What to Know Before Starting a Catering Business4 chefs share their secrets for opening a catering company and running it efficiently.
Running a successful catering business has obvious perks, among them the flexibility to set your own schedule, the ability to be your own boss and the satisfaction of seeing an event through from start to finish.
But while caterers make their jobs look easy, the reality is that there are hours of planning and often grueling effort behind every plate.
“Being a good cook will not make you a successful caterer,” said Denise Vivaldo, a Los Angeles-based culinary consultant, longtime caterer, and author of several books, including “How to Start a Home-Based Catering Business.”
Before diving into catering part or full time, here are four considerations to take from four caterers who have gotten it right.
Manage your expectations
Even when catering for celebrities and high-profile clients, there’s a common misconception that catering is glamorous, said Andrea Correale, founder and president of Elegant Affairs catering in New York, who has catered for everyone from Jimmy Fallon to Billy Joel.
“Although you’re always at a party, there is a lot of pressure involved and you must rely on many other people,” she said. “Your face is attached to everything you produce, and that pressure can be a lot at times.”
Catering businesses require long hours and a detail-oriented personality, as well as impeccable time-management skills. There are busy months (summer) and slower months (winter). And those who can’t improvise when crises arise need not apply.
For many restaurants, owners open a catering service thinking they can make the same food they serve in the restaurant in larger quantities, but the two businesses could not be more different.
In a restaurant, food is served immediately after cooking, whereas catered food can take 45 hours from when it finishes cooking to when it is served to a guest. In between, it’s stored in hot boxes and transported, making it important to carefully think of what food you’ll serve, how you’ll have to tweak recipes and cooking techniques, and how you can ensure food is safe to eat, according to Michael Thomas, owner of John Michael Exquisite Weddings and Catering based in Orlando, Florida.
“In my 20 years of experience, I have seen caterers easily transition into a restaurant, but have seen many restaurants fail to transition into catering,” he said.
Service comes first
A passion for cooking and food may be the first priority for caterers, but service always needs to be a close second.
“One has to enjoy nurturing clients, because your skills are fostering their event dreams,” Marcy Ragan, chef and owner of Relish Chef Services in Monmouth County, New Jersey, said. “The caterer becomes the caretaker of their clients’ vision.”
Catering requires chefs to be willing to work with clients to tailor specific menus and adapt to clients’ demands and preferences – not always the other way around.
On the day of, it’s crucial for caterers to work the room to make sure all guests are well fed, entertained and cared for – otherwise the food being served becomes an
“You want the room humming with excitement, like a great rock song with many moving pieces coming together to create a unique sound,” Ragan said.
Think through the logistics
Once you’ve decided to pursue a catering business, one of the first things to consider is whether you’ll run an on-premise catering company, where you work at one venue in the same kitchen, or an off-premise company, where you cook elsewhere and transport your food to different venues.
On-premise catering companies require considerably more money and planning to get off the ground, as they function as full-service event venues. But because everything is done onsite, they can charge a premium for their services. Such venues need curb appeal, a convenient location and sufficient space, Correale said.
An off-premise catering company, on the other hand, can be started with a minimal investment to cover commercial kitchen, van and equipment rentals, insurance, and food.
Vivaldo recommended purchasing equipment as you need it, instead of investing in a multitude of costly products from the start. Start with disposable trays and graduate to professional chafing dishes, tables and linens as the need arises (and don’t forget to charge clients for rentals to recoup costs).
Hone your skills
Good management skills are needed in any business, but they are especially crucial in catering, where there are many moving parts and people to keep track of.
Food needs to be purchased and prepped, sometimes days in advance; waiters need to be hired and organized; and cooking needs to be perfectly timed for clients’ needs.
“You’re the ringleader,” Vivaldo said. “You find out you cannot take it all on yourself.” In other words, to be a caterer, you have to be comfortable delegating.
But the best way to evaluate whether to start a catering business is to experience it firsthand. Vivaldo recommended signing up for a few weekend shifts with top caterers in your area to observe the environment, what the company is doing well, and how they could improve.
“We make it look easy, but there is lots of planning,” Ragan said. “Every detail matters.”