As restaurant operators look for additional methods to expand their sales and market their brands, preparing meals in advance has increasingly become a means of accomplishing that.
Whether through box lunches as part of a restaurant’s catering effort or upscale grab-and-go items, these meals created ahead of time have become another way for limited-service eateries to provide satisfying options for busy, on-the-go Americans.
“These are certainly growing areas for operators,” says Melissa Wilson, a principal at Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based market research and consulting firm. “Catering has really rebounded from the recession, and business-to-business is very strong.”
Quick-service restaurants make up the biggest chunk—nearly a third—of the $45.8 billion catering industry, Technomic reports. Fast casuals are fourth at 7 percent and have the quickest growth rate.
Box lunches and other catering efforts don’t necessarily burden normal business, Wilson says. “Operators can exploit their existing space and team to prepare the food before or after the typical rush times,” she says. But entering the box-lunch business is hard to do correctly, she adds. “It requires a lot of thought and attention to detail. What we have learned in office and business catering is execution is critical. The order has to be right and on time.”
There’s also little forgiveness if an order is wrong, unlike in a restaurant, where errors can be corrected immediately.
“A lot of the brands out there with a box lunch program haven’t thought them through very well,” says Erle Dardick, founder of the Catering Institute and affiliated companies in Vancouver, British Columbia. “There are subtleties and dynamics of being in that business.”
Catering is an occasion-based experience with a unique means of serving people, he says. There are facets such as workflow, logistics, and packaging that differ from typical restaurant operations.
Box lunches have a different audience than other parts of catering, such as platters and buffet setups, Wilson says.
“If you think of a corporate office and presentation going on, a box lunch is preferable,” she says. “You can eat during the meeting without getting up and down for the food.”
In addition to meetings, box lunches are also more likely to be chosen for school sporting or travel events or for groups going on day trips, she adds. They can also be used for charity programs, such as when restaurants respond to natural disasters with donated food.
Box lunches have long been useful arrows in the quivers of sandwich and bagel shops, delis, and bakery cafés. Now some other concepts, ranging from Chick-fil-A to Qdoba, have catering menus that include the boxed meal.
Most box lunches include a main item—typically a sandwich or salad—along with chips, a piece of fruit, and a cookie. The food is usually served cold, although there are some operations where the entrée is maintained in hot bags and added to the box right before delivery or pickup. Prices generally range from $7 to $12. Most operators offer vegetarian items, and some offer gluten-free options.
Restaurants typically request that box lunches be ordered in advance. That allows for early preparation, including putting non-refrigerated items, napkins, and utensils in the boxes ahead of time. It also gives workers time to put together the fresh entrées prior to any rush hours.
Catering at Which Wich includes box lunches and platters, but there is more demand for the former, says Lindsay Macedo, operations support specialist for the Dallas-based company, which has more than 300 units in nearly 40 states and internationally.
“The box lunches are more portable and more customizable,” she says. Some 50 sandwiches are available and permit a choice of white or wheat rolls, a cheese choice, lettuce, tomato, and condiment packets. Chips and a cookie are included.
“Our franchisees are definitely seeing the benefits of catering,” Macedo says. “People are enjoying your food, and you are getting your name out there. If people can eat your awesome sandwiches outside your restaurant, that’s a great thing.”
While most Which Wich box lunches are used at business or school events, a Washington, D.C., franchisee, is considering selling box lunches from a street cart. “They are thinking outside the box and using this portability in a new way,” Macedo says.
Jason’s Deli features 14 box meals with different styles of sandwiches or salads, and these make up a quarter of the company’s total catering revenue.
“We do everything from school and church programs to high-end offerings for corporate board rooms,” says Jamie Cohen, chief brand officer for the Beaumont, Texas–based company.
A typical box from Jason’s Deli, which has 250 units in 29 states, includes a sandwich with a choice of meat with lettuce and tomato on traditional bread, along with pickle chips and choice of cookie or brownie. More upscale boxes feature deluxe breads and a cheese choice, plus fruit salad or pasta salad.
The most popular meats are ham and turkey, Cohen says, while roast beef and tuna do well, too. Other boxes include salads, wraps, and croissant sandwiches, and there are also vegetarian and gluten-sensitive versions. The company also prepares refrigerated items for grab-and-go customers in certain locations; some are sold at Hudson News at airports.
Until last year, Bruegger’s Bagels offered one basic box lunch, but added several more in 2014 after finding demand on the rise, says Judy Kadylak, vice president of marketing for the chain, which has 284 restaurants.
“Catering is a fairly significant growth opportunity for us,” she says, adding that the company spent plenty of time, effort, and investment several years ago to create a strong business model, which included putting in place the infrastructure to accept, complete, and track orders.
The individual breakfast box comes with a sliced bagel and side of cream cheese or a muffin with butter, plus a piece of fruit and a single-serve yogurt. The lunch boxes feature a regular or premium bagel sandwich or a salad, all with chips or a piece of fruit and a cookie.
“As schedules get busy and a lot of meetings get jammed up at lunch time, box lunches become very convenient,” Kadylak says. “But it’s not just for business; in any kind of meeting, like a [Parent Teacher Association] or school meeting, people like box lunches. It gives more customization.”
Last year’s decision by Atlanta-based Great Wraps to start offering catering was not easy. The brand is mostly in malls, and people don’t always think to order catered meals from such outlets, says Mark Kaplan, the company’s chief executive.
Fifteen of the company’s 70 units now have catering, and one-third of that business is box lunches that include a wrap, a side of chips, pasta or fruit salad, and a cookie. These stores are seeing 10–15 percent sales increases.
“The beauty of it is we get the business and fill orders before our [lunch] rush,” Kaplan says. These customers are often people stuck in a business meeting that wouldn’t be dining at a Great Wraps, he adds.
Catering takes a great deal of planning. In addition to developing the product line and offering attractive rates, “you have to have great graphics, a great menu, and proper packaging,” Kaplan says. “You can’t just cater in your traditional packaging. You need something that stands out.”
Some ethnic restaurants also offer box lunches. Mediterranean-influenced Pita Pit features a box lunch it calls an Express Lunch, with entrée pitas ranging from Chicken Souvlaki or Hummus to deli fare like Turkey and Prime Rib. Chips are part of the lunch, and bottled beverages are extra.
“As eating trends evolve, people look for healthier options,” says Benjamin Drake, vice president of research and development for the Coeur D’Alene, Idaho–based operation. “That’s our niche. It may be cheaper to bring in pizza, but cheaper isn’t always better.”
In addition to providing additional revenue, box lunches provide an operator with an opportunity to market its products. “Some of the people getting an Express Lunch at a meeting have never been to one of our locations,” Drake says. “So it gives us a chance to tell them what we offer.”
At Qdoba Mexican Grill, box lunches are a small part of the Denver-based company’s catering efforts, which have shown three consecutive quarters of double-digit sales growth, says Jackie Kurkjian, director of catering.
“We are really putting the focus on our hot bar,” she says. The hot bar features a number of items that are used in naked burritos, tacos, or nachos. The boxes contain a hot burrito—adobo-marinated grilled chicken, steak, or vegetarian—which includes cilantro-lime rice, black beans, cheese, and salsa. The lunches also include tortilla chips, salsa verde, and a brownie or chocolate chip cookie.
While most items in a box lunch are made at the restaurants that sell them, chips and some cookies are often provided by outside companies. Green Plate Foods, for instance, bakes cookies used in some box lunches, although its biggest restaurant clients are grab-and-go boutiques like My Fit Foods. The wrapped cookies are preferable for some operators that don’t want to bake cookies.
“Another big thing is that we’re gluten free, and so there is no cross contamination” with gluten items in a restaurant, says Lisa Pounds, Green Plate Foods’ founder. “They don’t need a nutritionist and an allergen analysis with our products, which are unique, with great attributes.”
Houston-based My Fit Foods, with 55 units in five states, offers a variety of low-calorie, grab-and-go microwavable items created off-site for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Typical is the chipotle macaroni and cheese with vegetable medley.
“We tend to have two different types of customers,” says spokeswoman Dawn Piscitelli. “One is very weight-loss focused, and they may come in and take advantage of our nutrition coaches. That customer tends to eat our meals frequently. We also have convenience-based customers looking for healthy, on-the-go food.”
Snap Kitchen also offers a wide range of grab-and-go items for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, including salads made to order at several locations. Many items are available in small and medium portions, some are vegetarian, and most are low in calories and are gluten free.
“We’re absolutely food focused, with scratch cooking,” says founder Martin Berson. “From a customer standpoint, we look and feel more like a retail store. A couple of employees can help find items, but it’s 30 feet of refrigerated items that you grab yourself, and you’re out the door.”
The food is prepared in kitchens in each of the company’s three Texas markets. The items range from a spinach and goat cheese scramble with egg whites, cherry tomatoes, caramelized onion, and baked sweet potatoes to the grass-fed bison quinoa hash with Cheddar cheese.