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How To Make it in Catering

Aug 17, 2007
The business of catering itself is pretty routine once you get the business going. A caterer is simply a restaurant in which every order is delivered. You'll have the usual concerns of food preparation, pricing, storing, and serving, without the need for a wait staff or a dining area but with the need for delivery drivers and service staff at the delivery point.

Starting the catering business, however, takes some imagination. Your priority as a small business owner is not to change the face of business, but rather how you grow your business from one level to another level of expansion while staying profitable. By continuing to focus on a small niche while expanding, you can take the time necessary educating your prospects and customers about the advantages which you bring to the market.

There almost isn't such a thing as a general-purpose caterer. There are wedding, bar-mitzvah, graduation and birthday caterers. There are simple party caterers. Others market to a specific field of business, such as construction and industrial. One memorable company in California specializes in catering for film crews shooting on location. Their name is "The Cast Supper".

That's the kind of creativity you want. A specific area where you specialize, lucrative enough to provide steady business, and with an unforgettable name and business image that will make your clients think of you first whenever they are in need. Once you develop your strategies, continue to develop them and redefine them until everybody recognizes you to be the obvious leader in your small niche. Later you can expand beyond your small niche.

Styling and theme will go a long way towards making your business be the one that stands out. If you cater to parties and festive events, consider the culture where you'll be drawing your customers from. You can specialize in an ethnic category, such as Italian or Indonesian cuisine. You can cater to themed events such as Medieval Renaissance events or corporate business conventions.

If you partner with a mobile DJ service, you can become a mobile party on wheels! Mobile Disk Jockeys and caterers have a lot in common, and DJs specialize in a category of music and theme as well. Together, you can create a style that markets to a specific culture such as Goth, Hip-Hop, or Salsa. In addition, a caterer and a mobile DJ can refer customers to each other, and can further partner with a party decoration service such as a balloon service.

Every thing you need to plan:

Expected Income: This is a rough expectation of what you can make month to month. Identifying your market is key here; if your market tends to seasonal variations you'll need to plan for times of year when you aren't getting as much business.

Initial set up costs: The initial costs are moderately low compared to opening a traditional restaurant. The costs are not much and you can start pretty small, with even a home-based business if you do not have lots of capital at hand. Starting in the home may require seed money of a few thousand dollars, but by the time you're taking contracts you'll be up to business costs of at least tens of thousands of dollars. When you start taking contracts, you might consider to mainly cook on location, but even then lots of small stuff like cleaning and cutting vegetables will be done in your kitchen only. The main cooking could be done on location so you can first rent the kitchen equipment every time you need it instead on investing in buying everything. Utensils, china, tables, serving equipment, and such are available for renting so you can cut costs this way.

Getting a License: Usually the local health department gives the requisite permissions. The caterers have to fulfill certain minimum safety requirements for getting the license. Once you get a license there will be routine inspections performed to see if you maintain the proper health safety standards.

Planning and cooking: Catering business requires superb cooking and planning skills as well. To run the business successfully you need to be a great planner, putting thought to every detail. You need to visualize the entire event and think of all the contingencies that might happen there. On the face of it you need to be well organized but there needs to be enough flexibility in your systems so that in case there are last minute changes, you will not have problems. A good idea is to conduct a staff meeting after each event, where you collect ideas from the event that you can use next time.

Attractive menu: Now we're talking! The more creative you are, the better you'll do. Plan to address the needs of your customer's such as providing vegetarian menus, menus for the allergic, menus limited for reasons of religion such as Kosher foods, or social class of the customers. Catering to the upper crust will require an elegant and sophisticated menu, while an industrial lunch-time caterer selling to hard-hats will call for more common fare.

Contract for clients: Always have a proper contract and include the relevant information before the event in a document package. State clearly the terms of your agreement. Any small business attorney can review the contract form for you.

Price your product right: Add all your fixed costs and the variable costs as well the material costs; here you may figure beforehand what it costs to serve a party of ten, a hundred, and a thousand if you're doing events. Or you will figure pricing based on the individual customer.

Insurance: Your business insurance has to take into account the combined concerns of a restaurant, a mobile delivery service, and on-the-scene event services. This is a challenge to keep affordable, as there are so many variables to consider. Kitchen safety, safety of driving equipment, the drivers themselves, and the well-being of your staff and equipment. Think about the worst that can go wrong, like a severe storm happening as you get to the event. Chaos! Catering is an adventure in many ways, and if you listen to the old hands in this industry you'll hear one story after another of fantastic circumstances and wild unexpected difficulties.

Alcohol: Will you serve it? If not, will somebody else? Mobile barkeeps exist, and you can either partner with them or take one onto your staff. If this is a factor, you will need to think about controlling age checking, and the possibility that you might be dealing with a disorderly guest at an event.
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