Catering is a core part of McAlister’s DNA, says chief brand officer Mike Freeman. He goes as far as calling it a “massive” part of business and the tip of the spear for acquiring new customers. 

It’s no secret that during the pandemic when offices were closed, there were several headwinds for McAlister’s to navigate, but it was also an opportunity to recalibrate. The sandwich chain began to ask itself, “What do we want to be when it comes to a world-class caterer?” It posed this query knowing at some point things would normalize.

“What we want to do is hit reset on the offerings,” says Freeman, who entered his role in the fall of 2021. “We want to make more contemporary things available to our consumers. We wanted to work in that opportunity, in that vacuum if you will, to say when this is over and we emerge, who do we want to be in the catering space? And we said look, even though there’s going to be challenges, there’s going to be headwinds, the workforce is going to return to the office at some point. We knew that it was going to be enticing for businesses to invite people back.”

The 540-unit McAlister’s proceeded to develop a program that shows customers it’s available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for “any meeting need that you can possibly think of,” Freeman says. The brand led with trust—leaning into its years of equity as a dependable catering resource—and followed up with research and development, creative thinking, and differentiated craveability. Because guest expectation constantly evolves, McAlister’s wanted to go after catering market share with a balance of customer preference and need, operational simplicity, and franchise profitability. Freeman felt if the company could balance those three aspects, it could find something of value and quality that would serve as a springboard for customers to enter other channels. 

Standing out with catering is crucial, especially considering its growing popularity. Early last summer, Toast surveyed roughly 950 operators about how they are adapting to the ever-changing restaurant landscape. When asked about any changes to the level of importance their restaurant will place on certain areas, catering was ranked as the third-highest priority behind employee training and on-premises dining. 

The most recent innovation for McAlister’s is new breakfast boxes for individual consumption—a remnant of the pandemic that has seemingly stuck around. 

Each comes with a signature morning sandwich (Breakfast Florentine with eggs, cheese, and spinach; Spicy Sausage & Egg, Breakfast Club Royale; and Breakfast Veggie), Greek yogurt, and fresh fruit. Customers can also order classic sandwiches of eggs, with bacon, sausage, or ham. 

Avocado Toast Board. 

French Toast Board. 

For those wanting more of a buffet setting, there’s the customizable Avocado Toast Bar (French baguette, cut into slices and accompanied by house-made avocado spread with toppings including diced cooked bacon, diced tomatoes, cucumber slices, red onion, and gorgonzola cheese) and a customizable French Toast Bar (French baguette sliced and dipped in batter; arrives cooked with toppers including fresh fruit and berries, diced cooked bacon, candied almonds, maple syrup, and butter). The breakfast sandwiches are available in trays as well.

“At the center of all of it was packaging,” Freeman says. “Once we cracked the code on the packaging element, everything else fell into play. And by that I mean, that individual box I referenced was really a work of art that we created years and years ago with our lunch segment that we’re able to then use as inspiration for our new larger box that we’ve now created … Everything fits in there. It’s segmented. Now there’s different inserts where we can create new bars with different offerings.”

McAlister’s also wanted to make it easy for decision-makers tasked with finding solutions for mass gatherings. So the fast casual implemented a frictionless ordering process to pair with the revamped offering. 


Systemwide rollout for the breakfast revamp is scheduled for August. 

“All these things are new and emerging in our space that make people feel like, ‘Well, that’s something different, but it’s also on trend and also satisfies the need,'” Freeman says. “What we really want to do is make that decision-maker feel like a hero. If I can make you feel like a hero at your event because you were at McAlister’s Deli, I feel like I have delivered against what I promised to do.”

The beauty in this shift, Freeman says, is that McAlister’s mostly used existing SKUs so that it could “launch things in a way that were new and refreshed, but also not having to tax and burn the operations team and the supply chain industry with adding more complexity.” Additionally, breakfast catering has proven to be largely incremental. McAlister’s has experienced double-digit same-store sales growth in the daypart channel year-over-year. 

The chain worked closely with its franchise advisory council to improve breakfast catering. Freeman says operators have embraced it, executed at a high level, and are now seeing “exponential” growth. 

“The challenge with our brand is what are we going to do next?” he says. “How do you continue growth? How do you continue reach? How do you continue to raise awareness? And catering checks all those boxes for us. We led with operational simplicity for our franchisees. So that way, it wasn’t this overbearing heavy lift for operators that were already strained and stressed with all the pandemic outcomes, supply chain, headwinds so on and so forth. Being able to leverage our menu offering to provide and build a new revenue channel that’s sustainable in an incremental way meant a lot to our franchisees. It was very well thought out. It was a strategic play.”

The journey doesn’t stop here. In addition to breakfast, McAlister’s is testing with the snack (fresh-baked cookies and charcuterie boards) and dinner dayparts. This would be targeted at business and consumer clients. And then for the in-store menu, the brand is exploring more shareable options, additions to its French Dip Sandwich lineup, innovation around sweet tea (possibly frozen beverages), movement into bowl-style salads, and some product news around hot sides. 

Throughout this process, McAlister’s is following data instead of “making gut decisions like we used to years and years ago.” It’s paid off, and the fast casual’s menu of the future is reaping the benefits. 

“This is a constant evolution, right?” Freeman says. “This is a journey. It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint when it comes to R and D. So [menu innovation] is something that every single day it has a portion of our pie. So we love doing it and we’re definitely not gonna slow it down. We’re already working on 2025 and 2026 plans. 

Fast Casual, Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, Web Exclusives, McAlister's