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Brandy Blackwell of McAlister'sThe kind of love that Eater showed McAlister’s Deli last year, trumpeting the approach of its new Miami location, is certainly shared by 400 some pockets across the United States, all of whom have their own local McAlister’s Deli. Founded in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1989, McAlister’s Deli is a restaurant franchise that offers sandwich trays, baked-potato bars, and its famous, handcrafted sweet tea. The company also has a catering arm that reaches nearly 180 cities, from Peoria, Arizona, to Niagara Falls, New York. Offering more than just fresh, innovative deli food, McAlister’s Deli “focuses on genuine Southern hospitality,” said Brandy Blackwell, McAlister’s Deli‘s director of off-premise marketing. We spoke to Brandy, who talked about how McAlister’s Deli’s catering arm is able to serve genuine Southern hospitality, big and fast, with every order.

San Marcos McAlister's Deli

What are the challenges of expanding McAlister’s Deli catering to new markets?

You’d think that with 410 stores you’d have brand awareness. But sometimes you don’t. For the most part, we’re a Southeast brand. We can say “genuine hospitality” all day long, but we have to show it. How do we get customers into the door and sell the experience? From an off-premise standpoint, if we pride ourselves on hospitality and Southern charm, how can we show that to our guests outside of the four walls of our restaurants?

How do you do that?

You can’t just enter [the restaurant-catering] market and have your first message to somebody who doesn’t know you to be about catering. Whenever we open a new store, our first message is about our hospitality and food. I invite new businesses to our restaurant to eat with and meet with us so that I can learn more about them. Then I sell the idea of our catering service. No one will put his or her reputation on the line [to promote our catering service] for their office meetings or parties without first understanding our restaurant.

We encourage our internal team members to make sure that the first impression we make is amazing: You only get one chance, and if you blow it, that mistake impacts future sales. It’s important to train your team members to build those relationships. If you don’t do that, you won’t receive catering orders.

How does McAlister’s Deli’s show genuine Southern hospitality in the catering business?

Without fail, we’ll deliver any catering order and take requests up to the last minute. We do some setup of some nature. We also look for the “something extra” to add to catering packages to make the experience feel personal. We empower our franchisees, who ultimately decide on what “comps” they feel comfortable with. Do people who place big orders get a cookie tray? We often throw in a gallon of sweet tea. And we throw in handwritten thank-you notes. I think that goes a long way.

McAlister's Deli Club Sandwich Box

How have you managed to retain the integrity of the McAlister’s Deli’s restaurant and catering menus while scaling up store locations and increasing productivity?

We don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. When it comes to ingredients, we elevate our menu items daily with the help of our internal chef. We have so many SKUs that this gives us the ability to mix and match items to come up with new and innovative items. So it’s not always about introducing an entirely new SKU or scaling up. But we may decide to elevate a few sandwiches with spring-mix lettuce instead of iceberg, and then get rid of the iceberg as an ingredient because we don’t believe it’s the right lettuce for the brand in terms of quality. Then we eliminate that SKU.

How does that translate to the catering menu at McAlister’s Deli?

Any one of our restaurant items that can double as a catering item will land on the catering menu, if that works. Our franchisees always want something new for their catering guests—we get a lot of that feedback.

Take, for instance, the Garden Fresh Sandwich lineup we just introduced. We tested the sandwiches at different temperatures: ambient, warm, cold. Then we tested the sandwiches for their ability to travel well, after having them sit around for a few hours. If food was found to stand up to travel, we added it as a catering item with the potential to become a catering tray, targeting the spring season.

The process takes at least six months from start to finish. We’re now testing out stuff that could affect the third or fourth quarter of 2018.

What innovations have allowed McAlister’s Deli’s catering arm to increase productivity across the board?

Third-party delivery for catering orders has become a big part of our system. Third-party delivery gives us the ability to orchestrate seven catering orders at once, confirm that we’ll deliver the food in 90 minutes, and not have to staff seven people for a few hours to get these orders completed. Third-party delivery services will eat up a percentage of sales that no restaurant wants to give away, but their service gives you the benefit of not having to decline that $500 catering order.

Another tip: A lot of our items travel well because they’re not hot foods. Any item that doesn’t require heating saves time.

Is business slow? Learn how to promote your catering service even when business slumps.

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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.

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