Q&A: Online Catering Tips from Saigon Sisters
How to build a robust catering store on your restaurant website
Since its launch as a kiosk in Chicago’s French Market in 2009, Saigon Sisters has grown significantly, with three locations and a sister restaurant, Bang Chop Thai Kitchen. The family-run operation appeals to the business lunch crowd and has a bustling catering business with their delicious bánh mì sandwiches and build-your-own rice and noodle bowls. We spoke with founder Mary Nguyen Aregoni on her decision to add a catering store to the Saigon Sisters' website and the tips she’s learned along the way.
Why was it important for you to have a catering store on your restaurant website?
I used to only rely on third-party services for catering orders but it’s hard because they take around 20-30% of the profit. By having catering on our website, we’re able to control the ordering process. Since all orders are placed ahead, everything is prepaid, and it’s more convenient for our customers.
How do you decide what items to put in the catering store?
I definitely choose the things that are most popular in our restaurant. It’s also important to make sure your food travels well and looks the same when it gets to its final destination. It’s better to pick things that aren’t too complicated to order and are easy to build. A lot of our catering options use the same ingredients as our regular menu, but we put them in tray form so larger groups can mix-and-match, buffet-style.
Saigon Sisters turn their regular menu items into buffet-style options for their catering menu.
How do you take an online order and work it into your restaurant workflow
My manager and I get an email when someone places an order. I am the one who responds to the customer right away and tells them that we’ve received their order. I already have their address, preferred delivery time, and anything else that I may need to make the order happen since they are required fields in our checkout form.
Next, I enter the order into my POS system and schedule it out. I let my staff know that this is happening and tell them when I need the order by. The prep timeline varies based on how big or small the order is but after it’s prepared, all that’s left is to deliver and set up their catering.
What have you found ensures a smooth fulfillment process?
A good tip that we’ve learned through our catering experience is setting the right lead time for your restaurant’s operations. Most of our customers want catered meals for 11:00 am or 12:00 pm the next day. We used to have a 24-hour lead time, but many customers couldn’t order for the next day, so we changed it to 14-hour lead time so that we still have plenty of time to prepare. I am able to easily set those time constraints in our catering store which helps make sure that the orders are doable for our kitchen staff. I am also able to set the delivery times so customers know what timeframe they can receive their catering before they place the order, which helps avoid any off times for us.
By having catering on our website, we’re able to control the ordering process.
Another tip is to have pictures of your catering offerings on the website. I think it’s very important that customers can see what the food is going to look like and the approximate quantities so they can make a better decision about what they need. It’s nice to have several serving-size options for customers too. I also think that displaying the dietary information about dishes helps when customers are ordering for large crowds that may have varying restrictions.
How do you promote your catering store offerings?
I use email newsletters, social media, and physical signs in the restaurant to direct customers to our catering store. I sometimes use a homepage notification on our website, which is super easy for me to create.
You’re a smaller, family-run restaurant. How does having an online catering store help ease your operation?
Being online helps us streamline our catering operation. Customers see their options on the website and it’s very easy for them to understand. It really saves us time on the back-and-forth when people call or email us with questions about our catering offerings. With the catering store, they can see all of our offerings up front, and they have full control over what and how much to order, and when and where it will be delivered. Then, it’s just up to us to execute exactly what they’ve selected. It’s definitely our preferred method.
Guests can build their catering order directly on Saigon Sisters' website.
Do you have a specific staff that only works on catering orders?
No, it’s the same staff that does our daily operations. If we have three catering orders to go out in one day then we know the day before and we will prep for it in advance. So then the day of, the kitchen staff will get everything together before we even open our doors. You’re maximizing your people with catering, and our kitchen staff really likes it because they get tips on catering orders. We do our own delivery and setup because we’d rather give that money to our own people than a third-party driver.
What's most important to know about managing an online catering store?
You definitely need to have someone assigned to handling the order emails when they come in and make sure they are responding to the customer. They have to be able to carry out the management of the order from beginning to end because it gets very complicated when multiple people are managing different things. It’s also really important that we follow up with the customer after they’ve received their order to make sure they’re happy.