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Operators boost catering sales by thinking inside the box

Catering programs are being packaged in new ways to win back lost business.
Cracker Barrel catering
Photo courtesy of Cracker Barrel

Customers have long turned to Cracker Barrel to cater family events, parties, business meetings and even weddings with the brand’s signature country-style food. All that came to an abrupt halt last March. The timing was unfortunate, with Easter, Mother’s Day and other spring celebrations rapidly approaching. 

“We have always had a robust catering business, with a menu that offers the same signature meals as customers enjoy in the restaurant dining rooms,” said Cammie Spillyards-Schaefer, vice president of Culinary and Menu Strategy at Cracker Barrel. “We also offered some unique items, such as a breakfast casserole with eggs, hash browns, ham and cheese. But during the pandemic, we focused on simplifying all our menus, and removed about 20% of the items, keeping a number of core items on the catering menu.” 

Both business catering and social catering represented a sizeable chunk of the restaurant industry pre-COVID. In 2019, Restaurant Business’ sister company Technomic reported that catering sales totaled $64.8 billion and predicted that business catering would grow 5.6% in 2020, from a base of $25.4 billion. Social catering was projected to increase 4.3% from its 2019 figure of $39.4 billion. 

It may take a while for catering as we knew it to rebound, as consumers trickle back to offices and cautiously begin to gather for parties, weddings and large events. But catering remains a channel that Cracker Barrel is extremely dedicated to, said Spillyards-Schaefer, and while many core items are still available, the menu has gone in new directions. Large spreads around a buffet table are no longer the safest solution in light of coronavirus. 

“People are still ordering bulk meal solutions to go, especially family meals and holiday meals,” said Spillyards-Schaeffer, “but we’ve repackaged some of those catering options into single boxed meals.”

The Boxed Meals To-Go catering platform, which officially launched in mid-February, provides guests with individually packaged meals from breakfast through dinner. It’s a good fit for both office catering and family gatherings, such as outdoor reunions and birthday parties. Employers or social catering customers can order a minimum of eight different meals and up to 200, and the ability to mix and match meals offers more variety and flexibility—not to mention enhanced safety

Each meal is priced separately, and orders can be scheduled for pickup or delivery. With larger orders, the meal prep and delivery is divided among several Cracker Barrel locations in the same general area. 

Cracker Barrel favorites such as buttermilk pancakes, chicken ‘n dumplings, and chicken tenders have been adapted to the box menu, but Spillyards-Schaefer also created several new items for the program. “We took our signature meatloaf—usually served in a large format—and transitioned it into meatball sliders, glazed and topped with cheese,” she said. “They’re portable and can be paired with mac and cheese.” 

Chicken Sandwich

Also new in the lineup is a Grilled Chicken Salad Shaker—a layered salad stacked in a large cup with the dressing on top. A mini fruit cobbler is available for dessert. 

In April, Cracker Barrel is debuting a fried chicken sandwich. “It’s our Sunday Homestyle Chicken on a potato bun with dill pickles and ranch dressing, said Spillyards-Schaefer.

BJs Restaurant & Brewhouse offered individually boxed meals on its catering menu pre-pandemic, but the full-service chain recently expanded the selection. Sandwiches were developed expressly for this platform, including a California Veggie, Italian sandwich and Mediterranean Chicken. 

When deciding what to offer, BJs looked hard at what would travel well and set the chain apart from its competitors, said a spokesperson. “BJs Pizza Box and Specialty Entree offerings, such as tri-tip, salmon and Parmesan chicken, are unique items and guests are ordering them often,” the spokesperson added. Each comes with a side and cookie. 

As at Cracker Barrel, every member of the group can select their own boxed meal option with a minimum of eight boxes per order. Pricing ranges from $11.95 to $16.95 per meal, and over the last year, regular customers have included hospitals, smaller medical offices, distribution centers, manufacturing facilities and guests stuck at home. 

“Now we’re starting to get more orders from schools, city buildings and corporate headquarters as offices start to open back up,” said the BJs spokesperson. “The need for individually packaged meals goes beyond the pandemic. Companies that are holding training events or structured meetings often don’t have the time for a large number of employees to go through a buffet line. BJ's Boxed Meals provide clients with a wide range of options but still in a grab-and-go format that many clients prefer.”   

Both Cracker Barrel and BJs offer self-delivery, third-party delivery and ordering from catering platform ezCater to get the boxed meals to customers. 

El Pollo Loco boxed lunch

El Pollo Loco also introduced a boxed meal program in February called Loco Lunch Boxes, targeted to remote workers and those heading back to the office. The meals are packed in “cheerful, easy-to-carry” boxes.

Four options are on the menu: a Chicken Guacamole Burrito, Baja Shrimp Tacos, a Chicken Avocado Cordita and a Cheesy Chicken Quesadilla. The Loco Lunch Boxes can be purchased in packs of six, eight and 12 from El Pollo’s regular catering menu.

“Once people started sheltering at home and working remotely, going out for lunch shifted to throwing together quick meals at home,” El Pollo Loco president and CEO Bernard Acoca said in a statement. “To inject some joy back into lunchtime … and inspire them to love lunch again, we created satisfying meals that come in a fun, portable container.”

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