How to Start a Catering Business
Catering businesses are often an ideal, flexible alternative to opening and operating a restaurant. Catering businesses allow you the creative freedom of running a foodservice operation without standard hours or a rigid schedule. Plus, they often require less startup capital and financial risk than a full-service restaurant. If you’re considering starting a catering business, keep reading to learn more about this foodservice segment.
Before Starting Your Catering Business
Before you begin buying equipment or drafting a business plan, it’s important to understand what makes a catering business unique. On the plus side, operating a catering business requires much less financial risk and burden than opening a restaurant while still offering you creative freedom. Many caterers can easily rent a space or equipment, forego staffing if your operation is on the small side, and reduce food waste by cooking for an already known head count.
Alternatively, catering an event often puts you and your food in a less controlled environment than a restaurant. When you own a restaurant, you’re preparing food in the same kitchen every night and serving in the same dining room. With catering jobs, you’re either preparing food in a rented kitchen or on-site. During the event, you and your food are at the mercy of the venue space, their amenities, the weather, and staff you may not work with often.
It’s also important to consider what type of catering business you’re interested in pursuing:
- Corporate events: conferences, cocktail parties, staff meetings
- Social gatherings: weddings, galas, charity events, birthday celebrations
- Personal uses: cooking a meal in someone’s home for a small gathering or date night or preparing meals ahead of time that clients can take home and reheat later
Once you've determined that a catering company is right for you, use the following steps to get your business off to a successful start.
1. Gain Exposure and Experience
Like any business venture, it takes a certain level of experience to successfully execute a start-up. Consider working for an already established catering company prior to opening your business. While researching what you’ll need and how to operate is helpful, it won’t compare to the hands-on experience and guidance gained through a working professional.
If working for a catering company isn’t doable, volunteer to plan small-scale events for people you may know. Host a holiday party for friends and family or prepare a church luncheon for a small crowd. Operating on a smaller scale first allows you to find and fix potential problems and gain honest feedback from a forgiving crowd.
2. Choose a Concept
Creating a solid concept or theme can enhance the marketability of your catering business. Try to focus your concept on something you’re interested in or, better yet, passionate about. If you’ve always loved preparing a big breakfast on the weekends, turn that into a breakfast-themed concept you can offer any time of day. Other concepts could include brunch foods, casual sandwiches, desserts, finger foods, comfort food, or any idea that gives your business direction.
When choosing your theme, it’s important to think about the demographic you’ll be serving, how you plan to price your services, and if you can access the equipment needed to sustain your theme.
Create a Menu
Create your menu before you begin to look at work spaces and equipment. Figuring out what types of food you’ll be cooking means you can decide what equipment, appliances, and space you’ll need to successfully prepare your offerings.
While it’s important to stay true to your theme and concept, you need to offer a menu with versatility to accompany a wide range of tastes, preferences, and dietary restrictions. Create a selection of offerings that are, for example, gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free, or low carb. And if your menu items are especially spicy, be sure to offer a few less spicy or not spicy options as well.
Once your menu is established, determine how you’ll price your items or event packages. It’s important to have a sample menu prepared and pricing figured out before meeting with your first potential clients.
Test Your Menu
Try testing your menu concept and dishes in small, no-pressure scenarios. Gather friends and family together, or offer to cook for a small gathering or fundraiser in your community.
Be sure to ask for candid feedback from your guests. You can even provide everyone with pen and paper to write their thoughts down anonymously. Once you’ve successfully served your crowd and received feedback, it is important to keep tweaking your recipes. Practice making them over and over again while focusing on efficiency, taste, and presentation.
3. Find a Suitable Working Space
Many states have laws and regulations in place to prevent caterers from operating out of their home kitchen. If you are adamant on doing so, you’ll most likely need to make immense modifications to your home and receive approval by local governing authorities. Instead, most caterers start by renting out kitchen space or finding a building to make their own.
If you’re just starting out or operate at a low volume, your most economical option would be to rent a commercial kitchen space. This is ideal for those working one or two days a week or for only a few hours at a time.
For high-volume operations or those looking to make this a full-time business, you’ll want a place you can have access to 24/7 with more storage and customizable equipment.
And if you want to offer tastings for potential clients or sell your goods to the public, you’ll need to rent space with a separate storefront area from where you do your cooking or baking.
Customizing Your Catering Kitchen
For those looking to rent or buy their own kitchen, you’ll have the opportunity to customize your space and build a kitchen that’s conducive to your cooking. Instead of keeping it generic, focus on what equipment will be most beneficial for preparing your menu items.
For example, if you’re focusing on desserts, you’ll want to equip your kitchen with extra ovens. And if your specialty is Southern comfort food, more fryers are a must.
No matter what type of food you’re making, catering kitchens must be well-equipped with hot and cold holding areas. Since you’re preparing food ahead of your event, it’s imperative that you quickly cool hot foods or keep them at a safe holding temperature. Additionally, you’ll need adequate equipment to hold your food at the proper temperature during transport.
4. Assess Liability Issues
Before you cater your first event, you must apply for the proper permits and ensure your kitchen and staff are well-aware of food safety practices and regulations. If you’re offering bar services, you must come up with a safe serving plan to ensure your staff is serving responsibly.
Plan for Potential Problems
A little planning can go a long way when it comes to unexpected foodservice emergencies. Think about common obstacles you could encounter with your catering business, and work with staff to establish a response plan.
Potential problems could include:
- Inclement weather at an outdoor event
- More guests to feed than you had expected
- Shortage of staff
- No access to power
5. Choose Your Staff
Finding the right staff members to help prepare and serve your offerings can be a challenging task. When choosing staff and introducing them to your business, be sure to consider the following:
- Decide whether your operation is large enough to hire additional employees
- Begin with a temp agency until you can grow your business
- Create a dress code or provide uniforms
- Offer adequate training in serving protocols and food safety
6. Make a Marketing and Advertising Plan
Once you’ve laid the groundwork for your business, it’s time to promote it. Start by figuring out who your target audience is and go from there. This can be determined based on the type of catering operation you plan on running. For example, if you’re interested in social gatherings, you can showcase your menu at bridal expos and contact event planners.
Other marketing strategies include:
- Create a memorable logo that embodies your theme
- Print out your menu or pricing info to hand out to potential clients
- Create a website and social media accounts to connect with customers
- Form relationships with corporate event coordinators and venue holders
- Offer tastings at local fairs or charity events
If you’re looking for the creative freedom of running your own business without the financial undertaking of operating a restaurant, catering could be an enticing option. And with proper planning using the steps above, your business will be off to a good start. No matter what type of catering you decide to do, be sure to create a mouthwatering menu and dynamic concept future customers will flock to.