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Catering to the masses has massive advantages

Investor tipsters at TheMotleyFool.com have called restaurant catering a “possible billion-dollar segment,” and they are bullish on chains such as Panera and Chipotle building preparation and delivery hubs specifically for large-scale ordering. Catering, especially for corporate settings, is a way for big chains to grow within existing footprints and for smaller restaurants to build their brands and grow at a good pace.

“When I started studying catering, I thought I’d be looking at big orders feeding hundreds; in reality, it’s more about the orders feeding a dozen or 20 on a regular basis,” says Melissa Wilson, a researcher who specializes in catering at Chicago-based research firm Technomic. Smaller orders are less disruptive to regular restaurant operations and open more doors for operators of all size.

Seamless Corporate Accounts, the office ordering arm of GrubHub, has been connecting restaurants and caterers with business customers for 15 years. “In that time, we’ve found that our network is eager to serve corporate customers because these businesses place large orders, order frequently and are highly loyal to their preferred providers,” reports Marybeth Sheppard, director of marketing for Seamless Corporate Accounts. “It’s all about larger tickets from fewer customers.”

According to Seamless, casual, catered holiday parties are on the increase as companies continue to keep budgets in check. Their 2014 holiday surveys, conducted among 1,200 full-time professionals, showed that 37 percent had attended holiday parties at the office, up from 29 percent from in 2012. Nearly a quarter of respondents indicate their employers host happy hours or social events throughout the year.

And how are restaurants catering to corporate tastes? Catering cuisine is more about the occasions than the size of the orders, notes Wilson. “Set up needs to be easy. Operators need to know whether the event calls for a boxed lunch for a quick break, or whether a longer, more social meal is in order.”

Stepping away from the sandwich tray

Chipotle’s full buffet approach, with warming trays and DIY assembly lines, is an example of how companies can add interactive and social element to corporate lunches and allow people to create a meal according to their own tastes.

“You need to consider how to accommodate a wide range of dietary preferences and tastes. You also need to ensure the food will be appropriate for and easy to eat in the setting,” Sheppard notes. “There have also been a lot more ‘make-your-own’ catering displays, which enable people to customize their meal to their taste and offer a bit of fun for guests.”

Both Wilson and Sheppard see catering menus following the culinary trends of the time. Sheppard notes that seasonal menus add a special touch to holiday events; interesting side dishes with non-traditional grains as well as unique desserts such as easy-to-eat cake pops and cream-cheese-filled bagel poppers add a new sheen to old favorites for the corporate crowd.

With snacking becoming an official daypart, Wilson encourages operators to incorporate specific break treats into catering plans. Jason’s Deli does a big business in catering, often offering all-day services complete with afternoon breaks featuring Spicy Cajun Mix or Walnut Cranberry Trail Mix. Make-your-own yogurt parfaits, nut-filled cookies or custom granola bars could also help people power through an afternoon meeting.

Recent Seamless ordering patterns in the Sweets and Treats category reveal that indulgence is always a good way to break up a long day of meetings. Pies, cheesecake, cookies and cupcakes are ordering favorites. Packaging and portability make creamy treats more catering-friendly; gelato, ice cream and specialty mousse can be served in small, portable ice-cream cups. For example, Lyfe Kitchen serves individual sweet budinos with catering orders.

Taking it home

In at-home catering trends, Wilson has seen the small plate approach showing up in slider parties, meatball skewers and bite-sized desserts, especially for at-home catering.

“There’s no longer a stigma about outsourcing your party planning. No one is hiding the packaging any more; in fact, there’s some cache in showing off brand names,” says Wilson. “If people have a favorite place for cupcakes or donuts, they add them to a party menu or even arrange for a favorite food truck to swing by for a party.”

By all accounts, catering is a win-win. Going off premise helps businesses grow in sales and in brand recognition, while customers get more of their favorite treats, both at home and at work.

This post is sponsored by Sweet Street Desserts

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