Catering is defined by the food industry as “the activity of providing food and beverage for events.”
While catering has long been a lucrative business for many hotels, club stores and full-service catering businesses, there has developed a growing trend as the economy has improved for restaurants to fill down time and build revenue by adding or expanding social catering services.
Grand Strand restaurants gearing up to cash in on the rebounding catering industry is a reflection of that trend, forecasted by industry studies to bring in more than $9.08 billion in the U.S. in 2015.
Carolina Roadhouse Office Manager Meloney Cooke, who oversees the restaurant’s catering business, said they have seen a significant increase in customer requests for catering services over the last year.
Cooke said the casual eatery, operated by a restaurant management company, is part of a group of restaurants that includes California Dreaming and Burro Loco. A corporate decision made two years ago prompted all the restaurants in the group to beef up their catering efforts, she said.
“We are trying to step it (catering) up a bit to make good use of down time,” Cooke said. “It is an opportunity to have some sales that would not normally be there.”
“It is about convenience.” Bentley Thurlow, Olive Garden
Statistics shared by the National Restaurant Association reveals that restaurants are generating more revenue by adding catering to their list of services. They say restaurants are generating about four times more catering revenue than retailers such as club stores. The association recommends to be successful, restaurant management should determine which type of catering to offer, develop a specific menu and designate a catering staff. In addition, they should establish a marketing plan and make sure their kitchen and equipment are designed to support the extra work volume.
Curry Martin, owner and chef at Aspen Grille in Myrtle Beach, said he has observed a definite increase in catering in the area over the past couple of years as the U.S. economy has begun to recover from the financial crisis that struck almost seven years ago.
“We have had the restaurant since 2009 and there is definitely more interest as the economy has improved,” Martin said. “More local companies are entertaining clients, and even locals are entertaining friends and family for special events like engagement parties and even supper clubs more than in previous years.”
While restaurants like Carolina Roadhouse do mostly drop off catering for doctor’s offices and other business events, there are more and more requests coming in for full-service catering like the Oct. 10 event the restaurant catered for close to 400 members of an area homeowners association.
The surge in catering has also touched a quickly developing fast casual market with restaurants like the newly opened Z’s Amazing Kitchen in North Myrtle Beach adding catering to its menu of services. Catering has additionally found a place with food providers that offer a strictly takeout menu.
Troy Lottchea, manager of Get Carried Away Southern Takeout in Pawleys Island, said the 5-year-old business has been catering for the last four years due to customer demand. He said he is definitely seeing an uptick in catering requests.
“We were looking for something to further the restaurant so when a couple of people came in and asked for help we started catering,” he said.
Lottchea said the restaurant responds to numerous requests for the more casual wedding rehearsal dinner and office luncheons. They feature low country favorites such as chicken pilau (pronounced per-lo and defined as a close cousin to the traditional Southern dish known as chicken bog) and recently catered a low country boil for 60 for an area business.
Even the larger chains like Olive Garden say catering is a growing segment of their market.
Bentley Thurlow, general manager of the Highway 501 Olive Garden location, said the ability to place catering orders online was added as an option about a year ago.
“A significant area is the fact that people have the ability to order online and plan ahead,” Thurlow said. “It is relatively new for us and we’ve seen a significant increase in people taking advantage of it. It is about convenience.”
Thurlow said businesses that plan to cater meetings appreciate being able to place an order online, pick up their order of pan lasagna, pastas and breadsticks and get it back to the office quickly.
To ensure their catering business stays competitive with other restaurants in the area, Travinia Italian Kitchen has developed a catering sales team with a catering director over the last 18 months to build catering business in its restaurants located in five states including South Carolina.
Nicholle Pearl-Stancell, catering sales manager and assistant general manager of Travinia’s location at The Market Common in Myrtle Beach, said the restaurants have been catering for about three years but have focused more specifically on catering in recent months. Each store now has a catering sales manager with specific staff to help onsite, with drop-offs or during full-service events.
“We’ve seen an increase in it in Myrtle Beach alone,” Pearl-Stancell said, noting the growing social catering trend. “Now it is easier to go with catering from a restaurant where you can get exactly what you want rather than with a place where you have to take a set menu at a set price and there is no bartering. We have packages, but we can tweak them to make it what you want.”
Angela Nicholas is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.