Menu Innovations | September 2010 | By Sam Oches

Beyond Your Four Walls

Carryout has always been an inherent part of the quick-service business. Some operators, however, are finding that catering is a better investment when trying to get their food out into the world.

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The wedding dinner was prepped for the oncoming slew of guests: Stainless steel chafing dishes lined the buffet tables, silverware sat wrapped in cloth napkins and silver rings, and servers stood at the ready in black slacks and white dress shirts.

It was a fine feast to celebrate the sharing of vows, but there was a twist: The dinner was catered and staffed by Dickey’s Barbecue Pit.

“It was a rehearsal dinner that they wanted us for, but the groom really wanted us for the wedding,” says Maureen Woloszczuk, vice president of operations for GMW Carolina Inc., a two-store Dickey’s franchise company that Woloszczuk owns with her husband, Greg. “He loved it that much. I actually dressed it up for them; I made their silverware with nice little wedding rings around it. Anything to make the event more special for them.”

Though weddings are more the exception than the rule for GMW Carolina’s catering program, the operation—handled through its stores in Durham and Cary, North Carolina—is finding success in taking its food beyond the four walls of Dickey’s, wherever the social gathering may be.

“Catering is typically about 10–15 percent of the business,” says Greg Woloszczuk, president of GMW Carolina. “It’s a very important part of the business.”

Of course, taking quick-serve food beyond the four walls of an operation has traditionally been done through carryout. Food to go is an inherent branch of the quick-service business, while catering has typically been left to private companies or casual-dining establishments.

But not anymore. Dickey’s is just one of the many quick serves that are investing more into their catering programs and looking beyond carryout as a means to getting their food to consumers. Other brands, meanwhile, are sticking to the tried-and-true formula of carryout as the method of choice for going outside the store.

“Something Totally Different Outside of the Restaurant”

The investment into catering is not unwarranted. Studies show that in the wake of the recession, consumers are spending more time at home and that restaurants would be wise to meet them there.

The 2010 National Restaurant Association Forecast shows that social catering sales are expected to grow by 4.5 percent in 2010, more than any other commercial restaurant service. Sales are expected to rise to $7.09 billion in 2010 from $6.78 billion in 2009.

Moreover, according to an October report from market research firm Technomic that studied social catering opportunities, 40 percent of respondents reported that they anticipated entertaining at home more often in 2010. Another 53 percent of respondents said they plan on entertaining at home about the same amount in 2010 as they did in 2009.

“There’s no stigma anymore about buying a platter from somewhere else and letting people know that you just picked up a platter.”

“Even though consumers are retrenching on dining out, they’re still entertaining or having social activities on a fairly regular basis,” says Melissa Wilson, a principal with Technomic. “So there are opportunities for operators to follow them home with platters and bulk meals.”

Wilson says the recession played a big role in the increasing demand for catering options from quick-service operations. With diners cutting back or trading down from their prerecession purchasing habits, a catered meal from a quick serve is no longer faux pas.

“Part of what we uncovered with the study is that there’s no stigma anymore about buying a platter from somewhere else and letting people know that you just picked up a platter,” Wilson says. “You don’t have to pretend that you made everything yourself anymore.”

The quick-service industry, Wilson says, offers consumers the ability to bring a new element to social occasions than they might have had in the past. “Restaurants are offering a lot wider of variety of options than the traditional supermarket platters,” she says.

Indeed, with the sandwich, Mexican, chicken, bakery/café, and even burger segments of the quick-serve industry boasting concepts with catering operations, customers have a range of choices to bring to their gatherings.

Qdoba entered the catering business in 2002. While the company’s traditional stores offer customers the ability to customize a burrito, taco, or nachos, and dine in or take it to go, the catering operation needed to have its own distinction, says Chris Bingel, director of catering for the chain.

“We have a completely different catering menu, which over time we’ve fine-tuned to meet the needs of our catering guests,” Bingel says. “It does display all of the products that we have in the restaurant but in a simpler manner for our guests to order for those catering occasions.”