2010 March: Corporate Catering

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Some pizzerias look to set themselves apart from the competition by providing extra services and conveniences to corporate clients. One example is Armand’s Pizzeria, with nine locations throughout metropolitan Washington, D.C.

For years, the chain has had fi ve catering trucks as part of its delivery fl eet that are equipped with a propane fueled warming oven where pizzas can be baked in their final stages to promote freshness. It also opens up various Armand’s locations to handle other orders when large catering needs are required, said owner Ron Newmyer.

“We had a situation a few weeks back where we had to make and deliver 450 pizzas within a 90-minute time span,” Newmyer said. “That would have been hard for us to do while taking care of other orders without the trucks.”

By setting up with tablecloths and then providing heat lamps to keep food warm, Newmyer says he and his staff are able to promote a “buffet on wheels” concept to corporate clients.

“It’s a different level of service than many of our competitors offer, although it does require manpower, equipment upkeep and more,” says Newmyer, who estimates that up to 10 percent of his revenue comes from corporate clients.

Securing profitable corporate catering customers requires time, financial investments and creativity, according to pizzeria and restaurant owners, marketers and industry consultants.

One of the biggest challenges in attracting catering customers is overcoming perceptions of the pizza industry in general. Traditional caterers offer a broad, traditional menu that will often include meats, seafood, salads and more. These individual caterers or restaurants also are typically more expensive.

“We’re not the traditional choice when companies think of caterers, because big restaurants and catering companies come to mind,” says Carey Hamilton, director of field marketing for Marco’s Pizza, a franchise with more than 170 stores nationwide. “But our pizza is our best marketing device.”

Corporate customers comprise a small percentage of business for Ken Denfeld, owner of Godfather’s Pizza in Portland, Oregon.
Yet he has spent a significant amount of time working with store managers and even hiring a sales professional to help promote his catering and large-scale lunch services to businesses around the Portland metro area.

Denfeld has consistently promoted his location’s expertise in catering in print and online advertisements. He works with his staff to engage potential customers as part of informal networking campaigns to drum up corporate business.

“The biggest challenge we face is that business customers don’t think of pizzerias as a catering option,” Denfeld says.

Godfather’s Pizza is a franchise headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, with locations across the country. Denfeld has had success in getting orders from local businesses who are hosting employee appreciation events, or large groups of employees who want to pool money to order multiple pizzas from an office setting. But the large-scale catering jobs have been difficult to fund.

“We really work with our managers to get them to network with the business community, and some have had some success that has added to our revenue,” Denfeld says. “But our managers have so many other responsibilities around running the restaurant.”

In addition, some managers don’t have a significant sales background and may not be comfortable taking more of an active sales role, Denfeld says. “It takes a dynamic person, and we don’t want to take away from the day-to-day management duties.”

Marco’s Pizza offers its franchise owners some general tips and practices that can appeal to corporate customers. Hamilton recommends that pizzeria owners and managers adhere to simple strategies that involve face-to-face marketing techniques.

Asking for business can be another humble, but effective, tool when interacting with corporate prospects. “We’ve been welcomed when our franchisors have taken that approach,” Hamilton says. “We tell our owners and managers that you don’t want to engage in hard selling; but even if you can introduce yourself to a new business in a matter of a few seconds, that time can be valuable.”

One of the keys to building a successful catering business is letting customers know that you can customize orders and menu items to meet their needs, says Clark Wolf, owner and president of the Clark Wolf Company, a New York City-based restaurant and food consulting firm.

Reduced corporate budgets make discount offers even more important than ever before, Wolf says. That is especially true for pizzerias and Italian restaurants, which traditionally have been willing to offer discounts to individual or business customers in any geographical market.

“I think a significant discount offer is really a home run now, and it’s something companies are carefully looking at,” Wolf says. “All you want to do is get companies to taste your food. And when they become sold on the taste, you’ll have a new customer.”

Wolf suggests that pizzerias spend more time on personally marketing their menu items than on largescale advertising campaigns. Sending restaurant associates or college students around to local businesses with free samples at lunchtime can be an effective way to promote within a corporate environment, he says. Low-cost open houses targeting corporate “neighbors,” complete with e-mail and printed invitations, can also be effective.

While one goal is to get customers to taste your food, another is to get the contact name(s) and information of those individuals within a company responsible for organizing food for company events, client meetings and banquets. The individuals typically given these responsibilities include office managers, marketing managers and other administrative personnel.

“Get to know these people and really develop relationships with them,” Wolf says. “They are your key contacts, and if you keep them happy and keep your restaurant’s name at the top of their minds, you’ll be in great shape.”

Denfeld hired a semi-retired sales professional a couple of years ago who was responsible for drumming up more corporate business. The individual worked nearly eight months for Godfather’s Pizza and enjoyed only modest success.

That model of using a sales professional would likely work if Denfeld had more stores to promote, he said. “I could justify the cost of adding a full-time sales professional if we had more stores and more revenue to support a good sales person,” he says.

Outside sales professionals might have good corporate contacts, but in his experience they have less passion than owners and managers when marketing a restaurant to the business community, Hamilton believes. The key is not only marketing your menu items to prospective corporate customers, but to become an active part of the community.

“That’s the strategy that our most successful stores adhere to,” Hamilton says. “When a franchise is visible and active, it is reflected in their revenue (numbers). Our customers are the schools, the manufacturing plants, (charitable) organizations and businesses of all sizes.

“So when we’re active in the community, we have a much better chance of attracting corporate catering jobs.” ?

Mike Scott
is a Michigan-based freelance writer who covers a variety of business-related topics.