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Profit Through Catering

As the economy continues its sluggish recovery, shrewd operators are turning to catering as a way to build their holiday business. Consider these points:

Holiday Meals. If your dining room isn't open on Thanksgiving or Christmas day, consider selling a ready-to-go holiday meal. Table tents, signs, banners and flyers are a low-cost tactic to get the word out to your customers. You have two options: the main course only or a complete meal that includes sides, bread and dessert. You do not have to confine your menu to ham and turkey. Some people get enough of the traditional fare at holiday parties and are excited to substitute prime rib, rack of lamb or a Tuscan roast.

Home-Based Holiday Parties. From spinach & artichoke dip to pesto shrimp cocktail, you're already making specialties your customers would love to buy. Make up menus and sell them at bulk prices — by the piece, pound or pan. Offer to either decorate a ready-to-go platter or fill their serving dishes with your specialties. If you have a local TV cooking segment, volunteer to prepare your specialties in exchange for the free pr.

Party Room Rental. Get your customers to book early. Start by calling last year's parties and offering them advance pick of dates. They'll appreciate the fact you're looking out for their best interest. You might also use the phone call to upsell them to a higher-priced option. More and more restaurants are incorporating dinner and a show. You might charge a hefty premium and have your chef demo the different courses prior to serving. An open house can also work wonders to get your party book filled. Invite your best customers for an afternoon or evening of your chef's best holiday creations.

Off-Premise Catered Events. From sit-down black tie dinners to office cocktail parties, direct mail is the most cost effective tool to get your dates booked. Dangle the “free holiday sampling” bait in front of prospects. You can do group tastings with multiple companies or one-on-ones. Every restaurant has a menu that translates to catering. Make sure you develop menus your staff is prepared to execute. The profit advantages are great in off- premise catering, but you want to make sure you can execute well or your reputation can be blown.

Drop-Off Catering. If catering is new to your restaurant, you might want to get started with drop-off meals. Add an entrée or two, choice of side dishes, bread, dessert and drink and you have an entire party ready to go. This is perfect for smaller groups and budgets. Thanks to aluminum pans and nicer disposable plastic trays, you can be up and running inexpensively. You might decide to handle delivery and set-up yourself or outsource it to a courier service. The level of service and price needs to be congruent with your concept. Shop out your competition to get a handle on the market. Direct mail and onsite promotion to existing customers work equally well on getting the word out. If you have a message-on-hold system, make sure you change it to a holiday script. A well designed half-page flyer will also get you lots of mileage. A strong hostess staff can hand out your flyers when seating guests with a small mention of your catering packages.

Discounting will ruin your reputation and only bring back customers for the next discount. Try giving away free bonus gift certificates or a premium like a set of six of your finest steak knives or tickets to an upcoming play. The value-added bonus you give away for booking a party during non-peak times is worth the extra revenue you generate.

Your rent and overhead are paid whether you take advantage of catering or not. You work hard, so maximize your holiday sales with catering. Your customers will be catering with someone. Let it be you!

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