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Can tech boost catering sales?

Restaurants are looking at delivery’s playbook to update the process. But not all the same rules apply.
Photograph courtesy of Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill

Catering is the fastest-growing part of the business for Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill, according to CEO Paul Damico. But until 2017, most orders came in over the phone to each of the 36 individual locations. Team members took the order on a clipboard, writing down the customer’s credit card number on the same paper.

“PCI (payment card industry) compliance drove us to technology for a more secure solution,” says Damico. Online orders through the fast casual’s website and app were increasing, but it still wasn’t the most efficient system, and catering orders weren’t growing by much. Then last August, Naf Naf partnered with one of the large third-party delivery companies, and 90% of its catering orders now come in that way. The new process not only is more secure, but it’s also proven to be more profitable for the brand—catering currently makes up 6% of sales, up from 2% in 2017.

naf naf bowl
Photograph courtesy of Naf Naf Middle Eastern Grill

“Most operators don’t want to go this (third-party) route,” says Melissa Wilson, principal with Technomic and off-premise specialist. There’s more risk of driver error, order mix-up and lateness, all of which can lead to lost business—especially risky for these higher-ticket catering orders. “Plus, third-party delivery companies have higher commissions.”

Naf Naf met these challenges by bringing the deliverer completely into its fold. The chain’s staff trained the drivers, fully familiarizing them with the brand and menu, and sharing management’s and customers’ expectations. The deliverer, in turn, doesn’t just drop off the food. “White glove service” is part of Naf Naf’s deal, and drivers set up the catered spread with chafing dishes, heat sources, utensils, etc. This service builds trust and leaves less chance for screwups, according to Damico. Naf Naf is charged a set $30 delivery fee instead of the typical commission on sales, and orders are integrated seamlessly into the restaurant’s POS system.

“It’s a true value,” says Damico, adding that the delivery partner is adding functionality that will soon be able to help generate catering leads from its database of delivery customers.

That said, there’s still a lack of trust among some operators in having third-party companies handle catering, says Wilson. “We’re seeing a shift to online ordering, but phone orders still account for 48% of catering sales,” she says.

Tech with a personal touch

Even for those not ready to give up the phone, technology is moving the needle for operations that rely on call-in orders. At Luna Grill, catering orders from all 50 locations come into a call center at headquarters, staffed by five Luna Grill employees. “Our owners are adamant about not outsourcing,” says Nicole Bushnell, VP of marketing for the fast-casual chain. “Staffing our own call center is more hospitable. Employees can have conversations with guests, walk them through the menu and help them customize catering orders.”

luna grill food spread
Photograph courtesy of Luna Grill

But tech advances have improved order accuracy, sped up kitchen prep and eased labor bottlenecks at individual units. The calls come in and are tracked using CRM (customer relationship management) software, and then a cloud-based server routes orders from the call center reps to the designated restaurant location, so the kitchen can start prepping. This system is boosting the volume of Luna Grill’s catering program, which now accounts for 8% of business, says Bushnell. “It’s allowing us to take catering to the next level, offering more menu items and greater variety.” Increased efficiencies also are opening up the opportunity to extend catering into more dayparts, such as breakfast, she adds.

In the year ahead, Luna Grill plans to provide more online access, adding a catering function to its app. “We’re also looking at technologies to manage our in-house driver database and vehicle maintenance,” says Bushnell, adding that the goal is for catering to hit 20% of sales in the near future.

From spreadsheets to systems

Until 2015, Villa Restaurant Group, operator of 135 locations, employed staff to manually input catering orders into Excel spreadsheets. “We were babies in the tech world,” says Stephanie Beamer, divisional vice president of catering and franchise operations for Villa. “Then one of our business customers told us about a third-party menu aggregator in the catering space, and we put our restaurants on their website.” This partnership gave Villa an immediate online presence and increased visibility by potential customers.

Villa also eventually tacked on other management and payment software from the platform. “This streamlines the process and reduces the margin of error, as the system enters orders, generates reports and emails an invoice for the customer to approve. Customers can even click on a ‘pay now’ link to process payment,” says Beamer. “The team that was previously entering information in spreadsheets is now able to take more orders and build relationships with customers.”

Tech has been instrumental in growing orders, sales and Villa’s customer base, says Beamer. She reports that the restaurant group’s catering business grew 100% year over year from 2017 to 2018, with much of that growth in office catering.

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