P.F. Chang's China Bistro Inc. is burnishing its catering offerings and technology as it joins a growing number of restaurant brands looking to build off-premise sales.
The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based casual-dining brand is testing new items to broaden its menu as well as adding new ways to build its marketing and awareness of the catering program, said Jim Rand, P.F. Chang’s vice president of off-premises dining.
“It is becoming an important piece of the P.F. Chang’s business. Historically, Chang’s did not do a lot of catering,” said Rand, who joined the company a year and a half ago.
In that time, P.F. Chang’s has expanded its catered offerings, improved operations and joined a network to increase awareness of the brand’s program, he said in a recent interview.
“The biggest challenge is making people aware that you do cater,” Rand said. The company in September rolled out the Boston-based ezCater online ordering network to all 212 of its U.S. restaurants after a test that began in July at a couple dozen restaurants, he said.
So far, lunch makes up about 80 percent of P.F. Chang’s catering sales, he said. And business catered orders are typically in the hundreds of dollars, eclipsing the average check on individual deliveries.
“For lunch catering, most people will focus on soups, salads and sandwiches,” Rand said, which offered Chang’s an opportunity to differentiate its offerings.
“We had to look at our recipes closely and feature the products that worked best from a travel perspective,” he said. “We’ve set up a program now to attend events so that we can have folks on site and offer a slightly elevated level of service, using chafing dishes and allowing us to keep the product hot.”
P.F. Chang’s is also broadening its menu of catered items beyond the current 20 entrées and dozen appetizer items.
“We had a couple of salads on the menu, but we’ve broadened that salad line – both in the restaurant for dining and it helps us for catering,” Rand said. “We’re also in test with some handhelds, essentially a version of a wrap but an Asian version. That’s be in test for about six weeks now, and they are getting good reviews. We hope to put that on the menu in 2018. We’re also testing a lettuce-wrap bar.”
Other casual-dining brands have seen opportunities in the catered “bar” type offerings. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc., for example, introduced a burger bar in May.
“There are other concepts out there doing burger bars or quesadilla bars, that sort of thing, and so we’re looking at own version with our iconic lettuce wrap as the feature,” Rand said. “That would create an alternative and some variety.”
Rand said P.F. Chang’s recently joined the ezCater platform to access the category of people who make catering decision, such as administrative assistants and pharmaceutical representatives.
Kerry Montgomery, who manages restaurant partnerships for ezCater, said third-party ordering platforms must be able to accommodate special requests and needs, such as modifications of order size and dealing with food allergies.
“The business catering segment continues to boom,” Rand noted, with some estimates putting it at $21 billion of the $55 billion annual U.S. catering market. “There’s a need in offices around the U.S. for companies to keep them happy and keep them in their offices throughout the day. A lot of companies use catering not only for meetings but to make things better and cut down on turnover.”
Because no restaurant brand has more than 2 percent or 3 percent of the catering market share, the opportunities are broad, he said.
But building a catering program requires commitment of people and investments, Rand said.
“You also need the operations that can support it,” he said. “The sales team are throwing the ball, but we have to have people in the restaurant to catch the orders.”
Getting the catered food to the clients on time and correctly is extremely important, he added.
“You have to have a relationship built on trust, and they will only trust you if you show up on time and with the right order and a high level of quality associated with that order,” Rand said. “Customers will quickly move on to someone else if you don’t.”
P.F. Chang’s ranked No. 55 among chains in the Nation’s Restaurant News 2017 Top 100 census with $906.2 million in estimated domestic systemwide sales.
The company is owned by Centerbridge Partners, a New York-based private-equity firm.
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