Catering is a popular way for private individuals and businesses to provide meals and refreshments at social events, meetings, location-based operations, and more. For entrepreneurs, a catering business can be lucrative in its own right, or it can serve as a stepping stone to opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Starting a catering business requires careful budgeting and planning just like any other business venture but presents some unique and exciting challenges of its own.
The Business Model
Before starting a catering business of your own, you’ll need to be prepared for self-employment. Make sure you do your research on the tax implications of being self-employed, and how to go about registering your business and thinking up a marketable name and logo. You want to be aware of what’s involved in the job description of a professional caterer. Being your own boss can be convenient, but it also means a lot of late nights, early mornings and weekends that you’ll be spending in the kitchen without the benefit of overtime pay. As a professional caterer, you should have a real passion for cooking and serving clients high-quality meals. There’s also a lot of cleanup involved so be ready to wash a lot of dishes or have it in your budget to hire someone. You need to be organized and very punctual. Clients won’t be pleased if you show up late to a time-sensitive function. A good sense of direction and adaptability is also an advantage, as caterers are often travelling to new venues and neighbourhoods, working with different clients every day. Be prepared to determine the logistics of setting up warming plates, platters, and dishes in a variety of less-than-ideal spaces. Some caterers opt to combine transportation and kitchen space by buying a food truck. This model is a favourite of caterers for film and television shoots, as a given client might hire one company for a set period of time but shoot on a different location each week. In this case, you’ll need to have the proper licencing to operate a food truck and be able to pay for expenses such as fuel and maintenance.
Planning Your Costs
Starting a catering business comes with its own unique set of expenses. Along with a budget for supplies, like food and drink, you’ll most likely need to budget for purchases of specialized equipment and for hiring staff. Remember that most catering clients will expect you to provide equipment like platters, hot plates, tablecloths, and serving utensils. You’ll need to purchase enough of each to accommodate the number of people at a given event. Depending on the type of foods you plan on serving, you may also need to invest in some kitchen implements and small appliances. A bare-basics catering company serving mainly prepacked foods can pick up plenty of clients like schools, low-budget film crews, and small businesses, but if you plan on serving at high-class events or preparing lunches for powerful executives, these types of clients will expect higher-quality, hand-prepared dishes. You’ll need to budget according to the quality of the foods you plan on serving. Depending on the size and scope of your business, you may also need to think about renting a space. A home-based operation might be fine for your first year or two of incorporation, but if business goes well and you want to expand, eventually you may find yourself in the market for a business lease. Hiring staff can also be a budgeting hurdle for catering companies. When you’re first starting out, you might be able to get by with conscripting a couple of friends or relatives to help you arrange platters or load dishes into your vehicle on the day of an event. As your company grows, you’ll need to hire part-time serving staff to help out at functions. Larger catering companies and ones that create daily meals for clients need a few full-time staff members to help out with prep as well as serving.
Marketing and Attracting Clients
Catering is a large field, and as such, most individual catering businesses opt to specialize their services to one particular area. Corporate catering businesses deliver food to office functions and may even cater daily lunches for employees, depending on the size and budget of the client company. Some caterers work specifically in the film industry, setting up craft services tents or lunch trailers for film crews on location. Other business models are tailored to supporting social gatherings and events such as weddings with high-quality dining and drinks. It’s a good idea to narrow down the types of food you offer so clients will know what to expect. Are sandwiches the mainstay of your operation, or do you exclusively supply handcrafted chocolate desserts? Your budget will determine what types of food and equipment you are able to purchase, which can influence the clientele you attract. If you’re more interested in catering to high-powered executives and celebrities, keep in mind you’ll probably have to spend a few years making a name for yourself, not to mention building up enough profitability to pay for the necessary expenses. Keep track of your target market’s needs, and know when to direct your marketing materials at certain people. Summer barbecues and winter holiday functions alike are usually planned out several months in advance; if you want to snag a contract for a company Christmas party, you’ll want to start marketing to managers and executives in September or October. Catering is a large industry with plenty of opportunity to carve out your own niche. With the right tools and planning, you can create food experiences that are memorable for your clients, and profitable for you.