If dinner party guests rave about your food and cooking is your passion, running a catering service could be your calling. It isn't always easy to juggle large parties, picky clients and all the work behind the scenes, but the rewards of flexible hours, developing your own menus and owning your business can make up for the drawbacks. You'll face a lot of competition setting up as a general caterer, so you may find that specializing in a niche area sets you apart and attracts clients.
While you always want to give a client what she wants, it's more difficult to do that if you don't have a clear idea about what to offer. Specializing in a concept allows you to focus your marketing materials and more clearly target an audience for your services. Examples include ethnic-inspired concepts, such as Asian fusion foods, Caribbean menus or Italian foods. Soul food, barbecue, regional American dishes and desserts are also options. Whatever your specialty, from gourmet foods to innovative soups and sandwiches, to make a unique name for yourself don't stray too far from it, and continually update your menu with interesting dishes.
Excellent customer service is crucial to a successful catering service, but what people will remember most is the food. Whether you offer gourmet delicacies or simple, robust foods, keep the quality of the ingredients high and use that as a selling point. If you plan to use all or mostly organic ingredients -- or those locally grown -- feature that prominently in your marketing. Plan your menu offerings around your concept and think about providing items for people on restricted diets. Clients will appreciate having choices available for people with food allergies. You could even become a vegetarian or vegan caterer, or specialize in offering a completely gluten-free menu.
Research the demographics of your area before you open your catering service and identify your target market. In a small town you may not want to specialize too much if there won't be a big demand, while large urban areas can often support highly specialized caterers. You can also specialize in certain types of events, becoming a wedding caterer or only offering your services for intimate dinner parties. You may want to bypass the public and focus on catering for businesses, providing corporate lunches and catering for special events, such as conferences, meetings and holiday parties.
Don't neglect the business aspect of your catering service. If you're home-based, check your state regulations regarding commercial food preparation. In many states you'll need to rent space in a commercial kitchen on an as-needed basis to prepare your food. If you lease a building for your business that includes a commercial kitchen, you may want to create a space for showcasing your menu items and offer tasting parties for prospective clients. You may also want to provide your catering services from a mobile food service truck.
- National Federation of Independent Business: How to Start a Catering Business
- Entrepreneur: Business Idea Center: Catering
- Entrepreneur: Business Idea Center: Catering Service
- Food Service Warehouse: How to Start at Catering Business
- U.S. Small Business Administration: Starting a Home-Based Food Production Business -- Making Your Culinary Hobby Your Job
Since 1997, Maria Christensen has written about business, history, food, culture and travel for diverse publications. She ran her own business writing employee handbooks and business process manuals for small businesses, authored a guidebook to Seattle, and works as an accountant for a software company. Christensen studied communications at the University of Washington and history at Armstrong Atlantic State University.