What’s Hot in Takeout and Catering?

For many restaurants — particularly full-service — takeout and large-order catering are much more important revenue streams than they were five years ago. Recent polling reveals that consumers now plan to order food for takeout or delivery most often from limited-service restaurants and are more amenable to dining in at full-service restaurants. Yet a quarter of consumers who make a habit of takeout say they order from casual-dining restaurants both during the week and on weekends, with the balance tipped toward pizza delivery on weeknights and toward carryout from casual-dining chains and ethnic eateries on weekends.

Lately, takeout and catering have gotten a boost from the growth of Internet ordering and third-party online “daily deal” sites. Four in 10 consumers polled this spring reported they have increased their use of restaurant discounts, coupons and promotions, and three in 10 report that they are making increased use of online deal sites. Both independent and chain restaurants are offering more local-area deals. Subway, for instance, made news when it signed on as one of the initial partners for Google’s new Google Wallet mobile-payment smartphone app — which works in conjunction with Google Offers, a couponing site that allows users to save deals to their Wallet. Subway was attracted to the idea that it could reach consumers with deals via their smartphones just before they make the decision on where to source a takeaway lunch.

As the takeout and catering game has grown more sophisticated and competitive, diners have come to expect more. Trends include:

  • More attention and resources devoted to large-order catering. Bob Evans, which last year introduced a catering program, followed up with the recent launch of Family Meals To Go, including turkey and dressing, roasts, meat loaf, chicken entrées and pasta dishes; each meal comes with bread and a choice of side dish, serves three to four, and is priced at less than $20. Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes tested box meals as a catering alternative to buffet setups. Fast-casual concepts are making operational improvements to boost takeout and catering: Panera Bread enhanced packaging, upgraded technology, added designated pickup areas in stores, and is looking into adding more drive-thru units; Mama Fu’s Asian House is rolling out a smaller-format prototype with a redesigned point-of-sale area to serve both dine-in and takeout customers quickly.
  • Quick-service catering for local businesses. Both Krispy Kreme and a McDonald’s franchisee have been testing delivery service for large orders from local businesses; in both cases, orders can be placed online.
  • Healthful and calorie-controlled meals. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen rolled out a new line of healthier items as well as gallon-size beverages for group takeout; the Louisiana Leaux menu offers dishes with less fat, calories and sodium, including Naked Chicken Tenders as well as new sides of green beans and applesauce. A coffee chain added 500-calorie-and-under grab-and-go boxed meals; a Mexican fast-casual concept introduced under-400-calorie bowl meals; and a bagel eatery debuted a line of lunchtime salads that contain 330 calories or fewer.
  • "Green” packaging. More than four out of 10 consumers say they’d like restaurants to improve such offerings. Baja Fresh Mexican Grill rolled out biodegradable, recycled and recyclable packaging, including unbleached burrito wrappers, unbleached paper bags, biodegradable plates, and to-go bags made of 50% recycled plastic. KFC introduced eco-friendly reusable containers for side dishes: microwave- and dishwasher-safe clear plastic bowls topped with red lids that feature leak-resistant “ventless vent” technology to allow moisture to escape.
  • More varied, informal special-occasion promotions. In today’s intense competitive environment, the upcoming winter holidays are sure to see a blizzard of catering deals for home entertaining. But operators are increasingly pushing takeout and catering for informal entertaining as well. Beef ‘O’Brady’s promoted its Party Pleaser Platters and deli selections for Super Bowl parties, and Taco Bell marked college football’s bowl season with a pair of Touchdown 5 Buck Boxes, each featuring five menu items served in special packaging.

Want to boost your takeout and catering business in time for the winter rush? Some tips to consider:

  • Maximize business by offering options: individual box meals, platters, family-style salads, individual and bulk beverages, and packages for catered meetings or parties. Offer options for different party sizes, offer options in advance-order requirements, offer options for service style.

  • Price competitiveness is essential in the age of online deals, but be sure not to overcomplicate things unnecessarily. Some operators are introducing easy-to-understand “everyday low pricing” such as the No Coupons Menu at Me-N-Ed’s Pizzeria: personal pizzas for $4, oven-baked sandwiches for $5 and large pizzas for $10, $11 and $12 depending on toppings.
  • Make it easy for takeout customers and catering decision-makers with the fastest, most efficient online and mobile ordering system you can afford. Bob Evans rolled out an online ordering service, compatible with iPhones and select smartphones, which features a group-ordering function: event hosts can take individual orders from group members and set an order budget.
  • Improve execution with order accuracy and confirmation systems. At Au Bon Pain, each order is checked by three people — manager, assembler and validator — and managers place follow-up calls to the customer.