KFC Catering focuses on building customer relationships while restaurants prioritize digital and contactless experiences

KFC has unveiled its “Next Generation Prototype” restaurant concept, which prioritizes a digital-forward and contactless customer experience. SOURCE: LBF

Kentucky Fried Chicken is going to look different in the very near future, as a recently released restaurant-wide redesign now includes modernized updates that reflect the insatiable demand for delivery while limiting person-to-person contact. KFC has jumped with both feet into the burgeoning delivery trend by offering delivery through multiple delivery partners and its store designs reflect that. With all indications of a technology-based future, one KFC franchisee has taken a markedly different approach that embraces an old school methodology of how to build a business.

Denis Schoenhofer, a Tulsa, OK-based KFC franchisee with restaurants in Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma remembers a time when, managing one store for his father in Augusta, KS, making door-to-door calls to local car dealership was the only way to drive sales outside of his four walls. There were no online platforms, delivery aggregators, algorithms, or search engines to bring in additional streams of revenue. He knocked on doors, looking for opportunities to cater fried chicken meals to car dealerships that wanted to feed their sales and service teams on busy Saturdays. He knew the value of building personal relationships in the community with, understandably, an eye on the bottom line.

A year ago, in December 2019, Schoenhofer hired longtime caterer (and longtime friend), Monte Johnson, to take up that very position that he once held. Yes, it is still a person-to-person business and car dealerships are still prized clients. And in a world where Uber Eats, Grubhub, and Door Dash jockey for delivery market share, KFC Catering delivers every order themselves.

“Catering orders can be complicated and we don’t want to leave anything up to chance”, Monte Johnson said in a recent interview. “Sometimes, customers may order three different varieties of boxed meals. A third of them go in one room, a third go in another room, and a third, go in another room. Our delivery partners are good, but no one takes care of our customers like we do”, Johnson said. “Our everyday customers who are ordering for themselves or their families trust that delivery partners can automate ordering and delivery to their homes. But when it comes to orders for, say, 150 warehouse workers, we prefer to offer that personalized service.”

That’s not to say that online ordering isn’t important for KFC Catering. KFC Catering has partnered with ezCater, the world’s largest online catering marketplace for business catering. Companies in need of meals brought in for meetings look to ezCater for the convenience and service. ezCater’s presence in the marketplace made them a natural fit for KFC Catering but not necessarily right away, Johnson said.

“Prior to the pandemic, consumer behavior was already shifting towards a digital preference. We had already taken steps to facilitate online ordering in January, and by March, everything was in place and we were ready to flip the switch. That’s when everything changed – but the orders didn’t exactly come flooding in. A few orders dribbled in and then it just stopped. While our restaurant drive-thrus flourished, catering died.”

During the first months of the pandemic, KFC U.S. found itself positioned to weather the storm of uncertainty by expanding the number of delivery partners from one to four. And a focus on drive-thru sales allowed it to adapt to online ordering. And adapt it did.

“KFC U.S. drive-thru sales grew 60% in Q3 2020 compared to a year ago, and recently hit a delivery milestone with 80% of KFC’s in the U.S. delivering through multiple delivery aggregator partners,” a recent KFC press release read. “With the increase in online ordering, delivery and drive-thru, new designs will take the stress out of the ordering process for both KFC restaurant employees and customers.”

Johnson, with 20+ years of catering experience prior to joining Schoenhofer Enterprises, understands first-hand the importance of technology in a people business where “contactless” and “personal touch” would seem mutually exclusive.

“Having endured (so far) the uncertainty of the various stages of the pandemic, now more than ever, we see how responding to the needs of the customer can impact everything from store design, kitchen efficiencies, menu development, training, and technology. Every day that we cater to businesses and individuals throughout our five states, we learn something new. And still we remind ourselves that technology can only facilitate so much of our job. Hospitality doesn’t exist unless we meet the needs of our customers on a person-to-person level.”

KFC Catering has found feeding essential workers to be, well, essential to its own business. Healthcare offices, major retailers, and warehouses need meal options that keep their teams in-house, and some employers see that those meals can mean a lot to their workers. But the days of getting everyone in line to go through the buffet are a thing of the past. Instead, individually-packaged box meals are what clients are asking for, and data supports it. ezCater has compiled data indicating that catering customers want meals that promote social distancing; there are no shared utensils, and people can quickly grab and go.

“Our customers tell us exactly what they want. Incoming orders support ezCater’s data, but we like hearing it directly. While there is a need to feed their workers, they want to do it safely and so do we. People often call KFC “comfort food” and if our boxed meals provide comfort, we’re all for it”, Johnson said.

Heading into the final month of 2020, KFC Catering understands the uncertainties that exist in the workplace, many of which culminate in the month of December when holiday catering increases. Half of KFC customers order for their workers, the other half work for their clients. For both halves, boxed meals will continue to serve most customers’ needs.

“We are happy to see that our customers have a new understanding of the current circumstances, and honestly, so do we. Whether they are ordering for their team or their clients, our customers have more confidence than they did in April that they can safely feed their teams again. Barring any abrupt changes, we are hoping to see that confidence grow.”

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