Catering: How To Start Catering or Add Catering To Your Business
Whether you’ve dreamed of selling tacos from a food truck or preparing elegant appetizers for wedding receptions, catering can be a lucrative business. On the upside, it offers more creative freedom and lower start-up costs than a traditional restaurant. On the downside, catering is a tough job. Success requires plenty of planning, savvy marketing and hours of hard work, often on nights and weekends.
Before you draw up a business plan, think about your marketing niche. Some caterers specialize in cocktails, canapés and food stations for corporate receptions, while others organize bountiful buffets. Still others provide personal chef services, arriving at a client’s home with prepped food or cooking on-site for social gatherings of two to 200. Then there are the special occasions, the weddings and charity galas held in a hall or even a farmer’s field. Every job brings its own challenges. No two are alike.
Talk to people in the foodservice industry to learn what’s involved in starting a catering business. They can help you come up with a realistic budget and expectations.
If you already own a restaurant, think about the extra workspace and equipment needed to prepare all that food, and the extra fridges and freezers required to store it.
You’ll also need to buy or lease a vehicle and equipment to transport hot and cold food safely from your kitchen to the venue.
Choose a business name that reflects your style.
If working out of a home kitchen is illegal in your area, find a commercial kitchen to rent or look for space in a kitchen incubator geared to culinary start-ups.
Check with your local health department to find out the permits and licences your new venture requires. If you plan to serve liquor you’ll need a liquor licence.
Down to Business
As a general rule, a business plan outlines how your company plans to become successful and profitable. You’ll need one to secure financing.
Begin with a description of your proposed operation and its legal structure.
Add an analysis of the catering industry in your area and the competition you’ll face.
List the wholesale vendors and suppliers you plan to use.
Outline your marketing strategy and how you plan to reach customers.
Highlight your background and skills and those of your team.
Your business plan should cover start-up costs as well as the first three to six months of expected revenues and expenses.
Investigate liability insurance for the day a staff member knocks over a priceless vase in a client’s home.
Find out if you need to collect and remit HST (Harmonized Sales Tax).
Once you’ve chosen a name and niche, scour your network for contacts and potential customers. Talk to family, friends, office managers, event planners, charities, cultural groups and your competitors’ customers to find out why they use a particular caterer and how they rate the experience.
Look around to see if there’s a particular type of catering missing in your area. If you plan to specialize in weddings, don’t miss a bridal show. If you love making desserts, visit bakeries and trade shows and subscribe to commercial baking magazines.
Check out social media reviews of popular local catering companies to find out what customers like and expect.
Don’t forget to add marketing costs to your budget.
Begin creating your brand with an eye-catching logo, then order personalized stationery for quotes and invoices. Interact with customers through email, social media sites and a website. Since food is at the heart of your operation, make sure every photo you publish looks delectable. Hire a professional photographer if you can afford one or recruit a friend with a good camera and a good eye.
The sheer number of supplies you’ll need to cater even the simplest event can be overwhelming. For starters, you’ll need tables, linens, china, glassware, flatware, chafing dishes, serving dishes and utensils.
To choose wisely, educate yourself on what’s hot in today’s food industry. Is it individual plates or family-style platters, square plates or round, bamboo barquettes or porcelain spoons, wooden boards for serving small bites … the choices are endless.
While renting supplies and professional equipment is a sensible way to start, as you grow it may be more economical to buy the items you need.
On the Menu
Discover what’s trending in the food world by devouring food magazines and scrolling through Instagram accounts, Pinterest boards and lifestyle blogs. Check out the competition, perhaps even attend a few of their events, to help you refine your marketing niche.
The type of food you plan to cook will determine the equipment, appliances, even the amount of preparation space you’ll need. You may also need a separate space to conduct tastings for potential clients.
Today’s chefs need to be experts in every sort of diet, from ketogenic to paleo, plant-powered to gluten free. If you plan to focus on a particular dietary style, ask for advice from a registered dietitian. After all, customers are counting on you to get it right.
When meeting with potential clients, offer a sample menu with pricing.
Creating a set list of menu items can make your life easier while giving clients the opportunity to customize a menu to suit their event.
Whatever dishes you serve, make sure they’re delectable. Mouth-watering food is your best form of advertisement; the best way to find your next customer.
Like restaurants, catering services are highly regulated. Anyone who prepares and sells fresh food must follow municipal, provincial and federal rules. You may need to study for a food handler’s licence, which covers food safety training and record-keeping.
Contact your local health unit for information on food safety and inspections.
You and your staff may also need to be trained in COVID-19 protocols to keep guests safe. PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), plexiglass and sanitizer spray will all add extra costs to your bottom line.
After all the hours of work put into planning an event, friendly, well-trained staff can make it look effortless. The number of staff required depends on the level of service desired and the number of guests. If you’re passing finger food on trays, for example, you’ll need one server for every 25 guests plus at least one prep person in the kitchen. Buffets require servers to refill empty chafing dishes and plates, while sit-down dinners require at least one server for every table of up to 12 seats, plus more staff to serve beverages.
The easiest way to hire experienced staff is through a recruitment agency. You can also find staff by asking around and checking out foodservice job sites. If you decide to hire cooks and servers, be sure the cost of training is reflected in your budget.
Consider hiring an accountant to help you sort through all the rules and paperwork surrounding wages, hours, overtime and contributions to the Canada Pension Plan and health care.
Uniforms, particularly if you add a logo, can be expensive.
With our renewed focus on home and family, the market for even small-scale catering is stronger than ever. By combining solid cooking skills and creative ideas with some business smarts, you, too, can build a successful catering business.
Written by Cynthia David