Mar 01 2019
Jim Rand
3 Minutes to read
This article is part of a series called “Getting Off-Premises,” which examines how to build an off-premises business.

As you build your catering menu, remember the story of Goldilocks: The menu needs to be small, but not too small. While a streamlined menu is good for your bottom line, it needs wiggle room to offer customers variety. Here’s a primer on creating a profitable catering menu.

1. Research Your Competitors to Keep Your Edge

Check out the offerings of your direct competitors. Do they offer:

Evaluate the competitive landscape, and compete smartly by finding gaps in offerings.

2. Limit Your Catering-Menu Lineup

Don’t offer your full restaurant menu. It’s too difficult to manage and potentially harmful to your brand as a complex menu can slow down the kitchen and hurt the food. Instead, tighten up your catering menu. A smaller menu makes it easier to deliver tasty food to large numbers of people, especially when customers order catering à la carte. It also cuts down on inventory costs and waste.

To create a small menu, select ten mains from your restaurant menu using these guidelines:

  • What are your best sellers?
  • Which dishes travel well?

Using these same guidelines, select five or six appetizers, side dishes, and desserts for your catering menu.

3. Offer Bundled Meals to Boost Margins

Customers love bundled meals because they’re easy to order, especially online and for business meetings. People also view them as a good value for the dollar.

Bundled meals are beneficial to operators, too, as bundling encourages customers to spend more money than they normally would. When you bundle a big-ticket sandwich with a side (pasta salad, bag of chips, piece of fruit), dessert (cookie, brownie), and a beverage, that creates a perception of value in the customer’s mind. But it also justifies a $12 charge, even though the meal is mostly made up of cheaper, higher-margin items. That’s why bundled meals often bring more money than the average customer check. The pricing strategy of bundled meals works as long as you use correct parameters to stay profitable. Price your bundled meals correctly and they can be profitable menu items. (Learn more about using menu design to increase sales.)

It’s also smart to offer catering packages, such as a medley of sandwiches on a platter, a bowl of salad, and a variety of sweets. Catering packages give customers variety and the option of eating as much or as little as they choose. The preset packages appeal to customers because they make food ordering easy, especially when customers need a catering spread for different appetites and large crowds. Because people are willing to pay for convenience, catering packages can be a great approach to increasing sales. One final note: to help customers order correct amounts of food, remember to identify the portion sizes of items (“feeds 10 to 12”).

As you build your catering menu, remember this: The menu needs to be small, but not too small.

4. Let Customers Build Their Own

If your restaurant offers customers the unique experience of customized menu items, those customers will expect to custom-build their catering orders, too. Here are some examples of how to pull this off:

  • Chipotle customers choose what ingredients are added to their burrito bowls in the restaurant, so the chain’s catering menu includes a Build-Your-Own bar of hot and cold items.
  • Red Robin, known for its widely varied burger menu, has a nifty Gourmet Burger Bar for catering that includes 12 different toppings.
  • Olive Garden isn’t known for a customizable menu, but the company smartly rolled out a Create-Your-Own-Pasta Station that lets guests assemble their own pasta dishes from a hot buffet.

5. Offer a Varied Catering Menu 

Reach more customers with a varied menu. Try to make room for these food groups and menu categories:

  • Proteins: If you offer just chicken, you risk narrowing your audience. Easy add-ons are beef, sausage, and shrimp.
  • Vegetables: Variety here is limited only by what travels well.
  • Starches: Your restaurant concept will determine your choices. For instance: rice, tortillas, and chips for Mexican; rice only for Asian; bread and maybe pasta salad for a sandwich concept.
  • Starters/Appetizers: A group nosh plate is a great item to sell with a buffet. It’s a conversation starter that gives people something to nibble on while others go through the line.
  • Desserts: Again, think about what travels well and is simple to execute. Nearly any baked good is durable, has a good shelf life, and can be individually portioned.

There are many ways to create a catering menu, but these guidelines make a great starting point. Start small and, if you feel comfortable, gradually expand your catering menu where it makes sense.

Are you doing everything you can to grow your catering business?
Learn how to get more catering orders.

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Jim Rand

Written by:

Jim Rand

Jim Rand has over 40 years of restaurant-industry experience. Jim serves as Operating Partner of Off-Premises Sales at Act III Holdings. From 2016 to 2018, he was Vice President of Off-Premises Dining at P.F. Chang's. Prior to that role, he served as Vice President of Catering at Panera Bread for nearly a decade. A respected voice in the restaurant industry, Jim works to provide the very best solutions to help restaurants grow their catering businesses.

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