Are you ready to take your culinary skills and professional prowess to the next level? Do you have the kitchen chops to prepare and cook any order, no matter how complex, with precise execution? If so, there’s nothing like starting your own catering business to put your metal to the test. This kind of commercial endeavor does more than give you the freedom to live out your dreams. Managing everything from catering basics to delivering seamless confection miracles is all in a day’s work.
Spearheading a catering business elevates your professional status to a position of leadership with a spirit of entrepreneurial pride. It’s a feeling that has to be experienced first hand to truly appreciate. Starting a catering business takes time, focused effort, and the presence of mind to accept unforeseen changes in your professional life.
At first, your schedule and productivity might seem awkward or inefficient. Power through this transition by working diligently and the rewards are well worth the time and energy. Earning a living as a caterer isn’t always easy. But, theres a way to make running a successful catering company happen. The circumstances are just waiting for you to take control. If nothing else, you can add the CEO or some other executive title to your resume. That is if you haven’t already.
Table of Contents
Do the Prep Work Before you get Cooking
Whether you start your culinary services from scratch or already own your restaurant, a successful restaurant catering venture doesn’t just happen. Getting the right elements to come together, and keeping them from falling apart, requires a solid plan. This means doing research and gathering data on a myriad of subjects ranging from demographics to supply-chain franchises. You could start with a quick trip to the library and pick up a book about catering tips for beginners.
Reverse engineering your business model and operations based on what works for other caterers is a trick of the trade. It’s also a great idea that you reach out to a mentor and representative within a reputable consulting firm. A good collaboration between you and trusted advisors can help fill any gaps in your strategy.
While gathering data, make sure to pay close attention to the competition from more than one angle. Size up every catering business making a splash in the field, as thoroughly as you can. Certainly, you should look at their operations and see how they stand apart from the average contender in the market.
But at the same time, pay close attention to the levels of customer service they provide and their overall performance. This kind of fact-finding leg work is the best way to pick up insightful restaurant catering tips. Dig deep, and look for any aspect or component within the competition’s business models that could be improved. Observe everything from payment options to onsite storage techniques, and don’t stop until you find a way to one-up them.
Even if you only plan to offer your catering services seasonally as a temporary enterprise, you still have to run it like a corporation. This means thinking in terms of scale, cost, productivity, revenue, manpower, and expansion. In any event, you should consider applying for a loan from a financial institution.
Often, a good amount of cash flow is needed to really get things off the ground. You might not need help from a financial institution. However, the insight from an experienced advisor can prove most useful as a source of guidance and reference.
Most importantly, remember that research and data collection is an ongoing process of your catering business. It happens every day on some level. From reaching out to new clients and customers to bargain hunting for deals on disposable napkins, it never stops.
It Takes a Little Bread to Make a Little Bread
With your initial research completed, which should result in some form of processed and interpreted information, you’re ready to apply for financing. Even if you don’t really have a need to take out a loan from a financial institution, you should think of it as a smart-money move. Securing funds to handle the cost of starting a catering service removes a lot of the stress and risk involved in bankrolling the process with your own resources.
It also boosts your credit history when you pay back the capital and interest from a loan on time. Good credit history is a major factor in getting approved for better loans down the line. You may need to apply for a loan to cover emergency expenses that suddenly come from nowhere. Having a good credit history can actually help to secure your catering business future, so secure and repay a loan from the bank as soon as possible.
The initial start-up costs to a catering service are relatively low compared to other ventures. But, you still have to budget wisely due to the delicate nature of the foodservice industry. The bottom line is that you need to keep a pool of funds lying in wait. It’s a safety net, just in case a serious dry spell or market crash follows your venture takes off.
It could take the better part of the fiscal year to see any returns on your investment. However, the rent is due the first of the month without fail. So while you do a bit of business juggling, two things should hopefully happen.
One, you have to use a good amount of your start-up funds to pay for your marketing campaign(s). You should see a return on investment anywhere within the next 12 months. Also, you have to be ready to start small and snowball into something bigger by adding different services and products to the menu over time. You don’t know what you don’t know, but conservation is an effective way to handle the unexpected.
Out of the gate, your catering services may not provide a steady stream of clients and customers that running a business affords. Never the less, your catering material still needs its own space. It’s a conflict of interest to have a lunch crew and catering staff pulling from the same cooler.
Sure, it’s fine when everything and everybody does their job. But, all it takes is one clerical mistake or missed delivery on either side of the team to cause a disaster. Fortunately, the solution is as simple as keeping catering resources and tools in their own containers and space.
The catering space doesn’t have to be annexed from anything else. A simple storage area with lock and key along with sufficient counter space is all you need. That should be enough to get orders out the door.
Because catering services are transient in nature, it’s a good idea to get a mobile grilling unit. Some people refer to these as a “roach coach”. Having a road-worthy way to serve confections at popular events is an excellent way to get the word out to about your services.
It’s also a good way to cross-train staff and offer extra hours to employees that want to do more for your business. They’re super easy to clean (no roach coaches here!) and can be managed by a single person. And, these units generate a surprising amount of money when placed at a lucrative location.
Remember to segment your catering space to match any disparity between your social and commercial customers. That way, you can offer more exotic options for the group of people who order more from you. It’s also a great way to know how things are going business-wise from just a quick glance in the cooler, freezer, or pantry.
No matter the size or location of your catering storage and facilities, there’s one thing you can’t ignore. Storage. It can make or break your ability to complete orders. Make sure that storage has the dimensions and functionality to change and grow as needed throughout the year. You don’t want to be wasting time hunting down extra hot and cold racks in the middle of the holiday season.
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What’s on the Menu Stays on the Menu
Once you have the heavy lifting of gathering resources, security, and hospitality out of the way, it’s time to get creative. To highlight the unique flavor and impeccable reputation of your catering services, you need to craft a menu. Keep in mind that catering is largely about feeding a crowd of people.
So, everything on your average restaurant menu may not be practical to serve in a catered event. But, on the other hand, you may use your services to introduce new confections to clients and customers. Your catering can actually offer themed flavors specially designed for members of the community.
You may even offer deals, services, and packages completely made to order for specific customers. For the most part, there’s a little bit of wiggle room when it comes to the services involved with catering menus. These types of things really make you stand out against the competition when the busy wedding and holiday season rolls around.
You have to use some kind of scale while putting together your menu and balance portion size with production costs. It’s super important that you show a little diversity in what goes on the list to entice, or at least incentivize, clients and customers, to call in those big orders. In reality, the food preferences and eating habits of the communities you serve should determine the makeup of your catering menu.
The print and categories of prices are just as important as the products and services available on the menu. Without a doubt, catering services can involve a lot of detailed and specialized work. So, it’s not out of the question for the price point to reflect that fact.
If you can handle the planning and prep work, there?s nothing wrong with offering flavors and dishes from all across the globe all year round. Just make sure that the catering menu card is easy to read and gives the people what they want. By the way, adding some quality pictures or images of the dishes prepared goes a long way to peak interest.
Welcome Others to the Team Carefully
Even if you have the culinary skills to match any top iron chef in the world, the success of your catering endeavors largely depends on staffing and administrative efforts. Assembling a skeleton crew to help you to achieve production goals is absolutely essential to maintaining and growing a client list. Initially, most catering services have a “feast or famine” feel to them, so finding the right staff may present you with a few challenges.
Having too much manpower on a project can be more detrimental than having too few hands on deck. If a project is simply too much for your team to handle, you can always outsource as needed to complete an order. If you know a huge wave of work is coming down the line, you may want to take to social media or staffing platforms to put the word out. Nothing feels bad like shelling out for extra hands that you just don’t need.
Depending on the commercial costs and contractual obligations, you may call in a local employment agency for help. If you feel the need to keep a permanent staff ready, make sure team members can do more than one task for the sake of teamwork. Of course, you can always train anyone willing to listen and learn provided they have the right set of skills.
So, how are you going to keep the staff in line and make your clients and customers happy at the same time? The answer is simple. Hire a chef who shares your vision and goals to handle operations, so you can keep a hand on the wheel. Depending on where you intend to do your catering, it may be worth the effort to highlight the reputation and experience of the head chef or any others on your team.
Just remember that your name and reputation is the cornerstone of the catering business. So, it’s good practice to get in the trenches and work hands-on with your staff members. You should be doing that as often as possible if not on a daily basis.
Get all the Licenses Right or Pay the Price
With your staff and facilities in place, the next step to setting up your catering business is to make sure that everything is in order as far as permits, licenses, and insurance go. It’s all about legality at this point in the start-up process, and interference from government institutions for violations should be avoided. Having proper paperwork and certificates in the name of your catering services helps to protect your investment and reputation.
If you find acquiring the proper licenses too much trouble or not having them threatens to stop your business, think about renting. Any facility or location that makes the grade will do in a temporary pinch. In the meantime, you can upgrade your digs as needed until “the man” gives you the thumbs up.
Keep in mind that many of the regulations regarding your catering services are going to be focused on your kitchen facilities and not the office where you balance the checkbook. Having that fact in mind, you still have to watch out for things like insurance lapses and labor law compliance. And if you serve alcohol, that’s a whole other can of worms to deal with.
Just get in touch with your local and state government agencies to get clear on everything needed to be in compliance. Just like the paperwork in the office that runs your catering services, the kitchen area has to maintain certain standards. These food handling practices are set down by the health department in every state and should be taken seriously.
Fortunately, safe food handling practices are easy to follow and require little more than competent training to learn. For quick reference, many kitchens keep easy to read signs with the rules and regulations for safe food handling practices printed clearly on them. This includes the well-known “All employees must wash hands before leaving the restroom” sign to the sanitation labels on liquid soap dispensers in the dish pit.
Keep the Jeeps Cheap in the Short Run
Depending on how big your operations grow to be, it may be worth your time and effort to simply partner with another business when it comes to transportation. Do you need a fleet of vans to transport food from various locations? If so, how many, and is that number subject to change over time?
Over the short run, it might save you money on insurance and other incidentals to let someone else own the means of transportation. If you plan on staying in business and growing all the time, you might consider taking out a business loan and just buying what you need. Just remember that vehicles are subject to need repair and maintenance on a regular basis and budget accordingly.
On the other hand, you could use your fleet of vans as a method of advertising by giving them a flashy makeover. That way every time an order gets delivered, people see your services and imagery of the confections for sale.
Professional Networking Works all the Time
In some instances, you just have to hold your ground and make progress happen for your catering business on your own merits. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. And, you should consider a partnership with other professionals in complementary fields.
In other words, network with other entrepreneurs whose line of work helps yours and vice versa. For example, you might want to keep the names and numbers of local or popular event planners on your contact list. And, you need to update that list as often as possible.
This way you don’t necessarily have to worry about having to knock on doors or make your services known in exclusive circles. The work has been done already. You only need to stay in contact with the right network of professionals and wait to be introduced to big-ticket clients.
That’s easier said than done, but there are shortcuts from a to z if you use the right tools and channels. If you happen to own a restaurant, use that fact to your advantage in any way possible within reason. If you don’t happen to own a restaurant or hold an impressive position within one, don’t stress out. You can still partner with other professionals like event planners.
You might want to have a nice looking label, brand name, and logo ready that really represents your passion and talent for catering events. If you feel the need, reach out to a professional design team to put the right aesthetic elements together. That way you have a professional look, service, and style while finding partners and building networks.
Just Give Them the Details for Now
With a logo in place that truly represents who you are and what you have to offer, it’s time to face the public. At this phase of starting your catering services, it’s more about covering all the bases and presenting a smooth image. If you have a brick and mortar business behind you, feel free to initiate some face to face interaction between yourself and potential catering clients.
These introductions are not about selling yourself or pitching services. It’s more about informing people about your passion for service and directing them to your online website or platform. The more streamlined, connected, and functional the site or platform, the more likely you are to see conversions as a result of visits.
If you don’t have a brick and mortar business behind you, there’s no need to stress about meeting the public. You just have to use different channels of communication. This means staying on the cutting edge of social media and other popular forms of entertainment such as a podcast. This is where things like digital signage and modular compatibility play a major part in getting you seen in the scene.
So once again, you need to go with professional designs from reputable companies with in-touch networks to get seen. There are metrics and big data involved when it comes to online networking. And, it’s too time-consuming to figure that all out while running your business on top of the prep and cooking needed for events.
It’s like plumbing. You may be smart and experienced enough to work out any needed solution. Or, you could just call someone better suited for the task and save yourself the headache.
Let the World Know What you Can Do
The final piece in the puzzle in starting up your own catering service involves the critically important task of marketing. Unless you have an extensive or working knowledge of how to execute a marketing campaign, it’s best to let trusted professionals do the work for you.
Certainly, there are some aspects to marketing that you can figure out for yourself such as keeping in contact with current clients and customers. From there, things can get somewhat complicated when it comes to doing things like updating information for search engine results. Also, there’s a bit of technical jargon involved with backlinks, point of contact, and other terms that have to deal with the digital side of marketing.
Trying to get a spot, and be seen, on the television screen is not possible for many businesses, so don’t feel like there’s no hope if it doesn’t happen for you. Really, the advertisement world is shifting and the best way to get the attention is through a good online review. No matter which technology method of campaigning you choose to go used, make sure to be aggressive in your approach.
You cannot rely on an old message that was sent out weeks or even months ago to be relevant. The attention span the public is super short, so you have to come up with a new reason for wanting attention every time you ask for it. Therefore, you might upload a short cooking show on sites like YouTube to display what you have to offer and entice new business.
The Best Lesson is a Good Example
Of course, the different aspects and demands of running your catering business should blend with one another. They do not have clear-cut starting and stopping points. Things like deadlines and networking overlap. So, you need a clear explanation of how to get the best results from every opportunity. This YouTube video covers several catering tips. The content goes over the scenarios and typical circumstances that you can expect to see in the catering business. It’s actually a podcast and serves as an introductory lesson on the finer points of building a dynamic clientele base. Reviewing media sources like this helps you to master catering to avoid tragic mistakes.
As you can imagine, there are no limits when it comes to starting your catering business. But, it’s also going to take some obedience on your part. Depending on your levels of culinary, executive, and administrative experience, each step from research to marketing may prove challenging.
You only need to complete each task thoroughly to be ready for the next stage. The best part about starting a cost effective catering business is the practice involved. Once you get things started, it’s really up to you keep the wheel on turning.
There’s nothing to hold you back and at the same time no one else to blame for oversights. Running a good catering business is a constant exercise in problem solving and creative growth. Enjoy every challenging and rewarding minute of it as much as possible.
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