunity existed for catered meals on hybrid “in-office” days. EzCater research indicated hybrid workers were more likely to report onsite when lunch was provided, so the company suggested feeding the crew on days when they were most wanted physically in the office. It offered the tips of choosing restaurants known as “local faves” and survey the staff for dietary restrictions. 

Executives at the Washington, D.C.-based CAVA Group Inc., which on Tuesday released earnings for the third quarter ended Oct. 1, said the Mediterranean fast-casual concept was continuing to make progress on its catering test in what it called its “hybrid kitchens.” CAVA had 290 restaurants open at the end of its third quarter.

“These are new units we've built with an expanded back-of-house for centralized catering production,” explained Brett Schulman, CAVA co-founder and CEO, adding that it was also testing catering in some traditional CAVA restaurants with lower average unit volumes.

“We know that there aren't all units that really support catering because the AUVs are so significant, and the production capacity is so limited, that we don't want catering to come at the detriment of the other channels,” Schulman said.

“We're looking at other formats or other locations around those locations to supplement production to be able to have catering offered across the country,” he said. “We're performing these different format tests over the next year or so to understand how we orient this production successfully to support what we think is a great opportunity to launch catering nationally across the board.”

CAVA said it catered Major League Baseball teams this past summer and fall. “We catered for the Texas Rangers during their World Series run,” Schulman said, as well as basketball playoffs/ “We catered the Lakers when they were in the playoffs last spring. So, we see this — not only office workers or schools but athletes, colleges, professionals.”

Schulman added that CAVA’s Mediterranean menu was a good fit for catering. “We just want to be thoughtful about how we build out the production capabilities to deliver a great guest experience when we're ready to launch it nationally,” he said.

Austin, Texas-based Chuy’s Holdings Inc., which on Thursday released earnings for the third quarter ended Sept. 24, noted that it continued to see strength in the off-premises channels, including catering, in the period.

Off-premises was mixing at about 28% of total sales compared to 26% in the same period last year, said Steve Hislop, Chuy’s chairman, president and CEO. The delivery channel mixed at about 11.4% of third-quarter sales, and catering “performed well” to about 3.3% of total sales, he said.

The 100-unit Chuy’s casual-dining brand recently partnered with ezCater, he said, and the company is “in the process of rolling out the platform to all of our restaurants. We continue to believe our off-premises channel will remain at least in the mid-20s of our sales, with catering contributing approximately four to six [percentage points] of total sales long term.”

Greensboro, N.C.-based Biscuitville was also highlighting catering options ahead of the holiday season, the company said in a press release this month.

The Biscuitville catering menu was offering smaller-sized party-sized versions of its most popular scratch-made biscuits and sausage balls.

The party biscuits were available as plain biscuits for home additions or ready to serve as miniature versions of Biscuitville’s classic options, such as sausage, country ham, bacon, turkey sausage, fried chicken, or spicy chicken.

Biscuitville’s scratch-made sausage balls, with local sausage, shredded cheddar cheese, herbs and spices, and Biscuitville’s special biscuit recipe, also were a guest favorite on the catering menu, the company said.

“Our catering menu – like all of our offerings – are chef-crafted with fresh ingredients designed to deliver an elevated dining experience for our guests whether they are serving our party biscuits and sausage balls at their tail-gate or their holiday gathering,” said Jim McCurley, chief culinary officer at Biscuitville, in a statement. “While we offer catering services year-round, we know this menu is a favorite of our guests who are hosting special events during the busy holiday season.”

Catering was available at all Biscuitville locations except the Elon University and Biscuitville Express location in Burlington. The company has 70 restaurants in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

Bigger brands like Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill and Bonefish Grill, all divisions of Tampa, Fla.-based Bloomin’ Brands Inc., were expanding their partnership with ezCater to expand the off-premises sales channel.

But not all the catering offers were from big brands.

The 15-unit Orlando, Fla.-based 4 Rivers Smokehouse was offering catering orders through its own website as well as the food-ordering firm Goldbelly, offering gift-set brisket, prime rib and smoked salmon.

“All items are housed in an elegant deluxe package embodying the essence of the holiday season,” the company said. “Gift sets include accompanying sauces and a bottle of special edition Premier 4R Signature Sauce, made exclusively for the seasonal festivities.”

Prices ranged from $229 for the beef brisket that served 16 to 18 to prime rib ($399 to serve 28-32) with sauces.

Outside of the ‘Premier Offering,’ each Smokehouse unit was offering Signature classics such as pulled pork and burnt ends as well as sides such as baked cheese gris, corn and macaroni and cheese.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on X/Twitter: @RonRuggless

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