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How to Start a Catering Business

Acquaintances fight to get on your dinner party invite list. Friends beg you to make birthday cakes for their children’s birthday parties. Coworkers even offer to pay you to organize a dinner for their engagement party. Looking for unique corporate Christmas party ideas for your next office party?

How do you know when it is time to try and make a business out of helping other people throw parties?

“With catering, basically every night you are setting up and breaking down a restaurant,” says Laurine Wickett, a chef based in San Francisco who owns Left Coast Catering and was a Top Chef contestant during season six. “The food changes, the venue changes—everything about it changes. It can be exciting, but it can be extremely frustrating.”

If you can pull all the details together, you can be part of what the National Association of Catering Executives estimates is a $7.1 billion a year business. And while many caterers work crazy hours, if you’re successful, you can target precisely the kinds of events, cuisine, and clients you want.

Starting a Catering Business: Find a Specialty

San Francisco mixologists H. Joseph Ehrmann, Scott Beattie, and Marco Dionysos had worked at some of California’s best bars when the cocktail revival started taking hold. But when they would go to private parties, they noticed that most of the drinks were either wine or the basic gin-and-tonic variety cocktails.

“We treat drinks like you would appetizers,” says Beattie, who wrote the book Artisanal Cocktails. “We make 10 things at a time and pass them out with little cards that explain what the drinks are.”

The trio also sets up classes at private parties to teach people how to mix cocktails, and then sets up stations where guests can make their own. Over the past year, HMS Cocktails has transitioned away from catering smaller parties, and is now gearing up for a big launch and catering events with 200 to 300 people.

“We’ve had a really good reaction from people,” Beattie says. “It can be a bit more lucrative than your average night at a bar.”

While in smaller towns it can be key to be a Jack of all trades, picking a specialty within the catering field, such as specialty cocktails, vegan cuisine, or down-home southern cooking, can give you an edge in the market.

“You need to set yourself apart,” says Denise Vivaldo, who wrote How to Start a Home-Based Catering Business. “Why should people hire you? Is it your food? Or is it your personality and the confidence you exude?”

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Starting a Catering Business: Master the Logistics

One advantage of starting a catering company is that the start-up costs can be low. Companies throughout the country offer table, linen, and table-settings rentals that you can pass on to your clients if you’re not ready to build up your own supply.

Many caterers start cooking out of their home kitchens, but in most states, this is illegal and can result in fines or even having your business shut down. Start by checking with your local health department to see what regulations are in your area.

In larger cities, it could be wise to look for a commercial kitchen, in which you can rent space by the hour or shift. In smaller towns, try approaching restaurant kitchens that are closed during the day and see if they will rent you the space.

Bonnie Fedchock, the executive director of the National Association of Caterers, recommends that people take into consideration how they are going to transport food, especially if the site of the party isn’t going to have a kitchen. One simple rule of thumb to remember: hot food needs to stay hot; cold food needs to stay cold.

“There are a lot of details involved and it’s all about organization,” says Frederick De Pue, who runs 42° Catering and Restaurant Smith Commons in Washington, D.C. “If you are in the middle of nowhere and forget coffee cups, people will yell at you because now they can’t drink their coffee.”

Wickett cautions those interested in catering not to underestimate how physically demanding the job is.

“You’re loading up trucks, going to events, setting them up, breaking them down and going back to the shop,” she says. “It can take an entire van of equipment just to cater an event for 20 people.”

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Starting a Catering Business: Find the Right Help

A few months ago, Pilar Valdes and Binh Ly decided that they wanted to turn the frequent dinner parties they throw for friends into a more serious business. They started Kickshaw Cookery, which in addition to catering special events, also includes a program in which people can sign up for meal delivery.

To help learn how to plan, they’ve been taking classes in New York City and getting advice at the Queens County Economic Development Corporation on basics, like how to write a business plan.

“Up until this point, everything we had done was about the food and really organic,” Binh says. “We didn’t even really think about how we will have to pay ourselves and how to think of our labor as a cost.”

Vivaldo says one of the most common mistakes that new caterers make is they under-price their food.

“They are used to cooking for family and friends for free, so any money they are making seems like a lot of money,” Vivaldo says. “New caterers also make too much food. All your profit can be in the leftovers that you are dragging home or leaving with your client.”

Starting a Catering Business: Nail the Marketing

When Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin started Ovenly, which delivers bar snacks, such as spicy bacon caramel corn, and pastries, such as currant rosemary scones, to local businesses, they knew that marketing would take on more importance because they didn’t have their own retail space.

“We focus on the design aspect of our branding. Making sure that people can find us really easily on the Web has been really helpful,” says Patinkin, who says that people who have bought their pastries in stores have found them through their website to request that they cater the dessert for weddings and other larger gatherings.

Take note unlike restaurants that people can walk in and see the ambiance, people have to envision what your catering style will be like. Pictures on your website—of both food you make and parties you’ve thrown—can help people envision what you can do.

De Pue says that about two years into running his catering business he hired marketing people and did a complete overhaul of 42° Catering’s website.

“From that moment on we exploded,” he says. “Marking and branding is more important that most people imagine.”

Another crucial factor in getting that gig: How you interact with clients before they’ve ever seen or tasted your food.

“You need someone on your sales team that people can relate to and feel comfortable with,” Wickett says. “It’s equally important if not more than the quality of food you provide.”

You also need to exude confidence that the event will be great, Vivaldo says.

“When people entertain, they are scared. A lot of clients are going to be extremely nervous,” Vivaldo says. “Whether it is a movie premier or a bar mitzvah or your only daughter’s wedding, you want to make sure that the person you write that check to is someone you trust.”