Truckstop operators looking to boost restaurant sales can reach a new audience by branching out with catering, and for many, catering is a logical next step.
“We’ve already got the kitchen. We’ve already got the cooks. That is the beauty of it,” said Bob Ryan, owner of Atlanta South 75 in Jackson, Ga. “It would be ridiculous not to do it.”
Ryan has catered since 1984 through Ryan’s Classic Catering. He offers everything from pick-up trays and box lunches to sit-down dinners at black-tie affairs and weddings.
Lowell Mill Restaurant at Big Boy’s Truckstop in Kenley, N.C., started catering two years ago and has seen business increase every year. “Last year we did over $10,000more in sales and this year looks to be even better,” said Wendi Powell, manager.
Katie Laning Niebaum, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association, said catering in the U.S. is an $8 billion industry, so it makes sense that truckstop operators would want to join this growing industry.
Many operators who have made the leap said that not only are they growing their business, they’re meeting a need in the community.
“Anybody can go and get a cold-cut platter somewhere, but a lot of people are looking for something hot and something homemade,” said C.J. Adkins, restaurant manager for Beto Junction in Lebo, Kan. “Hot meals that are freshly prepared from scratch with really good seasonings and unique sauces are the kinds of meals people like and enjoy.” Beto Junction caters everything from class reunions to church banquets.
Powell told StopWatch, “The biggest thing that surprised me about our catering business is that there is such a need for something besides chicken or barbecue. For something more intimate and a little nicer, there aren’t a lot of restaurants that can meet that need.”
LowellMill’s catering specialties include stuffed bell peppers, chicken divan and roast beef in red wine sauce, but they also offer fried chicken. “We can do it as fancy or as plain as you want,” Powell said.
When it comes to selecting a menu, Adkins recommends operators cater the same food they serve in their restaurants. “The cooks that you have are already used to preparing that food,” he said.
Ryan prices his menu out per person. “We put in food costs, mileage and employee costs,” Ryan said, noting that he tries to stay within a 50-mile radius and charges more for locations further away.
While truckstop operators already have full-time staff and professional kitchens, they will need to make a few additional investments, such as heating and cooling units for transporting and serving food and a delivery vehicle.
They may also need to change their mindset. Adkins said, “The cooking and preparation for catering is done far more in advance than in a restaurant.”
Food safety is always paramount, but requires some extra attention at catered events. “It can be a challenge to keep the hot food hot and cold food cold. Timing is key,” Adkins said.
Once locations decide they are ready to cater, they will have to gain an audience. Ryan said, “We advertise, but the best thing you can get with catering is word of mouth.”
To help entice customers, Ryan offers a money-back guarantee. “We’ve never had one person ask for their money back,” he said.
Powell created a brochure and started catering with the local chambers of commerce. “Catering the chambers put me in contact with other businesses that need catering,” Powell said.
Powell also capitalized on the transportation industry the location already served. “We have a truck training school in our community college as well as a diesel mechanic program here. They have used us a lot because they like working together in their own industry,” she explained.
In addition to boosting sales through catered events, catering can help improve sales within the restaurant. Powell said, “It does a great deal to bring other people to your restaurant. People began to see we could do a lot of other things.”
Powell said the location has worked to create a separate identity for the restaurant so they’re known as a restaurant in the community and not “just a truckstop restaurant.”
While Powell is working to create a separate identity for the restaurant, Ryan created a separate name and business identity for his catering business.
Locations likely have all the staff they need to get started in the catering business, but may want to add employees as the business grows. Ryan’s catering business has two full-time employees, and draws on cooks and staff within the restaurant. Adkins said several of his restaurant employees already had catering in their background and enjoying using their skills in a new capacity. Like Adkins, Powell relies on her existing staff, but occasionally brings in one additional employee.
Locations may have to decide how much to invest in the catering portion of their business. Adkins told StopWatch Beto Junction has the opportunity to cater more events, but he stressed how important it is for operators to pace their business. “You don’t want to be catering on a really busy Friday night and have your presence at the restaurant be missed. You have to have all of your bases covered and have plenty of help both at the restaurant and at the site you’re catering at,” he explained.
When all is said and done, a sense of humor can help operators make it through an event. “I always say it isn’t catering unless you forget something. That is one of those things that makes catering interesting,” Adkins said with a laugh.
Even though Adkins can make light of forgetting something, as a best practice he creates checklists and marks items off as they’re loaded in the vehicle.
This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazine. Stop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations and provides context on trends and news affecting the industry.
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