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At ezCater, we want to help restaurants grow a successful catering business. Whether you’re in the early stages of building a business or an industry veteran, let us help you dip into the $61.5 billion catering market. In each episode of “The Catering Feed,” we talk to restaurant industry leaders of thriving brands who share insights and tactics to ramp up your catering business.
The better you know your customers, the more effectively your sales team will be able to reach them. In this podcast, Gracie Prasanson, Director of Off-Premise Sales of Jason’s Deli, shares ways to strengthen customer relationships to grow a catering business. Plus, she answers our questions about what restaurants are doing to retain employees.
Gracie Prasanson is Director of Off-Premise Sales of Jason’s Deli, where she started as a one-woman sales team and rose to become the company’s national director of off-premise sales. A 30-year restaurant veteran, she spent 20 of those years focused on building winning sales teams and developing strategies for growing business.
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Genenvieve Babineau: Welcome to The Catering Feed: The Catering Growth Podcast. A show about growing your catering business and restaurant industry trends. Powered by ezCater.
Hi I’m Genevieve Babineau and I’m here today with Gracie Prasanson from Jason’s Deli. Gracie is the National Director of Sales who’s been building expert teams for over 20 years at Jason’s Deli. She’s become a true leader in the catering industry and I couldn’t be more delighted that she’s joining us today. Welcome Gracie.
Gracie Prasanson: Thanks Genevieve for having me.
Genevieve Babineau: I would love to hear a little bit about your career and how you’ve gotten to this place with Jason’s.
Gracie Prasanson: Excellent. So it all started about thirty five years ago when I started working for Denny’s as a late night server.
Genevieve Babineau: I love it!
Gracie Prasanson: Fell in love with the food industry and I’ve been with it ever since. I’ve done 24 hour operation for Denny’s and IHOP and I did a little stint at Cracker Barrel. And then I really found my home here at Jason’s Deli where I’ve been able to thrive and just grow my career, my leadership skills. And so here I am now 20 years later.
Genevieve Babineau: So Gracie before we jump into the topic of building sales team and how labor trends are affecting the industry, I’d really love to get your thoughts on a few news trends that are creating a lot of buzz in the industry. We’re hearing about brands that are investing in tuition assistance in financial planning. Dunkin’ has a mentor program. What’s your take on this?
Gracie Prasanson: I think in order to be relevant and compete in today’s situation, you have to offer people something more than just a job. The development [of] your staff allows you to give them a career, to build a future, and any investments that you are making in them, you’re getting a return off of them. They’re in your store. They’re making decisions when they’re interacting with customers. They’re making decisions about finances. The more educated, developed, your employees are and that you invest in them, just the greater return you’re able to get as a business person.
Genevieve Babineau: I used to work with someone who would say hire right, train them right, treat them right. And I think it’s so fascinating when you hear leaders talk about, well, is it worth the ROI to invest in that? Or that’s a big line on your P&L. Do you see that return on investment at Jason’s Deli when you invest in your people?
Gracie Prasanson: Absolutely. People want to be developed. People want to be more. People want to do more. They want to contribute more. They just sometimes need a little push or a little bit more information to bring that out in themselves.
Genevieve Babineau: Great. I think that’s actually a really fitting news topic for our upcoming conversation today. Because you’ve spent, as I said, 20 years building the sales department at Jason’s Deli. You have a national sales team and I really would love to hear your take on navigating your own path because the sales department didn’t exist before you were on the scene. Is that correct?
Gracie Prasanson: That is correct.
Genevieve Babineau: So can you talk a little bit about your growth in your career from an individual contributor and sales person to now being the national director of sales for Jason’s Deli?
Gracie Prasanson: Absolutely. You know I’ve been with Jason’s, like you said Genevieve, for 20 years. When I started, I wasn’t in sales. I was in the store. I was executing catering orders. Building those relationships and that experience just continued to [bring a] spark a real passion in me for that side of the business and Jason Deli’s recognized that. So they gave me the opportunity to fake it till I make it, sometimes. And they invested in me and through their leadership and the networks that I’ve been able to cultivate in the side of the business; I’ve got a good handle on, hey this is what we can do to grow business. And they took a chance on me and they let me make mistakes. They let me have a couple failures and successes along the way.
Genevieve Babineau: So they got the right person on the bus. They chose you. They invested in your skills and then let you flourish.
Gracie Prasanson: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Genevieve Babineau: You keep saying the word relationship and this is something that as I think about community, that relationship component is so crucial. As you reflect on the Jason’s Deli customer, is this the same customer today that you had 20 years ago?
Gracie Prasanson: Oh and yes. Hands down.
Genevieve Babineau: And what makes them so special?
Gracie Prasanson: You know what makes them so special is, they’ve come to rely on you. You’ve been there for them in a pinch. It’s definitely a relationship that is a win-win on both sides. Not only are we able to grow our business but they’re able to rely on us in those short pinch notices. Or if they need something special they can ask. We’re gonna do whatever it takes to make them happy.
Genevieve Babineau: Find a way or make one!
Gracie Prasanson: Exactly!
Genevieve Babineau: So what do you think though, the catering customer. It seems like, that Jason’s Deli core value customer is very similar. How does that expand to the catering customer from Jason’s Deli and what are they specifically looking for?
Gracie Prasanson: You know the catering customer, they’re looking for a brand that they can count on. Someone who can be there with the right orders. Someone who can offer some guidance when they’re not sure of exactly which menu item to select. And they’re looking for you to be there on time with their order. They’re counting on you to make them look good to their supervisor, to the groups that they’re coordinating the orders for. You’re really an extension of them and that’s what is the biggest difference between a takeout customer a dining customer and a catering customer.
Genevieve Babineau: And you’re their support team.
Gracie Prasanson: Absolutely.
Genevieve Babineau: Do you bucket those customers differently when you’re coaching your sales team? Are you looking at B2B differently than you’re looking at B2C or different personas or experiences? How do you look at that customer?
Gracie Prasanson: You know each customer is very unique and what they need and they’re driven by different things. Some people really value a relationship. Some people might never want to talk to anyone. I’m going to place my orders online. I don’t want a relationship with you.
Genevieve Babineau: Handle it!
Gracie Prasanson: Exactly. And then you have those who want to be able to reach out for you and plan the menu for them. Other people are like nope I know what I want and I got this. I think the key thing is being able to stop, ask a couple qualifying questions, and just listen to the customer. And let the customer guide the conversation and what they want. Instead of you trying to sell them something, you’re offering them a solution to what they need.
Genevieve Babineau: You’re responding to their needs versus pushing your own agenda.
Gracie Prasanson: Exactly!
Genevieve Babineau: Who are those key personas in the catering world that are ordering at an exceptionally high level?
Gracie Prasanson: You know, I think you have two-fold from my experience. You have the office administrator [of those] Fortune 500 companies who were having meetings. They’re ordering, you know, weekly, biweekly. You have a sales rep. The sales rep is a key part of the catering business and their needs can be last moment. But I say those are the two personas who are really demanding catering on a regular basis.
Genevieve Babineau: How does your sales team approach those two people differently when they’re building that relationship?
Gracie Prasanson: That’s a great question. When I look at a sales person, their sales person. They’re selling. They’re time is in high demand. They are in front of a lot of people. I think they tend to less want to relationship with you. They just need the items there on time. They have their routine down and they’re counting on you to be there with the food when needed. Because your delivery is a part of their sales call and their job.
Genevieve Babineau: Both of us have been road warriors in the industry and I think that experience really helps me relate to that salesperson because they’re going a million miles a minute. They’re trying to get to their next event. They really don’t have the time to be dealing with a clunky experience or having things go wrong. They need it fast. They need it to work. They really need your team to make it happen for them.
Gracie Prasanson: Right, and then the administrative professional in the offices, they’re serving the same groups over and over again. They get a lot of last minute meetings so for them keeping your brand fresh for them and for the audience that they’re serving is something really important. I think they tend to want more of a relationship with you because they are using you on a frequent basis.
Genevieve Babineau: When I was executive assistant, right out of college, I always felt like it was such an underappreciated job. In some ways you were the backbone of that company making all the behind-the-scenes thing happen. And I find that, when I could market to an Ad Men and show my appreciation for everything they do and make them look great; That was the way to get that trust from them. So how do you show your appreciation to your admins that are ordering all this catering and maybe don’t even get a thank you on the other end? How does your team make them feel like the hero?
Gracie Prasanson: By being there when they need you. Whether it’s a week in advance or they might have a last minute meeting and need food there in an hour. I think the greatest thing you can do to take care of your office administrator, is be there on time, be there with the orders when they’re due, and continue to find out as a caterer how you can help them do their jobs.
Genevieve Babineau: Do you share a lot of anecdotal stories at Jason’s Deli about the needs of the consumer? Or have you done a lot of research, case studies? How are you collecting these insights?
Gracie Prasanson: You know, we talk with our customers.
Genevieve Babineau: Simple!
Gracie Prasanson: We go directly to them. What do we need to do for you? How can we serve you better? That’s the most important thing because again everyone’s needs are different. And if you’re listening to them, they’ll tell you what they’re wanting from you.
Genevieve Babineau: There’s no silver bullet?
Gracie Prasanson: None. If there was we’d all do it.
Genevieve Babineau: Is there anything that surprised you over the years? Maybe new trends or expectations in this persona?
Gracie Prasanson: You know, I think the thing that has surprised me the most, especially on the sales side, is what a risk it is for an admin to take that first step and order from you. And I think a lot of catering companies think all they need to do is hand out a menu and they’re going to order from you. NO! You really have to cultivate that relationship and show them as a brand, who you are. And because again, it is a risk, if you’re late or the order is not accurate, it’s going to be their fault.
Genevieve Babineau: And I think the demands of that catering customer, they have so many options right now. Technology is giving them more options. Booming restaurant industry and your competitors are out there. So how do you see these trends shifting in the face of technology and how do you identify opportunities for Jason’s to stand out amongst that noise?
Gracie Prasanson: That is a great question Genevieve. When you look at the oversaturation the marketplace, what is your brand differentiator amongst a sea of competitors. And at Jason’s Deli it’s all about, for us, food quality. It’s all about large portions. You have to do things a little differently and you have to be memorable. You can’t just deliver an order and think people are going to know, you know, who your brand is and call you back again.
Genevieve Babineau: Right!
Gracie Prasanson: It’s definitely competitive. And I really think that the on-demand movement right now, can make it very tricky. Because the expectation is only rising and people expect, you know, food in 30 minutes for 50 people. And that can be a real hard task to do and you have to be able to say yes because there are so many other people out there vying for that spend.
Genevieve Babineau: What about ease of execution and ease of ordering? What would you say to some of the brands out there who don’t invest in online ordering or don’t think that they need a digital presence in order to capture these catering sales?
Gracie Prasanson: You know, let’s face it, everyone is moving digital. People, you look around a room, everyone has their face on their phones. If you don’t have an online or a mobile presence, you don’t have the table stakes needed to even be in the game. You have to have that.
Genevieve Babineau: And it’s interesting too, as people are moving away from these old trends of having to pick up the phone to place that order. Or, you know, just hoping that these catering orders are going to walk right in your door. It’s amazing to see the brands who are truly embracing catering and embracing technology that will support it just see it as an opportunity for more connection with their guests. So how do you think automation has helped your team get back to the basics of hospitality and focus on what’s really important?
Gracie Prasanson: That’s a great question. I know for us, at Jason’s Deli, not only are we, delivering to offices all around us; But you have customers in front of you that you have to give attention to. So I think the technology is kind of aided in that a little bit. You’re able to do a little less with more because you don’t have to have people answering the phones. You aren’t interrupting a customer placing their order to pick up a ringing phone. So, I do think technology is a good accelerator and I do think it can have some labor savings at the same time.
Genevieve Babineau: There are a lot of trends right now, we’re seeing, in many states that the labor and minimum wage is going up to $15, $16 in some states. So you look at the next decade how do you see restaurants reacting to these trends and how can catering offset some of those concerns?
Gracie Prasanson: That’s a good point. I was in McDonald’s this weekend. Don’t ask me why? Anyway, I was placing an order and I placed it on a kiosk. And I was like, thinking to myself, there was absolutely no interaction with anyone. So I’m thinking how does a brand differentiate themselves or, you know, define themselves. And I think that translates into catering. Catering can be a very good avenue for you to be able to grow your top line so that you have a little bit more to invest on that labor line. Because let’s face it, it’s only going to continue to get higher and more difficult to operate within that space. So you have to have some type of channel to offset the rising costs.
Genevieve Babineau: Opening your doors with a thousand dollars in catering before you even open for business is a pretty powerful moment. Do you see your operators getting even more onboard when they see the power of starting the day off with some awesome sales?
Gracie Prasanson: Absolutely, you know we’ve been delivering for over 32 two years at Jason’s Deli. And if an operator walks in and they don’t have $2000 in catering, they’re calling the sales department, “hey, I need more sales here.” That is a key thing to being able to be profitable in this environment.
Genevieve Babineau: How do you decide whether you put a salaried salesperson in place or whether you invest in the hourly ranks in any given restaurant?
Gracie Prasanson: That’s a good question. Just like you’re talking about with, you know, the labor pressures. A salesperson, a skilled qualified salesperson is a very large investment for a restaurant to make. And you have to get a high return out of that. So, for us, it’s more looking at the density of a market, looking at the business of the market, and saying, OK, do I have someone who can go knock on doors? Or do I need this qualified salesperson to get back behind the scenes in front of all the catering decision makers to really grow volume of catering? So knowing what your market is and applying the right resource is key in getting a good return. Because if you’re investing in a salesperson and you’re not able to generate those high amounts of catering volume, you’re not going to get a good return. It’s only gonna make your situation worse.
Genevieve Babineau: When you’re investing in that seasoned sales expert. Is your expectation that they’re the one interacting with those high value personas, as you said earlier, the Ad Men who’s ordering 10 times a day. Or is your expectation that they’re also getting involved in the local community?
Gracie Prasanson: That’s a great question. It’s two skill-sets and if you’re investing in a high quality sales person and you’re having them attend the taste of, your kind of investing in the wrong spot. You really need to keep your highest paid sales person on the highest opportunity and use other avenues to cover those other things. Because you can’t get that high dollar return out of a taste of that you can out of doing presentations to a lot of offices.
Genevieve Babineau: I couldn’t agree more. I love hearing the way Jason’s (Deli) looks at the scenario and says, OK in this restaurant, it’s a major metro. I need the seasoned salesperson to be going talk to KPMG and Deloitte or Wells Fargo. How are they getting their foot in the door with these really big gatekeepers and decision makers? But meanwhile you see the value in local community and that’s where the hourly can come in and really support and grow their business.
Gracie Prasanson: Absolutely everyone on your staff can be a brand ambassador. You, as a business person, have to look at your financials and you have to invest where you’re going to get a return. And labor it all, whether it’s a salesperson or a person side your store. It’s all coming from your labor line.
Genevieve Babineau: What other persona, evolution insights do you see happening in the next year even with trends in technology, you know, access to options? How do you see this consumer continuing to evolve over the next year?
Gracie Prasanson: I think it’s only going to continue to evolve. You know, right now we’ve had so much change in the last three years with third party and in the delivery space. And it really hasn’t impacted catering that much. It’s more of that individual meal so I am wondering what that’s going to look like over the next five years in the catering space for those companies much like myself, who have really invested and grown that operation.
Genevieve Babineau: Great. I would love to ask you one more question. As you think about your career, what’s some of the advice that you really treasure, value and you’d want to pass on to our listeners?
Gracie Prasanson: It’s a good question. I think the advice is…Don’t think you know everything. You don’t have to have all the answers. When you’re growing in your career or when you’re developing a new line at a restaurant, you need mentors. You need people who have done it for a long time. And I always say you need mentors for a reason, for a season and for a lifetime. And when you’re looking at catering, like, you reach out to those people who are willing to help you. It’s ok not to have all the answers.
Gracie Prasanson: I think that failing is how you learn. It’s not a mistake. It’s a learning opportunity and sometimes some of your greatest failures can become your greatest accolades at the same time. So, I say fail until you don’t.
Genevieve Babineau: Love it. Well I really enjoyed learning from you. So thank you so much for joining us on the podcast and it’s just been a delight to chat with you.
Gracie Prasanson: No. Thank you Genevieve, it’s been great.
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