As the weather gets colder and the holidays approach, catering season starts. As with most everything else since the COVID-19 pandemic started, restaurants should prepare now to update their catering strategy to meet the new demands of consumers while ensuring safety for customers and employees.

Business owners should think about how catering dynamics have changed as a result of the pandemic and try to accommodate those changes. It’s best to be ready now, so that when catering season is in full swing, you aren’t trying to adjust your strategy while busy.

Make your food less communal

Different restaurants offer different types of catering, and if most of your catering options were communal, you should probably adjust your offerings. While communal trays and dips used to be popular, we expect most customers to want individual options like box lunches to avoid sharing food during the pandemic.

For example, while the Rascal House franchise is somewhat unique as an elevated quick serve restaurant, we have always served box lunches and other individual options. Many other quick serve restaurants may also have box lunches and these sorts of options already. If not, look into adjusting your menu and ordering the appropriate packaging now. For brands that already offer these types of options, make sure your restaurant is prepared to fulfill more of this style of catering order than usual. Think now about what products you need to have in stock and maybe even adjusting your menu to make your individual options more obvious.

Adjust your messaging

Whether box lunch-style options have always been part of your menu or are a new addition, you’ll want to make sure you educate customers and make them aware of the option. For example, at Rascal House, many of our catering customers know us for items like pizza, group-sized salad bowls, chicken tender trays and cookie trays. It’s important that we highlight our expertise in individual catering options, so our customers know they can still order from us, keeping it safe and simple while getting the same great service they are used to and the same great products in a more individualized way.

It should be clear to customers that your individual options aren’t an afterthought. If you’ve always offered this style of catering, point that out so customers know that you know what you’re doing. If it’s a new offering, add it to the menu and make it look professional with high quality photos and good descriptions, so customers know what they are getting.

Change your marketing strategy

Your usual marketing strategy may not be enough this year. Don’t forget to reach out to previous customers, as well. Businesses that have a database from previous orders should check in with customers who normally place catering orders during the holidays. It should not be a sales call, but instead a genuine check in to see how they are doing and if and how their plans have changed this year. See if there is a way your business can still help and support your previous customers during this holiday season—even if it is in a different way than in the past. Being proactive instead of waiting to see if your usual orders come in will also help you set your expectations for the catering season.

Train your team

Delivery is an important part of many catering orders. The pandemic poses new challenges for delivery to keep both the customer and employee safe. Many of the policies you likely already created around masks, sanitizing and distancing can be applied to delivering catering orders as well. You can also include messaging in your confirmation emails and on your website to instruct customers to wear a mask when meeting the delivery person. Offering contactless delivery is another option to keep both sides safe. If you offer online ordering, make sure there is a section for delivery instructions where customers can include their preferences.

Catering is a great way to increase sales around the holidays. It may look different this year, but if you plan ahead, it’s still possible to fulfill your usual—or more—catering orders safely.

Niko Frangos is president of Rascal House, a Cleveland-based elevated quick-serve restaurant franchise serving pizza, burgers, wings and more.

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