Catering is one of those businesses that people idly dream of starting because the entry bar appears to be pretty low. If you’re a foodie whose dinner parties are a hit, it seems like an easy way to get into the food business – easier, at least, than becoming a chef and working at a high-end restaurant; easier than opening your own permanent restaurant; easier even than getting into the food truck arena. After all, all you need is a kitchen and a few waiters, right?
Well, no, actually. A lot goes into a catering business. It’s more than just your secret recipe for to-die-for canapés or cheese puffs.
Depending on your local authority, you probably can’t run your business out of your home kitchen. Health inspections are usually required for any sort of food service. Also, you will need to register as a business and get a tax ID or similar recognition. There are industrial kitchens that rent workspace by the hour or shift, which can be a very affordable way to cook up your delights if you’re not ready for a permanent space of your own.
Well, the food has to come from somewhere, and picking it all up from the local supermarket is not going to be cost-effective. While local shops or markets are fine for special ingredients or high-end touches, in general you’ll want to stick with wholesale grocers. Their costs will be much lower for the basics you need. Keep orders under control – a big mistake newbie caterers make is preparing too much food. Think hard about the number of people you’re cooking for before you place a grocery order.
A second supplier will be needed for the non-edibles a caterer is expected to supply. If you need tables, chairs, table cloths, utensils, serving trays, urns and cambros, you can either purchase them and drag them everywhere (and store them when not needed) or rent them from a supplier, getting exactly what’s needed for each occasion.
Once you cook everything and assemble your flotilla of place settings and serving trays, you’ve got to get everything to the destination (even if cooking on-site, you’ll need to transport staff and materials). You can rent a van, of course, but here it might be wiser to purchase and use rentals only to handle bigger jobs and to get over mechanical problems with your own vehicle. Keep in mind you’ll need something appropriate for food transport – always follow the golden rule of keeping hot dishes hot and cold dishes cold while in transit.
In the beginning, and for small jobs, you may be able to get by on your own, but it’s unlikely. Even small parties will usually require you to run the kitchen/staging area while at least one other person handles bringing out serving trays and monitoring the party itself. A friendly partner is a good start, and for those small beginning ‘gigs’ friends and family, or students looking for work, may be adequate. Going forward, though, you’ll need to hire at least one professional server. Look for someone who has worked for caterers before.
Don’t forget, a uniform looks more professional. It doesn’t have to be custom or something you’ve made. Simply specifying that all team members wear the same style and colour outfits is usually sufficient. You can have button badges made with your company logo to provide instant professionalism.
Catering is a business like any other and requires strong business fundamentals to be successful. Keep your eye on the receivables and payables and adjust your budgets as necessary, and never ever underbid your own costs just to get a job you think will be high profile. In the end, it will be complicated and more work than you expect – but also more rewarding, if you do it right!