Fast-Casual Restaurants Look to Be Life of the Party

Seeing strong potential in catering as an avenue for growth, several top fast-casual restaurant chains are stepping up their party programs. Catering offers significant brand-building opportunities, especially for fast-casual concepts looking to maintain an edge over (or at least keep pace with) a rising number of competitors in the segment.

After all, catering in essence is paid product sampling. What better way to 1) convey a message about taste and quality to potential new guests, and 2) stay top of mind with established brand fans than by giving them the chance to try a variety of the concept’s signature products? Catering also lets guests use their favorite fast-casual brands in new ways—the concept they turn to for a convenient, affordable but high-quality family meal midweek can be the concept they turn to for a work event or an at-home party on the weekend.

Among the chains making moves in catering:

  • Alpharetta, GA-based McAlister’s Deli (No. 85 on Technomic’s 2014 list of the Top 500 U.S. chain restaurants by sales) announced Monday that it’s expanding its catering program to include the chain’s popular line of Big Bold sandwiches. The Big Bold offerings, which debuted a year ago, feature more meat than McAlister’s other sandwiches, and McAlister’s is promoting the new Big Bold Catering Box as ideal for tailgates, holiday events and any party of guests with big appetites. The Big Bold box contains 24 Big Bold sandwiches plus an assortment of chips.
  • Over the summer, Noodles & Company (No. 87) debuted catering service in the chain’s home state of Colorado. For the past four years, Noodles has pushed its larger, to-go Square Bowls as an option for feeding families or small groups; each Square Bowl feeds 4–6. The new catering service, by contrast, targets guests planning a party of 20–200 people. The program is built around a NoodlesBar that features entrées, sides and a dessert; catering orders are priced at $12 per person.
  • Panera Bread (No. 12) is opening catering hubs in stores in select markets across the country. Part of the St. Louis-based chain’s drive to bolster operational efficiency, the new hubs manage catering orders for a handful of units in a given region. Faster in-store service is one of the key priorities of Panera 2.0; the dedicated catering hubs—including ones in Raleigh, NC, and Jacksonville, FL—will help prevent catering orders from clogging up the works, so to speak, in individual stores.
  • Corner Bakery Cafe (No. 106) last month issued a press release crediting catering services as a key driver in the chain’s robust expansion. Potential franchisees see high value in Corner Bakery’s commitment to its catering program, the release stated, and Vice President of Training and Operations Services Paul Hicks said the chain has enjoyed “significant catering sales growth” over the past few years both in company-owned and franchised locations. Each of Corner Bakery’s 160-plus locations has a dedicated catering team, and catering is used as a way to introduce the brand in new markets.

Catering may not represent an overwhelming share of sales for fast-casual concepts, but chains are recognizing its importance as a revenue contributor. Chipotle Mexican Grill (No. 17) rolled out its catering program nationwide last year, and in July the chain noted that catering had grown to account for 1.9% of revenue for the quarter, up from 0.3% the year before.

At at time when consumers are increasingly time-pressed and are looking for convenient solutions from foodservice brands they trust, as a restaurant, being able to say “Yes, we can do that” can be an invaluable differentiator.

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Christine LaFave Grace

Christine LaFave Grace writes for and produces Technomic's Trends & Directions e-newsletters. She joined Technomic in 2013 as an associate editor. Her previous roles include assistant digital editor for Crain Communications’ Modern Healthcare magazine and associate editor at Reed Business Information’s Restaurants & Institutions magazine.

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