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Sandy McElfreshAt a young age, Arthur “Sandy” McElfresh learned that the average restaurant customers order only their favorite or second-favorite dish. “So, I decided long ago I’d be the guy to try everything,” he jokes. This proved to be a challenge when McElfresh became the vice president of catering for P.F. Chang’s catering arm. Trying everything on the restaurant’s massive menu of Asian cuisine created an extremely daunting task.

That said, Sandy McElfresh knows the menu very well and has some suggestions for newbies: “If you’re a person who likes starters, our dumplings and wontons are all fantastic. And they’re made by hand, every day,” he says. He loves the dynamic flavor combos of three new salads on P.F. Chang’s catering menu, like the Vietnamese noodle salad’s layers of chilled rice noodles, crispy fried shallots, thinly julienned vegetables, peanuts, and garlic-lime dressing. And when pressed to pick one entree favorite, he says the sweet sesame chicken with crunchy broccoli is a must-order.

As VP, Sandy McElfresh makes sure P.F. Chang’s catering teams can handle any event size and format. À la carte appetizers, entrees, sides, desserts, and dedicated sections of vegetarian and gluten-free dishes make mixing and matching a snap. For those who need more guidance, specialty catering packages do the matching for you. With over two-hundred locations nationwide, Sandy McElfresh makes sure to take in both the big picture and the details to ensure the success of P.F. Chang’s catering business. So we had a chat to find out how he and his team do this, order after delicious order.

P.F. Chang’s is a twenty-five-year-old Asian-American restaurant. What about the cuisine has stood the test of time and expansion?

From the very beginning, P.F. Chang’s was all about authentic Chinese and Asian dishes; we’ve always been a from-scratch kitchen, and every dish is made to order. We say we have a “farm-to-wok” approach: the 2,000-year-old method brings a lot of flavors to simple recipes. It gives guests a taste that is authentic and vibrant. I know farm-to-table is a new concept for many restaurants. But we’ve done it that way for twenty-five years, and it’s the way we always will.

P.F. Changs Crispy Honey Shrimp

As vice president of P.F. Chang’s catering operation, what does your position require?

At the 40,000-foot level, I’m tasked with the profitable growth of P.F. Chang’s catering. It is my responsibly to continue to raise the bar for my amazing teams, to give them a vision of where we’re going, to provide any resource they might need, and to remove obstacles so that they can deliver what we promise to the catering customer.

How have you worked to make that happen?

Operationally, we’ve promoted some of our key members to P.F. Chang’s catering specialists; they are the primary contact when a client places orders, and they work within a framework set by the manager of catering operations. Those managers then have the responsibility of maintaining consistent operational standards across all locations and putting out our Standard Operating Procedure playbook for larger events. And they work with catering sales managers to identify customer expectations and growth in the market. I’ve also promoted three to regional catering managers so that our management level is closer to the field.

As a result, we’ve seen some really nice growth and our restaurants are better able to understand how to deliver with the consistency we’ve promised our clients.

Considering that expansion, it sounds like P.F. Chang’s catering wing is growing into an increasingly vital part of the brand.

We believe catering is not only a viable piece of your business model.

From business to business, the person ordering is often not the person consuming the food—they’re ordering as part of their job. They’re expecting a business relationship. Our intent is to take the P.F. Chang’s brand and extend it out into the business marketplace so they don’t just feel they’re getting food; they’re getting a P.F. Chang’s experience.

What challenges do P.F. Chang’s catering teams encounter when trying to grow new catering customers?

It’s kind of funny! When our catering sales people make a connection with a new client, more often than not the response is, “I love P.F. Chang’s! I didn’t know you catered!” We’ve always had catering—we just didn’t proactively market until a year ago. Our brand is strong. We’re fortunate that our marketing team is award-winning. So, along with the efforts of the catering sales team, we’re doing a lot to increase our messaging in the digital space. That’s our greatest challenge—to get the message out. When we do, we find we don’t get a lot of resistance.

PF Changs Changs Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Have you observed any menu trends in P.F. Chang’s catering recently?

The typical catering client is now more educated on healthy options, quality ingredients, and the individual needs of their group like gluten-free and [food] allergies options.

What about presentation or event format?

I don’t see a particular desire for one type of presentation; we see orders for buffet, grab-and-go, an on-site wok truck, and sushi chefs preparing at tables. Customers understand there’s a lot of competition, and they can get the things they want. I think that’s going to continue; clients will continue to push for quality of food, quality of ingredients, and a variety of presentation options. It’s our job to deliver that to them.

Which P.F. Chang’s catering location will dazzle you next?

Find yours here

Jacqueline Raposo

Written by:

Jacqueline Raposo

Jacqueline Raposo is an expert interviewer. Her over 400 articles, essays, and podcast episodes feature Missy Robbins, Daniel Boulud, Alex Guarnaschelli, Marcus Samuelsson, and other such award-winning chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, managers, and hospitality personnel. Find her at www.jacquelineraposo.com or as @wordsfoodart.

Posted in: Trends in FoodNeed to Know

Tagged with: Asian, Caterer Network, Catering, Chinese, Customer Service, Job Success