Catering Leadership Profile: Jeff Drake


Jeff Drake has a long-storied history when it comes to building catering operations for restaurant brands. His career background spans Corner Bakery Café, Go Roma, Le Duff America, and now, Protein Bar.

As CEO and president of Protein Bar, Drake has enhanced and revamped the concept’s catering and in-store menu, and has grown sales in both categories through improved product offerings. His current focus for catering includes the development of a better breakfast menu and building on what the company calls ‘shake breaks.’

Each initiative is enhancing the company’s catering operation, which is growing at a “40 percent clip,” Drake said, thanks to a catering sales manager and team dedicated to boosting sales. We recently had the chance to speak with Drake at a Protein Bar location in Chicago, and gained insights into his philosophy of catering, shaped by 20+ years of experience.

1.     What’s your viewpoint in regard to catering, takeout and delivery today?

I’ve been in the catering space since my early days at Corner Bakery Cafe, where I started in 1996, and I’m a huge believer in catering. There were four open Corner Bakery Café’s at the time and I spent nine years there growing with the brand to understand the catering space. We wrote catering software before it even existed! What I learned is that the benefit of catering is not only tied to the P&L; it also works for brand awareness. I view it as another way to interact with customers and for guests to tell you what they want from your brand.

For me, the biggest thing was my belief that catering worked. What’s happened since then is that competition has gotten much more complicated. Now, we’re making sure we’re doing things in a best-in-class way. I have never been anything but very positive about catering because I see the benefits of it.

2.     What is needed to build a profitable and thriving catering program?

For starters, everyone has to be committed to it and everyone has to buy into it. Also, be on time. Be on time. Be on time.

3.     What is the No. 1 investment you have made in terms of catering?

I would say it’s been two investments: software and people. We have a website and use MONKEY on the back-end. The software is adding value because of how easy it is for the customer to order and look at past orders. We also can easily view and track house accounts, which is important. We then invested in catering sales representatives and catering coordinators. These are higher paid hourly employees who are organized, have a sense of urgency and ensure orders are getting out the door on time. Our catering team is charged with growing orders from our catering menu and shake breaks. Currently, breakfast catering orders are around $100 each and our lunch catering orders are much closer to $200.

4.     What are shake breaks?

Shake Breaks are a great afternoon snack or can be used for team building. We have a mobile blending cart that features a couple of Vitamix blenders, shake ingredients and crushed ice. So, we go onsite and bring in a variety of different shakes that we blend on the spot. All we need is an outlet. It’s something we are now doing five or six times a week and it’s a 25-person minimum. We launched formally at the end of 2017, beginning of 2018.

5.     How do you see third-party marketplaces impacting catering and delivery sales?

It’s very different. The world of third parties is something we’re managing very closely. I do believe that if you’re not on some of these third-party platforms, you’re not in the game. Millennials now use those companies like we used food courts in the mall. So, I look at fees as paying rent. We do our own catering deliveries, but for us to do a delivery for one- or two-item orders, we don’t have those capabilities. But, we’re really monitoring the customer experience there.

GrubHub did not start out as a third-party delivery company. They were an online ordering platform for people who didn’t have websites. Then Uber came along and they all discovered a huge demand for consumers to get food on demand. Food has been delivered for as long we’ve been alive, but it’s primarily been pizza. Then Jimmy Johns and other brands discovered ordering food from a computer made sense. It was the perfect storm for the shift gig economy.

But, the reality is consumers are learning they don’t have to wait.

I’m seeing a lot of progressive brands who have made the decision they’re not going to work with third parties. And yes, they are investing in delivery. I also think there has to be some consolidation of all these different third-party platforms. Dominos, Pizza Hut and Jimmy John’s perfected delivery. YUM! partnered with GrubHub even though they already had the delivery model perfected by Pizza Hut. I think we’re learning from everybody. I see food being delivered by us, a third party or a consumer coming in and picking it up as part of the customer journey.

6.     What do you think operators need to consider moving forward?

I think our dining rooms are going to get smaller and our back-of-house will get bigger. Consumers are demanding that we get food to them wherever they are. It will be interesting to see what happens in the fast-casual space and we know we don’t need anything bigger than 2000-square-feet.

7.     What advice can you share with our readers?

Everyone is getting inundated with technology and what they should ask is ‘is it great for my guest and also for my business and my team?’ If it’s not adding value, why are you doing it?

Everyone should do catering, but don’t do it unless you’ve thought it out and made sure you can execute. You only get to make one first impression.

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