It’s a good time to be in the catering business. When consumers host gatherings, they don’t hesitate to use their local restaurant or supermarket to supply the food.
“Catering is very popular because this time of year consumers are entertaining at home, they’re going to parties, they’re going to potlucks and what we’ve learned over the past few years is there’s no longer any stigma associated with purchasing prepared foods,” said Melissa Wilson, principal at the research firm Technomic.
Consumers don’t even feel the need to hide that they didn’t make the food by transferring the product to their own platters, she said.
“So there’s ripe opportunity for certainly supermarkets to expand their catering offerings.”
And some retailers are seizing this opportunity.
This year Publix Super Markets introduced its first catering service, Aprons Event Planning Catering, which takes care of all aspects of party planning. The service, run through Publix’s cooking school, is available at the Plantation and Jacksonville, Fla., locations and will soon expand to Lakeland, Fla.
Spokesperson Nicole Krauss called the service “one-stop shopping.”
The program extends past food preparation, also providing setup, serving, cleanup, delivery, floral and full beverage service. Publix can even take care of arranging venues and rental of tables, linens and flatware.
“We assist our customers in planning and executing the perfect event, from intimate dinner gatherings to lavish events and everything in-between,” said Publix spokesperson Maria Brous.
Shoppers work with an Aprons event planner and a chef to develop a menu and coordinate the event details — even the table settings, Krauss said.
“It’s all about the customer, any kind of custom event,” Krauss said.
In addition to custom menu plans, Publix has a catering menu available organized by silver, gold and platinum options. Pickled okra tea sandwiches are a “silver” hors d’oeuvres, while maple chipotle scallops are in the “platinum” category.
As for entrees, pepper-crusted pork loin with pineapple chutney is a silver option, and grilled rib-eye steak with bleu cheese butter is on the gold menu.
The retailers that are succeeding in the catering realm are adapting to modern flavor combinations and really taking advantage of supermarket resources.
But for a lot of the industry, there’s a lot of room for improvement.
Amazingly, 77% of shoppers haven’t ever used a supermarket catering service, according to the market research group Datassential.
In fact, in recent Technomic research, Wilson said, “We did observe restaurants are starting to take some share away from supermarkets in that regard.”
The loss of share to restaurants is partly due to retailers not putting the same innovation they put into their regular prepared food offerings into their catering program, according to Wilson.
The United Family’s Market Street banner avoids this problem by making most of its prepared food offerings available for catering, as well as some special catering-only options like mascarpone-stuffed strawberries and signature slider sandwiches.
Breakfast usually has the most unimaginative options on catering menus, but Market Street’s includes muffins baked from scratch, breakfast casseroles and Market Street Migas — described on the menu as “Texas-style scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers, cheese and fresh fried tortilla strips” with chile sauce.
For parties of 12 people or more, customers can order a baked potato bar, fajita bar or Indian-style buffet.
“It’s a big business for us,” corporate chef Chris Wilson said about the program. “It’ll easily, in our Market Street stores, be 5% to 7% of the [prepared food department] business a week.”
Market Street does a lot of pickup catering, but also delivers with store vans and staffs full-service events like weddings and luncheons.
“We’ve done up to 1,200 people plated, served,” Wilson said.
For those large events, the production process is streamlined by careful organization and by the fact that many of the catering items are on the regular prepared food store menu.
Wilson said the catering department gets 50 orders a day. Stores have a concierge available to help shoppers plan their event with the catering guide on an iPad for quick viewing.
While menu and service are important aspects of any catering program, the most critical step may be to let shoppers know that the program exists.
When Datassential asked consumers for the reasons why they are not ordering catered items, 16% said they don’t even know if their grocery store does catering.
“Most people realize that they can go to their local supermarket and get a cake for a birthday. For a lot of people it just kind of stops right there and they don’t realize there are other things that they can get there, other things that can be catered,” said Brian Darr, managing director at Datassential.
“So the store needs to work a lot harder at building that awareness.”
In addition to social media promotion, in-store signs and print advertising, Market Street holds a holiday expo every year to highlight its seasonal catering.
“We feature all of our holiday meals and all of our sides as well as our full catering entertaining guide promotion where we’ll have sample platters and trays, and the bakery will have their stuff and floral will be doing some fantastic stuff and people can sample everything,” said Wilson.
Read more: SN's special Fresh Meals landing page
Despite this advertising, Wilson has found word of mouth to be the best way to gain new customers.
“People know now wherever we’re at that we’ll do a fantastic job. They know us and know our reputation. The word of mouth has helped us grow just tremendously over the past few years.”
Both Darr and Melissa Wilson suggested supermarkets better leverage their wide array of products with bundles that restaurants can’t provide.
“So if they start to kind of think about what’s available in that store, and is the catering area department another way to kind of sell some of these items and freshen up their menu,” said Darr.
He suggested supermarkets put together creative packages like a full picnic with cooler, drinks and food, or a dip spread with rolls and bread from the bakery.
Price Chopper Catering Guide
Price Chopper, for one, has the entire store participate in its catering guide, which is updated with new offerings twice a year.
“It involves every department, and we’re constantly trying to make that better,” said John Mazzacco, Price Chopper’s manager of foodservice and culinary concepts.
The guide includes items from prepared foods, floral, bakery, meat and seafood departments.
Mazzacco said the offerings are intended to prompt customers to think of Price Chopper when they are entertaining at home.
“It’s turning your grocery store into your caterer.”
Fully utilizing the resources of being a grocery store gives Price Chopper an advantage over the competition.
“It’s hard for a regular mom-and-pop caterer to do what we do,” said Mazzacco, noting the store’s versatility to offer anything from rack of lamb to prime rib. Certain locations can customize orders.
Price Chopper also gains customers with a quick turnaround time.
“We only need a day’s notice, and we’re on it.”
While most of Price Chopper’s catering is for pick-up, there is limited delivery at certain stores as well as the chain’s New York-style deli Ben & Bill’s concept.
Catering has been growing enough that the retailer has had some requests to host events and offer catering in-store.
Price Chopper is looking into whether it would be possible to repurpose a space for these type of events in the future.
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