Starting and Running a Catering Business
Running Your Own Catering Business
As we’ve already established in the preface, running a catering business is a vision many people have. In reality, however, this can be put on the back burner while you decide on how to proceed.
WHY RUN A CATERING BUSINESS?
As an employee, your current work might be unrewarding, unstimulating and predictable, or you may be locked into a profession that no longer inspires. You may long to develop your creative and business side and therefore being a caterer has an appeal for you. Or you may be postponing the change as the leap from being an employee to self-employed and employer is a daunting one. But having chosen this book, you are doubtless motivated to find out more about the next steps to becoming a caterer.
SKILLS YOU NEED
Before starting out, it is essential to consider whether you have what is needed to make a success of a business in catering.
- Are you a good organiser and planner?
- Are you a versatile cook?
- Are you a problem-solver?
- Are you able to delegate effectively?
- Will you be able to establish a good rapport with clients, staff and suppliers?
- Can you be hospitable towards guests when the party is in full swing?
And most of all – do you like people? If you find dealing with people on many levels a trial, then running a catering business might not be for you. Examine which skills you possess, where you may have weaknesses and what you can do to overcome these. Remember, as you are considering this career move – or, indeed, career start – you may already have what it takes.
When running a small catering business, you will need to be able to do almost everything, from shopping, cooking and serving, to delegating where possible, doing the bookkeeping, writing the quotes and confirmations, keeping up with hygiene rules and regulations and briefing staff, even right down to the washing up.You will also need to market your brand-new career continually.
Skills such as the ability to manage a crisis with a smile, without losing your cool and to work with a number of different people, from parents of the bride to managing directors and flower designers, will all be put to the test in a catering environment.
It is essential to make sure there are no weaknesses in your business and that you have all the required skills and knowledge to pull it off successfully.
Catering, in its most basic form, is all about feeding people. This comes down to how efficient you are and how you are able to shape raw materials into interesting and distinctively tasty food. Meticulous planning is also a hugely important aspect of being a caterer, a skill which you will either have to learn on the hoof or will have already developed in another career or through running a household.
There will, inevitably, be a lot to absorb as you start out in your new business. How to get guests to the table without prepared food spoiling? What kind of menus work for a variety of occasion? These are just a couple of such challenges.
Once you do get going, it’s a good idea to review your first few events and see how you can improve on things like efficiency and organisation, the quantity and display of food, and instructions to staff.
You can then ask yourself: Did I remember to take everything to the event? Did I anticipate the whole event or were there some surprises? While you read this book and are thinking about running a catering business, bear in mind that things won’t be perfect from day one. Even several years down the line things will always need improving. You will learn through trial and error, as with most new businesses, while you gain experience on a daily basis.
I will come to list of what makes a good caterer later. First, consider what type of catering you are considering offering?
TYPES OF CATERING
Winning a contract to be the sole caterer for a company is one way forward. You will be expected to offer whatever the company needs for its employees, from breakfasts, mid-morning coffees and snacks, to lunches, afternoon teas and the occasional corporate reception on the premises.
Other corporate catering can include quoting for a specific occasion: a business lunch for overseas’ guests, the Christmas party, the board of directors’ all-day meeting, a long-serving member of staff’s farewell party, a merger with another company resulting in a large reception, or the launch of a new product or service.
You could also be asked to quote for staff outings to sports, cultural or fundraising events, all increasingly important in the corporate calendar. Much of the catering within large businesses is done in-house, but sometimes they will ask for quotes from outside caterers for special occasions as they may be looking for better quality food and service that their own caterers can’t provide.
You may also wish to consider doing lunches for a director’s dining room. Another way forward is to bid for a dedicated catering contract at a museum, an art gallery, a stately home open to the public, a garden centre, or one of the many arts centres and theatres now gracing our cities – even an independent, art house cinema.
Although you can approach a wide variety of places, larger establishments such as museums and theatres have a tendency to ask major catering companies to do the job. Any contract with them is usually a long one which cannot be broken without incurring a penalty.
Theatre bosses were keen for me to take over their catering operation but the previous incumbents had locked the theatre into a lengthy contract. I could have offered fresh ingredients prepared and served imaginatively which would have reflected the creativity of the acclaimed theatre. Instead the public continued to be offered processed food of dubious quality.
If you do tender for such a contract and are lucky enough to be awarded it, it means a regular income but also less flexibility if you run a small company as you and your staff are then tied to that organisation.Your company will be responsible for the food, drink, staffing, equipment, health and hygiene, and on an agreed budget.
As your business grows, and with it your staff, you may be able to handle more work – perhaps running an outlet supplying sandwiches and other fast, cold food to other businesses in the area and offering tailor-made catering to individual clients.
If, on the other hand, you are keen to have weekends off, a contract within corporate catering may suit you better. But you will need to be prepared to be flexible if asked to cater for a special occasion or function, as you will need to safeguard your role as sole caterer for that company. Another caterer, brought in as a one-off, might wow them with their food and service and challenge your place.
Social and specialised catering
This can be catering for private clients, or cooking on a semi-regular basis for a number of clients for a fixed hourly fee, as well as running a private catering company. Events for both can include lunches, dinner parties, receptions, weddings, funerals, christenings, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, barbecues and all manner of other celebrations.
Apart from preparing the food from scratch (buying and starting some of the dishes at your premises and finishing them off at the client’s), you will also be asked to provide, in most cases, the staff. For larger functions you will also be in charge of either providing the equipment (including linen, cutlery, plates and glassware) at a cost to the client, or you will be asked to provide a list for the client so that they can arrange for all this and then pay the hire company directly.
If you have amassed a good, reliable list of companies who can supply specialist categories, for larger parties you may wish to quote for all the refreshments, as well as the linen, table, chair and marquee hire, the flowers and even supplying musicians.
Many catering companies work in both corporate and specialised catering.
When catering for a business reception, you could well be approached by a guest to cater for a private event. These require different approaches, as you will be dealing with contrasting people and situations. Corporate kitchens can vary enormously, from just being somewhere to make morning coffee to (more rarely), a full-blown kitchen with all the whistles and bells. Private kitchens can be hell or heaven when it comes to space, (un)reliable ovens, roaming pets and just plain, old-fashioned dirt!
Corporate businesses usually have a larger budget to work with, and social clients are more liable to try to cut costs when they become aware of the high costs of staffing, marquees, flowers and other expenses when planning a large function.
Other catering services
For those looking to give a less expensive catering service, cold service catering offers the delivery of pre-packaged food, including snacks (such as bagels, or coffee and cakes), lunches, sandwiches, boxed food, for corporate events, trays of canapés and cold meats and cheeses. This convenience of such food is more important here than the service (which still needs to be efficient, professional and punctual, of course!).
Your food will be produced off-site rather than at a client’s home or business and can be either bought-in ready-made or created from scratch by your company.
Your cold service business might deliver to businesses, building sites, a client’s home or even to a photo shoot (I have even been asked to cater on a private aircraft). Making sandwiches on a daily basis for a local store is also a possibility.
You may have an early morning start to get the food prepped and delivered, and the end of the day in this case is usually late afternoon if you haven’t been asked to cater for early evening business canapés. But, of course, there is still the cleaning, shopping and invoicing to be taken care of during the day, which can then stretch on to the evening. If you choose to work in low-budget catering, there will be a lot of competition to come up against.You will also be required to provide a lot of food – which will probably stifle your creativity – as a high turnover is necessary for a viable business.
Working in the more expensive, classier end of catering is a lot more fun and creative, but client demands will be high (as they should be). There is less competition, but when companies and individuals experience an economic slump, catering requirements can disappear overnight.
Whichever type of catering you feel is for you, don’t bypass the opportunity of making your own produce, be it jam, conserves, sauces, cakes, biscuits, meringues or other items, to sell on to delicatessens, at farmers’ markets (share a stall with an established stall holder to keep the costs down), in farm shops and via your own customers.
If you have a natural ability to teach cookery, or are a trained teacher in other subjects, offer yourself to adult education and catering colleges or teach cooking privately as well as running your business. At the start of your new venture, you will need all the regular income you can get.
Which type of catering appeals to you most? It’s a good idea to work out what you can offer and put it down on paper. Clearly define your strengths, your vision, your possible target market. Look in theYellow Pages and on the internet to see if your area is already swamped by catering companies.
Explore the market to see if you have struck lucky (is it a culinary desert out there?) and do some canvassing with businesses to find out their needs. Don’t give up if you are competing against large caterers, as they tend to offer mass-produced food.Your small operation would certainly be able to compete, either on price or by offering better food and service.
If you see your catering business as a hobby or as purely a money-making venture, think again. It takes skill, dedication, hard work, long hours, an ability to sell your business to the public, enthusiasm and loads of energy and commitment. But if you find the right market and are good at what you do, you can certainly make a good living. And it will never be dull, especially when working in the quality side of the business.
WORKING OUT YOUR STRENGTHS
To begin with, examine your strengths and your character (if you are in partnership your colleagues should do this too) by asking yourself the following questions.
These questions need to be answered honestly.You may, of course, have never been tested in some areas. But you will need the majority of these qualities to run a successful business.
The concept of being your own boss is very energising but it is worth analysing both your personality and those of potential co-workers, both professionally and personally, to see if you – and they – have the necessary attributes.
This analytical list is not meant to dissuade from becoming a caterer but to help you become more aware of the skills it takes. If many of the answers are in your favour, any other attributes can be achieved along the way.
- Are you fed up with your job and looking for a change of lifestyle?
- Do you want to be your own boss and keep the profits?
- Are you really positive about creating a new business?
- Are you motivated, organised and self-disciplined?
- Are you competitive?
- Are you efficient?
- Do you have a good grasp of how food is produced? (Not essential but it helps.)
- Have you taken on board the fact that you are saying goodbye to a secure pay packet and fringe benefits for the time being?
- Have you discussed with your family how this will affect them?
- As your busiest period could be weekends, how does this tally with family life?
- Are your family committed to this change of lifestyle and do they back you wholeheartedly?
- Have you discussed with them the possibility of lowering their standard of living until the business gets off the ground?
- Have you money to gamble, knowing you are taking a risk?
- Do you like people? Have you got the skills to deal with the idiosyncrasies of both customers and staff?
- Are you a good communicator?
- Are you prepared for a long possible haul before your business is successful?
- Do you and your business partner(s) share the right temperaments for the hospitality business?
- Are you a problem solver? A decision maker?
- Are you confident enough to sell your business plan to banks, customers and the media?
- Can you take advice? Learn new skills?
- Can you delegate?
- Can you prioritise?
- How are you at stress handling?
- Do you have good health?
- Do you have a warm personality? An hospitable nature?
- Do you have the physical and emotional stamina to work long hours?
- Are you flexible? Calm? Reasonable? Positive?
- How do you really feel about the service industry?
- Is your goal realistic and attainable?
Don’t be put off by this lengthy list. Not all of these questions may apply to you as you may already have partners, colleagues and staff who may well be able to fulfil some of the roles required for running a successful catering company.