CATERING MEALS

LA CROSSE, Wis. -- Quillin's here is aiming its catering program at corporations and colleges, in a new bid to boost sales and profit.The company is just starting to develop an aggressive marketing plan to chase those two business segments, said Nancy Rand, deli supervisor for the nine-unit retailer. Quillin's wants to concentrate on such accounts because they represent "ongoing business."Included

LA CROSSE, Wis. -- Quillin's here is aiming its catering program at corporations and colleges, in a new bid to boost sales and profit.

The company is just starting to develop an aggressive marketing plan to chase those two business segments, said Nancy Rand, deli supervisor for the nine-unit retailer. Quillin's wants to concentrate on such accounts because they represent "ongoing business."

Included in the new marketing thrust will be cold calls to companies and schools to tell them about Quillin's catering capabilities, and a detailed strategy to follow up after catered events in order to gather maximum feedback and set the stage for future business.

The company is also assembling a book of color photographs taken at events it has catered.

"We're just getting more professional. We know that people don't usually know what they want when they're looking for a caterer. We've found that if we don't give them suggestions and give them personalized attention, we're not meeting their needs," Rand said.

She stressed that in the quest for repeat business it is essential to have a good follow-up system. "We look at corporate accounts, especially, as not just today's business but as our future [in catering]."

The company has begun to call accounts a few days after events in an attempt to make personal appointments with the customers to discuss what they liked or didn't like.

"If they want to sit down and talk to you, they'll make an appointment. Or, if they don't want to take the time for a personal meeting, they'll make that clear on the telephone," Rand said. But the point is that Quillin's has offered to come out and sit down and talk after an event, she explained.

"We'll get valuable feedback that way -- and we do on the telephone," she said. The company will also develop an evaluation sheet also for customers to complete.

She said Quillin's waits a few days before making the follow-up call. "For example, when we catered on employee party for 2,000 at a local hospital, we waited a week before we called. That way, they have time to get some feedback themselves from the people who attended," Rand explained.

At that party, Quillin's rolled out a new, professional twist to its off-site catering. A team of four Quillin's employees carved prime rib and turkey breast at the party.

"That was the first time we've done the carving right there, not in the kitchen. It added some theater, and we had our people dressed in tuxedo shirts and bow ties and cummerbunds. It was impressive," Rand said.

"You really have to build credibility when you're doing catering. That's why the professional-looking dress is so important. And that's why we had photos taken at the hospital event. That was our largest event yet," she added.

Further penetration of such accounts is also in Quillin's marketing plan. For instance, the company will solicit business for conference luncheons and box lunch breakfasts from that same hospital account, Rand said.

Quillin's sees a large part of its future growth lying in catering. "People talk about food service in the store as way to distinguish yourself, and you can, but catering is also a good way to do it," Rand said. She added that catering in general can no longer be "just throwing some things into a roaster, or supplying picnic items. It means having a really upscale menu and plan."

Most of Quillin's catering fare, like its deli fare, is made from scratch, and Rand said the company is making sure its center-of-the-plate items are made from scratch in order to assure top quality.

"For instance, a lot of people who cater bring in meatballs, but we don't. We make our own," she said, adding that there are other ways labor can be cut without compromising quality.

A case in point is one new menu item at Quillin's that is not labor intensive at all, "brie tortes, for example, from recipes supplied to us by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. We can make a torte from a 6-pound brie with a paste made from ripe olives and walnuts. We just cut the brie in two with a wire and add the filling, and then decorate the top. It takes 10 minutes, looks terrific, and we can charge $75 for it," Rand said.

At this point, catering falls under the company's deli department, but as business grows it could be split off as a separate department, Rand said.