Tips from ezCater

Boston-based ezCater (ezcater.com) has grown rapidly since its founding in 2007. A nationwide marketplace for business-to-business catering, ezCater connects more than 60,000 caterers and restaurants with businesses in more than 22,000 U.S. cities and towns who want reliable office food delivery. About half of the caterers and restaurants in the ezCater network are independent operators.

The biggest benefit for a caterer working with ezCater is “immediate and guaranteed ROI,” according to Victoria Brady, vice president of caterer partnerships. “If you are trying to find this b-to-b business yourself, it’s going to take a lot of groundwork. With ezCater, you’re immediately in front of customers when they’re ready to purchase; you only pay [a commission] if you actually fill an order.”

Caterers working with ezCater also benefit from the company’s marketing team, which generates and maintains customers; its website and app that make it easy for customers to order digitally; and customer service “Catering Ninjas,” who support both caterers and customers to ensure transactions run smoothly.

Although the majority of ezCater’s business is for lunches, “we’re seeing breakfast on the rise, and we’re seeing snacks on the rise,” says Brady, noting that there’s increased demand for mid-afternoon snacks such as smoothies and cupcakes. Both would be a great niche if you’re just starting out a drop-off business, she adds.

Brady’s additional tips for caterers looking to start or boost their drop-off catering business include:

Start small. >> Consider taking small steps when you first start drop-off catering. “You can always start small,” says Brady. “You don’t have to deliver to the entire city; start with a couple-mile radius. You don’t have to start with your entire menu. We have lots of partners who have five or six menu items, and then add on from there.” Brady recommends focusing on your most popular, crowd-pleasing menu items. “If you have a signature dish, put that on your drop-off menu to differentiate yourself,” she adds.

Keep it simple. >> “The more you complicate things, the more complicated they’re going to be,” advises Brady. “The key to success is to try to keep it simple. Try to make everything as repeatable as possible.”

Create packages and menu items that customers can customize. >> Clients appreciate it when you put together a package that is all-inclusive, such as a main, a side and a drink, because it makes it easier for them. “They trust your opinion, and you know what goes well together,” says Brady. “You can put a package together that helps your margins.” Also consider menu items that customers can customize to their liking. “Bars are having a huge moment—taco bars, fajita bars, burger bars, pasta bars—because it’s easier for each person to take what they like,” she says.

Focus on packaging and portability. >> Remember that with delivery, “people expect the food to be the same or better than what they experience in store,” says Brady. So think about what you offer and how it will travel. “If you’re a hot sandwich place, you might want to think about doing cold sandwiches, or separate the buns from the food product,” she says. “You have to think about the components of a dish and how to package those, so when they transport, that quality is still there.” Packaging is key, she says. Make space in dry storage and stock all the disposable packaging you’ll need to make sure that when the food arrives at the destination, it looks good, tastes good and is at the right temperature.

Make it easy to set up and clean up. >> “The [office’s] admin has to clean all this up, and the admin has to place the next order, so make it easy for them to set up and put away,” says Brady. “Those are really key things that people don’t necessarily think about.”

Make sure your packaging is branded. >> “I don’t care if it’s a sticker or a stamp—you need to logo everything, because that’s your marketing,” says Brady. “The greatest thing about catering is they’re paying you to market to more people, and to put your logo in front of other people who may have a need for your services.” As an example, she mentions a photo posted on social media last year when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had lunch with the University of Alabama football team. On the table were takeout boxes from Newk’s Eatery, a fast-casual chain in the South, with its logo and tagline prominently displayed. “You can’t pay for that type of marketing,” says Brady. If you’re looking for a cost-effective way to get labels and marketing materials printed, consider partnering with a local print shop. “Say, ‘I’ll bring in a tasting and help you guys if you give me a discount,’” suggests Brady. “Form an alliance.”

Take advantage of every marketing opportunity. >> It can be hard for salespeople to get into large office buildings. Once you do, try to get the word out to as many companies as possible. “Ask if you can leave business cards with the security guard,” suggests Brady. “When your driver is delivering an order, send the catering sales manager along; when the order is being set up, maybe he or she can drop-off menus. If you’re in talking to one admin, ask if you can do a lunch for every admin they know. Treat them to a special happy hour. People just want to feel special, so the more you can do that, the better.”