Catering offers revenue opportunities that could transform your pizza business

Catering can be a great way to bring in extra revenue, but it doesn’t come without its fair share of risk. When a catering order goes right, everyone is happy. But when it goes wrong, a lot of people will know, potentially threatening your pizzeria’s reputation and future catering orders.

Pizza is made for sharing, which is why catering, a service defined as providing food for large groups of people, seems like a perfect fit for pizzerias. But to truly excel at catering, pizzeria operators need to go beyond pizza and offer a truly memorable experience for any event, whether it be an important business meeting, wedding, funeral, or other occasion where pizza isn’t always the most appropriate choice. “There needs to be a major paradigm shift between a takeout menu and a catering menu,” says Erle Dardick, CEO of Vancouver, British Columbia-based MonkeyMedia Software and author of Get Catering and Grow Sales! “Pizzeria operators have all of the ingredients to do something dynamic with catering, but they need to focus on using the ingredients they have to create a new product specific to platter-based catering.”

Broaden Your Menu

Try this exercise: Put your takeout/delivery menu next to your catering menu. How do they differ? If you were the customer, would you use your pizzeria for catering? Think back to the last catered party you attended. Was pizza on the menu?

“Our catering menu is broader than our regular menu,” says Lisa Towne, owner of MaMa Lisa’s Little Italy (mamaslittleitaly.com) in Castle Pines, Colorado. “We certainly offer our house favorites such as lasagna and pastas, but we can also provide burger bars, taco bars and breakfast. A broader menu allows you to gain more customers and be accommodating to budgets and dietary needs. We recently catered a group that wanted all gluten-free and vegan options. It was challenging, but they were impressed by our creativity.”

Dardick notes that pizzerias are positioned to win big at catering, but the greatest challenge comes in defining the program. “Pizzeria operators need to focus on a subset of products utilizing ingredients already on hand,” says Dardick. “If you are catering a business luncheon, pizza is at the bottom of the list, so tap into other opportunities.”

MaMa Lisa’s Italian-themed catering menu covers a lot of bases. In addition to a variety of pastas, it includes Lemon Chicken, Chicken Parmesan, Chicken Piccata, Pork Milanese, Pork With Balsamic Glaze, Chicken Enchiladas in Cream Sauce, and Eggplant Parmesan. The pasta entrees sell for $38 for a small pan (eight 7.5-ounce portions) and $75 for a large pan (20 7.5-ounce portions). Other entrees cost $50 for small pans (eight 4-ounce portions) and $100 for large pans (20 4-ounce portions).

Find out if your customer’s event will be a sit-down one or require standing. This will help you customize a menu that ensures food doesn’t end up on shirts and shoes. Photo by Woodstock's Pizza.

Revenue On the Side

It’s no secret that catering can bring in revenue on the side, with many restaurants aiming for about 20% of system sales, according to Dardick. “Catering is so profitable because you already have everything else [in terms of ingredients],” he adds. “There are higher incremental sales because there are fewer transactions from fewer people, and the cost of production and distribution is much lower.”

Additionally, catering generates revenue during off-season months, slow days of the week, and even when the pizzeria is bustling—if you have enough staff on hand. “We can have a normal lunch crowd and deliver a catering order at the same time,” says Santo Sardo, owner of Largo, Florida-based Sardo’s Pizza (sardospizza.com).

“Catering in Colorado can be a bit seasonal,” Towne notes. “Typically, most catering occurs around summer events and holidays, which is a great time to get college help. Catering events can really boost sales in the off hours and off seasons.”

Catering offers additional marketing benefits, notes Kris Moriarty, director of business development for San Diego, California-based Woodstock’s Pizza (woodstocksca.com), with seven locations in California. “Catering introduces your product to people who would not otherwise know about you,” Moriarty points out.

Running the Risk

In addition to putting your pizzeria’s reputation on the line, there are other difficulties and risks that go into starting a catering component. “I worry about how to keep food hot and fresh for customers,” says Sardo. “It’s difficult getting it there, keeping it hot, and keeping it looking nice.” To meet this challenge, your operation may require special equipment, depending on your menu—think chafing dishes and insulated pan carriers for hot foods, plus beverage carriers, ice caddies, induction cookers, hot plates, and serving trays and platters. You’ll also have to figure out portion sizes and pricing and create a policy for handling cancellations.

“A deposit as well as a written confirmation or short contract from your customer is essential,” Towne says. “Understand that the event could be weather-dependent. Know the plan for bad weather and clarify all of these details in advance. Timing is essential. Create a timeline and product list two days ahead. You need to know when to prep, what can sit for a day, when everything needs to be in the oven, what time you need to load the car, etc. The last hour is always mayhem, regardless, but it gets better with experience.”

Logistical challenges abound for newbies, Moriarty agrees, but the process gets easier over time. “The difficult thing about starting catering is working out zoning for deliveries and getting the staff used to ordering enough food to cover any pop-up orders. In the beginning, you’re not sure how many orders you will get in a week, so it’s a lot of guesswork. Once you establish regular clientele, it’s easier to order and schedule more accurately.”

To build your catering business, create dishes and displays that leave a lasting impression on future customers. Photo by MaMa Lisa's.

Reaping the Rewards

For those who take on the risks and succeed, there can be great rewards in the form of increased revenue and positive word-of-mouth advertising for your pizzeria. “During
December, we could almost just rely on catering, putting more money in all of the employees’ pockets at the right time of year,” Towne observes. “It can be a fun and cohesive experience for employees and customers. It’s an opportunity to have more of a personal relationship with our customers as we help them plan family events.”

“The greatest rewards are the additional revenue stream, the marketing opportunities and being able to provide more jobs for people,” Moriarty says. “Catering helps control both food and labor costs because you’re able to preplan and preorder.
Catering also helps bring in additional revenue without negatively impacting the store operations, and it’s a great way to market and introduce your brand to people who may not know your product.”

“Being a first-generation Italian, I enjoy feeding many people at once,” Sardo says. “Most rewarding to me is staying to watch the reaction. To me, it’s like when you watch your kids’ faces as they open presents on Christmas.”

Liz Barrett is PMQ’s editor at large.