In 1989, Marc Epstein, owner of the Milk Street Café in Boston, jumped into catering as a competitive play against major chains. He developed a catering menu, gathered a sales team, added delivery staff, and invested in a separate kitchen.
Two decades later, Milk Street Café’s catering arm flourishes. On one Wednesday in September, for instance, Epstein’s Boston eatery corralled $32,000 on 131 catering orders.
Not a bad day’s tally.
“We might have a limited amount of seats in our restaurant, but we have the ability to produce more food in our kitchen,” Epstein says.
Eager to maximize a restaurant’s revenue potential, many operators follow Epstein’s logic and turn to catering and private parties to capitalize on kitchen capabilities and marketplace opportunities. As Epstein’s story shows, looking beyond the dining room can be a boon to restaurants’ bottom lines and a strategic play in the battle for revenue dollars and customers.
To be certain, generating private party and catering business is no easy feat, and the competition for “bulk orders” remains fierce, as restaurants big and small have gotten more strategic, intense, and organized to woo the business.
To feed the masses and earn the rewards, industry veterans offer the following best practices:
When it comes to private dining and catering, consumers face a litany of options. From national forces to local operations, the flourishing private party and catering outlets make such business a prime focus.
“To be successful, you can’t just have a host answering the phone with a date book in hand,” says Patrick Torres, western region director of sales for Morton’s Steakhouse. “Those who help with every detail and are attentive throughout the process distinguish themselves from the competition.”
The first step in a successful private party and catering business is as simple as it is necessary: Get intentional.
“Too often, restaurants open the doors and hope,” says Beth Standlee, CEO of TrainerTainment, a Texas-based provider of sales training for group events. “By getting intentional, you define your commitment to this segment of the business.”
Set specific revenue goals and booking objectives for the week, month, quarter, and year. Examine the particular days, dayparts, or times to target. Understand the needs of guests and the requirements that will be placed on the restaurant. And, finally, extend the mission beyond the holidays, when catering and event planning typically climaxes.
“Get intentional throughout the year, which will help establish your restaurant’s standing,” Standlee says.
Invest in the necessities
At Epstein’s Milk Street Café, about 80 percent of the eatery’s revenue arrives from off-site orders. The sturdy success, Epstein reminds, “has been built over time.”
Epstein has invested in the systems, infrastructure, and people to spur Milk Street’s catering success. He counts five full-time sales staffers in Boston and has hired four full-time sales personnel for Milk Street’s infant outlet in New York City. He’s also created a first-rate Web presence touting the operation’s catering abilities, supplied the technology to deliver e-mail confirmations, and purchased a fleet of nine delivery vans wrapped in the Milk Street logo.
“If you want to build a strong catering business, then you cannot skimp,” Epstein says.
Investing in key infrastructure and systems is equally critical in the private party arena.
Each Morton’s location has a dedicated sales and marketing manager charged with servicing the private group before and during the event—“A personal concierge, if you will,” Torres says—and pursuing prospective guests. The manager’s work is bolstered by e-mail and social networking campaigns from the corporate office.
The sales managers “are the force in going out and making a name for Morton’s,” Torres says. “They’re attending chamber meetings and working with charities to drive our name and our business.”
Save its original Chicago location, every Morton’s Steakhouse also features a private dining room, with some locations having up to six private spots. Private rooms include WiFi, an LCD projector, high-definition screens, and first-rate audio. The high-tech elements invite corporate and social business into Morton’s.
“If you’re not investing in the staff, the training, and the infrastructure, then any operation’s hard pressed to reach its goals,” Torres says.
A similar philosophy plays at Maggiano’s, the party-friendly Italian chain.
All of Maggiano’s 44 locations have a private event facility and, at the minimum, a dedicated banquet line in the kitchen to accommodate the influx of guests. Some locations even feature a banquet-only kitchen, an investment the Dallas-based company made to ensure efficiency and quality.
Much like Morton’s, Maggiano’s also employs dedicated banquet sales staff. While the sales managers pursue and service the private dining business, Maggiano’s also places an emphasis on helping each location’s management team understand the role and particulars of private dining.
“Such uniformity helps to make the guest experience what it needs to be,” says Maggiano’s senior manager of national banquet sales, Mary Machul.
Maggiano’s has further hitched itself to private dining with a heightened online presence. Once only relaying basic menu packets, Maggiano’s current website processes leads and provides informative metrics.
“From brides to business, people are looking online. We’ve outlined our capabilities and better positioned our restaurants to capture business,” Machul says.
Yet it’s not only the national players making the push.
At Mother’s Bistro and Bar, a 12-year-old establishment in Portland, Oregon, owner Lisa Schroeder has invested in high-quality AV components, including a 109-inch drop-down screen and surround-sound audio, as well as three distinct private dining spaces — the Velvet Lounge, Black and Gold Area, and The Nook — with capacities ranging from 30 to100.
“Having the defined private spaces and the amenities most certainly helps us attract business,” she says.
For those restaurants unable to devote a team member to private party and catering sales, leadership can tighten the operation’s connection to those with influence, such as convention center personnel and event planners. Meeting Professionals International, for instance, includes hundreds of event planners frequently in need of private dining spaces and catering services.
Market to the right people
The centerpiece of Milk Street Café’s grand catering success stands its “Brownie Points” program.
Aimed at corporate administrative assistants, the lunchtime decision makers in many company offices, the 10-year-old program allows participants to accumulate points redeemable at any number of Milk Street Café’s local partners, including spas, hotels, and florists. Administrative assistants also get a free lunch for themselves when they place any order over $200.
Eager to make the administrative assistants look competent in the eyes of management, Milk Street provides an e-mail confirmation of each order alongside its arrival time. The details help ensure a winning situation.
“They make one call and we take care of the rest,” Epstein says. “That level of responsiveness and service is absolutely critical.”
Indeed, marketing to those with decision-making power is a key part to attracting private party or catering business.
With the 200,000-square-foot Anaheim Convention Center nearby, Bruno Serato, owner of the Anaheim White House in California, has fostered a working relationship with center personnel spanning 25 years. With 10 private rooms and an award-winning reputation, Serato provides the environment many convention groups seek.
“The business accounts will spend money and return, which is precisely why you go after them,” he says.
Serato’s eatery will also hold B-to-B events, such as convention cocktail hours, to further entrench itself in the minds of prospective clientele. He also regularly hosts charity events, which showcase the restaurant to a broad base and build community goodwill.
“These types of events move us to the top of the list for future events,” Serato says, noting that professional parties have sparked wedding rehearsal dinners, retirement happy hours, and baby showers.
Seek opportunity and openings
Opportunities to attract private party and catering business remain abundant, albeit for those with strategy and purpose.
Some operators send personalized notes to area nonprofits; others reach out to sports teams and clubs at local high schools and colleges, most of whom have end-of-the-year banquets. Many operators interface with other businesses that host large groups and need good-quality food, such as bowling centers, park districts, and universities.
Schroeder belongs to her local chamber of commerce as well as Travel Portland, which markets the Rose City’s travel profile. Both organizations field frequent requests for private event space and catering. In many communities, groups such as Kiwanis, Rotary, and the Lions Club assemble for regular meetings.
“Be an ambassador for your brand and get involved,” Standlee says. “Being active will help generate business.”
Other groups often in need of private dining space or catering include pharmaceutical companies, marketing firms, associations, and insurance carriers. Though they potentially can be touchy, some eateries will even host political gatherings, a particularly apropos subject as the 2012 election season nears. Though donors may not be able to donate directly to a candidate, they might finance a fundraising event.
Inside the restaurant, train wait staff to sell catering and private party space, particularly to groups of six or more. Also, advertise private party and catering capabilities in the dining room with table tents. Extend that communication to the restaurant website, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
“Generating private party or catering business is so often a matter of planting seeds,” Standlee says. “People need to know you can do this, so make a point to tell them.”
Underpromise and overdeliver
Consistent success and a positive reputation in the catering and private party space often rests on one simple idea: Do what you say you will. It’s a primitive concept rooted in customer service ethos.
Stick to what you do best and avoid falling into “sales” mode. If the restaurant cannot accommodate a sit-down dinner for 80 guests or a prime rib carving station, do not pledge such services.
“People trip when they step out of what they do well. Know your limitations,” Standlee says.
That said, work hard to accommodate requests that can be achieved. If the guest wants a long, communal table, reconfigure the room to make it happen. If the guest wants red roses on each table, call the florist. If the guest wants pink linens, track down pink linens. Restaurants can factor such specific requests into the price, but guests will appreciate the responsiveness and extra effort.
“Try to make it more about what they want than what you can do,” Schroeder says, convinced that first-rate service is the surest path to securing repeat business.
Communicate before, during, and after an event by returning phone calls and e-mails and sending a handwritten thank-you note once it’s over.
“These are the little touches that inspire confidence and compel guests to return,” Schroeder says.
Also, view each catering or private event as a potential recurring customer. Provide a kickback offer or thank-you gift to the individual who booked the event. All bounce-back offers, including those given during the holidays, should have a 2- to 3- month use window.
“Making it urgent will increase the likelihood they choose you again,” Standlee says.
Consider the entire operation
At Mother’s, Schroeder rarely books private events on Friday or Saturday, the busiest evenings in her dining room. She doesn’t need and cannot handle the extra business, which would unnecessarily tax the operation and staff.
“I only want our guests reporting positive experiences, and that happens when our restaurant is working within its means,” Schroeder says.
Reviewing traffic and sales figures, identify the soft times and steer inquiring guests to those quiet times or in-between hours. If a guest favors a certain day or time that is prime to the establishment, offer the guest an incentive to consider a friendlier slot for the restaurant.
After all, delivering on catering and private party expectations serves a long-term winning play.
With only 12 of its 77 restaurants open for lunch, hosting private events, particularly during off-peak hours, allows Morton’s to generate additional revenue and put the restaurants’ staff and physical assets to best use. Yet the benefits continue.
“We’re often introducing a number of first-time guests to Morton’s, creating future guests, and driving subsequent business into our dining room,” Torres says.
And oftentimes, a robust private dining business feeds success in the dining room as word-of-mouth buzz inspires future visits.
“When the banquets are rocking, the rest of the restaurant flows that much better,” Maggiano’s Machul says.