Drop-Off Is Picking Up

How caterers are profiting from the growing demand for food delivery

By Sara Perez Webber

“It’s the American way—no one is leaving their desks anymore,” says Victoria Brady, vice president of caterer partnerships for Boston-based ezCater, explaining the growing demand for drop-off catering. “With the rise of technology, people are working all the time; it’s just constant, and people want their workforces at their desks.”

Companies wanting their employees to be satisfied with the food delivered to the office is one reason ezCater, a platform that connects more than 60,000 caterers and restaurants across the U.S. with businesses who need food catered, is growing rapidly. So, too, are the drop-off divisions of catering companies and restaurants large and small. They’re finding success serving not only office lunches and business functions, but budget-minded social clients and nonprofits who are willing to forgo full-service catering but still want quality food customized to their needs. Read on to learn how four companies are expanding their drop-off catering business by doing what they do best—serving up good food when and where their customers want it.

Blue Plate Catering

Chicago • blueplatechicago.com

While many full-service catering companies and restaurants seek to develop or grow their drop-off catering business to meet demand, Chicago’s Blue Plate Catering was built on the drop-off model when Jim Horan founded it in 1983. The company evolved to include full-service events, and today stands as one of the city’s most prominent catering companies. Blue Plate catered 3,200 events and 3,900 delivery drops last year, was named a top place to work by the Chicago Tribune, and in 2016 moved into an 80,000-square-foot headquarters building, Larkin Hall, with expanded production and administrative spaces as well as sleek event venues.

In 2001, the company launched its drop-off catering division as a separate business unit called DIRECT from Blue Plate. “Under our newest structure for the DIRECT drop-off program, we have consistently seen over 25 percent growth each year, which is very exciting for the organization,” says Jennifer Cafferata, DIRECT sales and operations manager.

Businesses and corporations are using drop-off catering “as a way to bring in high-quality, trusted food into their organizations, whether it be for daily lunches, business meetings or on-site events,” says Cafferata. “Drop-off catering is also very popular for not-for-profits, educational institutions and medical institutions that have stricter budgets and parameters for ancillary services. Our drop-off model has proven popular for meeting the demands of this middle market.”

From DIRECT’s large menu, clients most often order traditional hot breakfast items (such as eggs, bacon and breakfast potatoes), as well as sandwiches, wraps and entree salads. “Our culinary team has to take into consideration how something will travel, and how it will display on a table or in a box,” says Cafferata. “Since we are catering for a variety of people, they also pay particular attention to designing items that can accommodate all dietary restrictions while still offering variety.” DIRECT staffers set up the delivery in full, providing complimentary eco-friendly disposables, including all serving utensils, flatware, plates and table covers.

The company strives to provide a memorable presentation, with specially branded packaging, and food arrives in Blue Plate-branded delivery trucks. “Being reliable, timely and having consistent quality is huge” for growing corporate lunch business, says Cafferata. “Being a vendor that can offer consistency and ease for the order-placer is key.”

As it continues to market DIRECT from Blue Plate as a separate brand on its website and marketing materials, the company is seeing results. “This side of the business has grown exponentially over the past few years,” says Cafferata, “and we don’t see that changing.”

Culinary Concepts Catering

San Diego • cateringspecialist.com

Last year, Culinary Concepts Catering experienced record growth in the number of clients it served, as well as record sales in its Culinary-to-Go drop-off catering division. Several factors contributed to the division’s success, including three that echo the “Cs” of the company’s alliterative name—customization, communication and collaboration.

“The team at Culinary Concepts realizes that in today’s economy, customers want to be able to customize and personalize their drop-off meals,” says Kathy Koenig, founder and CEO of Culinary Concepts Catering. Leading the customization charge is Cheri Gerzabek, a 27-year company veteran who was appointed drop-off sales manager five years ago.

“Cheri starts with getting to know the client, and bends over backwards to meet a budget,” says Melissa Fazio, director of marketing for Culinary Concepts. “She’s often working with younger people in admin positions who may know Grubhub or Panera and are used to ordering off a menu, but not everyone knows how much more you can get for your dollar by calling a catering company and customizing your order to what you want.”

The company’s extensive Culinary-to-Go menus offer lots of variety, with a focus on healthy fare and options that appeal to diners with various dietary restrictions. About half the drop-off business is for offices and corporate functions, while the other half is social, such as birthday parties for clients on a budget. The drop-off business helps “keep the door open” during the week, notes Gerzabek, as most of the big full-service catering bookings take place Thursdays through Saturdays. Furthermore, the relationships built with drop-off catering clients often expand to include full-service catering and larger events.

In addition to communicating extensively with clients to make sure they’re getting what they want and “the most bang for their buck,” as  Gerzabek puts it, she’ll suggest the Culinary-to-Go service as a complement to other food services, if that’s what the client wishes.

“Cheri knows that her competitive advantage with our Culinary-to-Go service is collaboration with the broader industry,” says Fazio. “It is tough to be a small business owner, and by cooperating and collaborating with food industry partners (like food trucks and Grubhub), Culinary Concepts can support local businesses and provide the best options for our clients. If a client wants chicken wings from Wings and Things, great! Cheri will craft a Culinary-to-Go menu that will supply fresh salads and side dishes to complement and extend the menu. A client requests the pho truck, wonderful! Cheri will suggest some delicious fresh appetizers for guests to munch on while waiting for the food truck to dish up their specialty.”

It’s all about assisting clients with whatever they need, says  Gerzabek: “We do whatever we can for them to have a very successful event, and be happy.”

Swig & Swine

Charleston, S.C. • swigandswinebbq.com

This popular barbecue eatery in Charleston is about to open its third location, a move that owner and pitmaster Anthony DiBernardo expects will grow Swig & Swine’s robust drop-off catering business by another 50 percent.

The new location in Mount Pleasant, explains DiBernardo, is near many large commercial businesses. “Once we get our sales people in the door, and let people know what we have to offer, it will take off,” he says. When area office workers venture to the new Swig & Swine for lunch, DiBernardo adds, “we’ll hand out menus and let them know we can bring it to them next time.”

Drop-off catering is booming in the city, he adds, due to Charleston’s rapid growth and resulting heavy traffic. “It’s taking longer to get to and from lunch, so us bringing in lunch really helps companies on their labor,” he says.

Swig & Swine’s most popular drop-off menu items are its two-meat combo plates with smoked pork and chicken, sides of mac-and-cheese and beans with brisket, and its banana pudding dessert. All of the proteins are smoked, and Swig & Swine’s new location provides it with a kitchen and smoke room big enough to serve as a centralized catering operation that can more easily handle large orders. While small orders will continue to be filled by each restaurant, an order for 600, for example, would be fulfilled through the new kitchen.

Swig & Swine is part of Queen Street Hospitality, a thriving restaurant group with 300 employees that also includes the Charleston restaurants 82 Queen and Lowcountry Bistro. With the new facility, the group is now launching Queen Street Catering, which will allow it to market catering services that go beyond barbecue. DiBernardo says this is key for wedding business, as Charleston is popular for destination weddings, and the new umbrella name will let prospective customers know that the company’s full-service catering menus go beyond barbecue.

For Swig & Swine catering, “box lunches are huge,” says DiBernardo. School fundraisers also frequently place drop-off orders, with parent volunteers serving the food to cut down on cost. “We do as much or as little as the guests want,” he adds, “from just dropping off to setting up the tables with the chafers and disposable wares, to stocking chafers with the food items.”

Norma’s Cafe

Dallas • normascafe.com

Customers who order drop-off catering from Norma’s Cafe, a popular restaurant with five locations in the Dallas area that serves “Texas comfort food,” can see their food coming. The company recently debuted a catering van with an artistic wrap that makes it look like a farm truck with wooden bed rails.

“Although exposure is hard to measure, we feel the unique wrap on the van makes it much more noticeable,” says Bill Ziegler, Norma’s Cafe director of operations. “We have had a lot of guests mention they’ve seen the van around town, plus other guests notice the van picking up orders at the cafe and realize that we offer catering.”

The van became a necessity after Norma’s hired a full-time catering director, Lila Levy, who “has turbocharged our catering revenue,” says Ziegler. The company began focusing on catering in 2010, but last year, catering sales skyrocketed 67 percent above 2016 levels. Drop-off catering has grown alongside bulk pick-up and full-service catering.

“We have set a goal of a 50 percent increase again this year, and are on track to meet that,” says Ziegler.

Norma’s most popular drop-off menu items are for the meal that originally put it on the map—breakfast—including breakfast tacos and buffets. Its menu staples of chicken-fried steak, chicken fingers, grilled chicken, pot roast, fresh vegetables, homemade rolls and cornbread are other top sellers.

In addition to its eye-catching van, Norma’s markets by branding everything that comes along with a catering order. “For drop-offs, we make sure that every container of food has plenty of Norma’s Cafe liners, Norma’s Cafe pie cutters and to-go menus,” says Ziegler. “All of our containers also have our logo, name and locations on them, along with our social media handle (@normascafe) and our website URL.” When the order also includes set-up, employees will line the table with Norma’s liners, display to-go menus and gift cards for a free slice of its signature Mile-High Pie, and even—depending on the atmosphere of the event—add banners, Norma’s Cafe coasters, whimsical signs (bearing such phrases as the restaurant’s motto: “Life is short, eat dessert first.”) and red Mardi Gras beads.

While most of Norma’s drop-off catering orders are for businesses, bookings for social events—such as church gatherings, watch parties and Thanksgiving meals—are on the rise. In addition, says Ziegler, “weddings have been a popular event for us to cater—pies can look (and taste) just as pretty as wedding cakes!”