Winning new catering business is like reaching into a honeypot. That’s because catering orders average $283 a pop—15 times more than the typical delivery order. For this reason, many operators are on a quest to catch more catering customers. But too often they start with the wrong assumptions about what drives customer decisions.
To help restaurants make better decisions about their catering business, we dedicated a panel at CaterUp! to hearing from our high-value catering customers. It was a great opportunity to learn what catering customers experience and expect. Our audience had more questions than our customers could answer during the timed Q&A segment. So we’re responding to those unanswered questions in a four-part follow-up, starting with this one on consumer decisions.
Here are our customer panelists:
- Zack Schnyder, Events Coordinator
- Megan Price, Manager of Global Accounts
- Christina Barbaro, U.S. Events Manager
- Tim Mariakakis, Account Executive
1. What’s your process for ordering catering for a meeting? Do dietary preferences and restrictions play a role?
- Zack Schnyder: I usually have my go-to choices in mind. These are caterers that consistently deliver great catering and are always on time. Then I ask the people hosting the meeting about their preferred cuisine and go from there. Next, I look at ratings. I typically won’t choose a caterer with less than 4.8/5 stars.
- Megan Price: It depends on the meeting. For instance, pizza may be fine for an informal internal meeting, but it’s too casual for VIP or prospective clients. On top of that, board meetings require different food. As far as food preferences and dietary restrictions are concerned: yes, I always try to order catering that will work with everyone’s dietary needs.
- Christina Barbaro: I tend to order from the most reliable caterers unless I’m asked to put other factors first. I like to offer a wide variety of food while being budget conscious. I always include one vegetarian and one gluten-free option for each order.
- Tim Mariakakis: I usually go with options that work with the dietary restrictions and preferences of the office. From there, I choose the restaurant with the best catering options to satisfy those needs. This is why options and variety are important!
2. Do clients influence your ordering decisions? To what extent do they get to decide?
- Christina Barbaro: My clients’ dietary needs and preferences may limit my options in terms of cuisine. But as long as I find caterers that meet those needs, I have autonomy over the orders.
3. On average, how much do you spend on orders?
- Zack Schnyder: $15 per head for breakfast; $20 for lunch.
- Christina Barbaro: $30 per head for breakfast; $50 per head for lunch; $125 per head for dinner.
4. What factors influence your ordering decisions? What makes a caterer stand out? What would convince you to try a new caterer?
- Zack Schnyder: Consistency is key. I want to make sure that my people won’t go hungry. If you want me to try a new place, that caterer better have a 4.8/5-star review average and a 5x reward points status.
- Megan Price: Yikes. There are so many factors that go into my decisions! Does the restaurant have a varied menu? Is it easy to customize items? In particular, the ability to customize salads is huge. I’d love to see checkboxes next to every salad offer on the menu. This way customers can get exactly what they need. I’m envisioning checkboxes for modifying orders: add meat, remove cheese (a vegan-friendly option), or cheese on the side. I also love seeing menus with DIY catering packages. These are bundled packages that include proteins and sides of your choice. On a side note, I think it’s best to offer customers a tiered pricing model for catering packages. For instance, if I’m ordering catering for a small 10-person meeting, I can order a customizable catering package that includes, say, two proteins/entrées, three sides, and cookies. Whereas if I’m planning a 25-person reception, I can get a larger catering package higher up the tier (e.g., “pick three proteins”, “pick five proteins”, and so on).
- Christina Barbaro: I tend to choose caterers located within five to ten miles from my office. Working with these parameters, I often filter out restaurants that don’t have 4- or 5-star ratings. Caterers that stand out to me are the ones that take the time to meet us customers and understand our operation. Packaging and delivery are also big factors for consideration. I’m always open to trying new caterers as my clients want variety. I think consumer ratings do drive my decisions.
- Tim Mariakakis: Here are the factors that influence my decisions: Are they local? Does the menu offer a wide variety of choices? Am I going to get a bang for my buck, as far as earning reward points? Consistency and variety make a caterer stand out. It doesn’t take much to convince me to try a new caterer. It’s enticing when a caterer is offering 5x reward points.
5. How many options do you consider before choosing a caterer?
- Zack Schnyder: I usually narrow my search results using the filters for ratings and rewards.
- Megan Price: It depends on whether I’m reordering food from an established vendor or looking to try a new option.
- Christina Barbaro: Typically, I look at no more than three options.
- Tim Mariakakis: I look at two to three caterers.
6. What would make you decide to swear off a caterer?
- Zack Schnyder: Low ratings.
- Megan Price: A no-show, for sure, and even a delay without notification. Also, if items are forgotten and no effort is made to correct the issue.
- Christina Barbaro: If they messed up and did not at least try to rectify the situation.
- Tim Mariakakis: Showing up late or not showing up at all. If you’re late, you get one more chance.
7. Do fees for utensils and disposable plates deter you from using a caterer? What fees are reasonable?
- Zack Schnyder: If I’m buying the food, the utensils should be included in the price. It’s not a deal-breaker; it just makes the caterer look like they are nickel-and-diming you.
- Megan Price: No, I generally have utensils on hand.
- Christina Barbaro: No. Those items are necessary and if having those utensils makes my life easier, then I’m all for it. I wouldn’t want to pay more than the standard price of disposable tableware from a grocery store.
- Tim Mariakakis: No. Just make the terms of the fee absolutely clear. Paying $1.50 to $2.00 per setup is reasonable. Though if the fee were higher, I would not be deterred from moving forward with an order.
8. How do you feel about delivery fees? What’s a reasonable delivery fee?
- Zack Schnyder: I typically tip 20 percent minus the delivery fee. I’ll rarely order from a place with a delivery fee over $30.
- Megan Price: It depends on the size or the complexity of the order, but I think a fee over $25 is steep for basic drop-offs. If your business provides food off-premises, and if you want corporate business customers, it’s your responsibility to deliver the food to the customer, right?
- Christina Barbaro: It’s necessary. I understand that caterers need to cover the costs of labor and gas expenses. I think the fee should be based on distance and the size of the order. I don’t think the fee should ever be more than $75.
- Tim Mariakakis: I don’t mind them. A flat fee or a fee based on distance is fair.
9. To what extent are you influenced by incentives and loyalty rewards?
- Zack Schnyder: These factors are very important to me. There are plenty of caterers that offer 5x reward points. With this in mind, caterers should offer those incentives as a way to keep up with the competition.
- Megan Price: I’m more likely to actively promote a service or a vendor if I can earn a reward. I search for vendors based on bonus points and discover new caterers from this channel.
- Christina Barbaro: For me, rewards are not important. I just need someone I can rely on to get the job done.
- Tim Mariakakis: Rewards are very important. Incentives and rewards are up there with other factors that are important to me: variety and whether a restaurant is local.
10. Why do you use ezCater rather than order directly from restaurants?
- Zack Schnyder: Because the ordering process is always the same with ezCater. There’s no guesswork.
- Megan Price: I have insurance with ezCater: if anything goes wrong, I don’t have to deal with it because ezCater will handle no-shows and delays, and compensate me for the trouble.
- Christina Barbaro: Having one interface, one password, and one billing system makes the process so much faster. When things go wrong, the ezCater support team are always on it. They are trustworthy and reliable.
- Tim Mariakakis: When I’m on the phone with the company, ezCater treats me as if I were their only, most important customer. I’ve never been put on hold or passed off to someone else. Also, they provide a great experience from order to delivery, and they have fail-safes in case anything goes wrong.
Key findings about our customers:
- Their ordering decisions are always guided by dietary requests and they want vegetarian and gluten-free options.
- They typically avoid caterers whose ratings dip below 4.8 or 5 stars.
- They say they spend between $15-30 per head for breakfast; $20-50 per head for lunch; and up to $125 per head for dinner.
- They love incentives and prefer using caterers who offer 5x reward points.
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