How to Save Casual Dining

Events and catering can diversify a restaurant’s revenue stream, helping it to survive in a difficult market

By Alex Lassiter, Co-Founder of Gather

Following the worst year for restaurant sales since the Great Recession (according to restaurant analyst TDn2K), the “polished” casual dining segment is inching closer toward extinction. Last August, Ruby Tuesday announced plans to shut down 95 of its locations, while the Boston-based chain Cosi filed for bankruptcy less than two months later. And, according to the National Purchase Diary (NPD) Group, the future isn’t looking too bright, either. Most full-service restaurants will experience a 2 percent decline in traffic during 2017, NPD predicts.

Part of the reason behind this decline is the emergence of fast-casual restaurants (such as Chipotle and Five Guys), along with more convenient dining options, such as delivery and food trucks. To keep their kitchen doors open, a number of casual restaurants are diversifying their revenue streams with catering and private events—a strategy that can help a restaurant not just survive but thrive in these difficult times.

Events Are Essential

When it comes to adding a secondary revenue stream, most restaurant owners talk themselves into thinking private events aren’t right for their restaurants. The truth is that private events and catering can increase revenue for just about any casual restaurant, big or small.

From happy hours to holiday parties, large corporations routinely budget for a few private events each year. Restaurants that host private events can use these opportunities to boost their sales in 2017 and beyond. Copper Canyon Grill, a Gather client, is a good example. Surrounded by conference centers and hotels, the Copper Canyon Grill team ramped up private dining services at its Orlando location, resulting in a 70 percent increase in group sales. And in Hershey, Pa., a family-run bar and restaurant known as The Mill—another Gather client—saw sales skyrocket by 20 percent following its foray into private events.

Restaurants hoping to experience similar success should consider investing in a private events program. Meeting local demand for event services can go a long way toward improving a restaurant’s bottom line. Events can also grow a restaurant’s customer base; regulars who book an event at a restaurant can spread word of its event services to friends or family members who are considering throwing a party themselves, resulting in more events down the line.

It’s also a good idea for restaurants to network with local groups and organizations that regularly host events. Instead of enticing new customers with discounts or drink specials, this can result in new business based on relationships made through networking.

What’s more, private events also serve as an effective way to maximize a restaurant’s efficiency. Even the busiest restaurants have slow periods. By hosting events or offering catering, a restaurant can ensure business keeps coming through the doors even when diners aren’t. Non-peak times such as weekdays are perfect opportunities to close a restaurant for the day and host special brunches or team-building lunch events. Similarly, some bars and restaurants make the most of late-night hours by hosting private after-party events.

Perhaps most importantly, creating a top-notch private events or catering program can help a restaurant stand apart from the competition. The casual restaurant industry is inundated with new independent chains; it often seems like another crops up every few weeks. Then there are food trucks and fast-casual restaurants, all of which are fighting for hungry diners. For a restaurateur, hosting private events means offering something all those other restaurants can’t.

The casual restaurant segment is struggling right now. The good news is secondary revenue streams—such as hosting private events—can help restaurants survive and thrive even amid gloomy sales forecasts. Restaurateurs who don’t pigeonhole themselves and remain open to events can quickly generate revenue from private events while also growing their customer base, maximizing sales during off-peak hours and staying one step ahead of the competition.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Lassiter is co-founder and vice president of customer experience of Gather, an event management software for thousands of restaurants and venues. Gather enables restaurants, venues and hospitality companies of all sizes to manage and grow their events business, serving as the anchor between management, events teams and their customers. To request a demo, visit gatherhere.com/#request-tour.