The Line on Online

The Web and e-mail may be the best way to reach customers.

Non-commercial foodservice operators are gleaning a variety of benefits from reaching out to customers electronically. Marketing dining services has become more convenient than ever before, for both operators and customers, thanks to high-tech tools like the Internet and broadcast e-mail promotions.

Weaving a Web for customers: "We put the menu out on the Web here weekly," says Singh Dosanjh, general manager for Overland Park, KS-based Treat America Catering at YRC Worldwide. "It’s a great tool."

FoodService Director - Online marketingYRC Worldwide, a transportation company located in Overland Park, has a single cafeteria to serve its approximately 1,800 employees. The cafeteria’s offerings are posted right on YRC’s intranet site, nicknamed Yellow Fast Lane.

"Whenever employees click on the site, it links up with the menu," notes Dosanjh. The various menus that YRC employees can check out at their desks include items such as vegetable quiche, bacon and tomato omelet with hash browns, a breakfast burrito and Egg McMyron, for breakfast; and beef burrito with Spanish rice and refried beans, tuna melt on English muffin, buttermilk fried chicken with scalloped potatoes, and a gyro with cucumber sauce.

In addition to the Web-page menus, Dosanjh and his staff actively solicit business via e-mail. "We’ll send out electronic flyers for various promotions," he says.

For example, Indian cuisine is currently very popular among YRC employees. The cafeteria has been offering Indian dishes at least twice a month, and those days are almost always among the busiest, according to Dosanjh, largely because they are well-promoted by e-mail notices.

The promotions are usually personalized. "We have a couple of guys who are from India, and they cook the Indian dishes," Dosanjh says. "So, we’ll call a dish, for example, the Dhillion (for Japjot Dhillion) Special. Most people know him, and they know that he runs an Indian restaurant on the side. So, they’ll try the dish."

To enhance the atmosphere, Treat America staffers sometimes even dress in Indian attire while Indian music plays over the PA system.

E-mail promotions boosted attendance at another companywide event, this one themed around YRC’s NASCAR racing team. For this, Dosanjh promoted his best-selling dish, taco salad. 

Dosanjh also alerts YRC employees via e-mail when Treat America’s corporate BBQ team is set to pay a visit. The team cooks outside, barbecuing brisket and chicken. Thanks to the e-mail alert, "everybody comes and has a great time," says Dosanjh.

Taking off: Also taking advantage of on-line marketing tools like Web pages and e-mail is Dominic Certo, ceo of Certo Group, a contractor based in Piscataway, NJ.

The company manages airport, college, government and corporate accounts. Its main retail offering is a branded LA Café concept, which menus signature Hollywood-style sandwiches and entrees with motion-picture themes.

At its airport accounts—Lehigh Valley International Airport and Erie International Airport—Certo Group books catering for private jets as well as commercial airlines. It also serves airline employees and TSA personnel in private dining rooms.

“We post menus on our Web site and do direct catering,” says Certo. Customers can place orders on the site or via e-mail. The Web sites provide "quicker access and quicker response time when customers need pricing and scheduling for delivery," Certo notes.

Although Certo has been using the Web sites for some time, it is only during the last six months that the company has added catering and customized menus. 

The catering menu includes items such as heros by the inch, with cole slaw and macaroni salad; crudités with assorted fresh dips; a cheese board with bread, crackers and fresh fruit; and freshly baked cookies.

Good connection: "Employees actually plan meetings around [the Web-based menus]," says Jason Pharr, executive chef and general manager for Treat America at Ash Grove Cement Co., in Overland Park. Pharr has been using the Web site to promote his menu since he opened the account in November 2004. He posts a weekly menu that everyone at Ash Grove can view. It is actually a company Web site so that all the affiliates of the cement company can access and read the menu. Because, in addition to Ash Grove’s complement of 200 employees, the company gets a number of visitors from other plants around the country. This adds about 50 transactions per day. And, says Pharr, guests appreciate the opportunity to see what they can expect in the dining room before they actually get there.

The Ash Grove account is subsidized; the average per-person check at the cafeteria for lunch is $3. The menu includes such items as a Biscuit-N-Gravy and Breakfast Burrito in the morning, and entrees like Smothered Pork Chop and Chicken Marsala at lunch. Soups include Ham-N-Bean and Chicken Noodle. There is also a 50-item salad bar and a deli bar.

The dining room seats 125. "They’ve built a beautiful facility here, and it’s great for employees," says Pharr, who runs the operation with just a single helper. "It has picked up both morale and production." Participation is averaging about 80%, he adds.

Despite all the electronic-media marketing, Pharr maintains personal contact with his customers. "I know everybody here," he explains. "I talk to them and let them know what’s going on and what’s new."