Introduction to Catering

Caterers are critical people at any event. Not only do they feed the guests, but they’re also partially responsible for setting the tone. If you’re looking to hire or become a person in this field, you might wonder what the qualities of a successful caterer are.

Read on to learn about five of the qualities successful caterers have, whether you’re looking to hire someone or better yourself in the industry.

Top 5 Qualities of a Successful Caterer

They’re Organized

The organization of food service is a huge part of catering. If a caterer does not have things in line, everything could go wrong. It will be apparent if they don’t have things planned out ahead of time.

A caterer will need to stay organized as they:

  • Prepare: They’ll need to gather everything as they prepare to go to an event.
  • Arrive: They’ll need to have the details together so they arrive on time.
  • Serve: They’ll need to have everything sorted out to serve.

Without organization, none of these items could get done promptly.

Any successful caterer should have the ability to organize like no other. It will serve them well as they prepare to provide food and service to a client’s event, keeping everything in line.

They Work Well Under Pressure

When you’re cooking food for hundreds of people, there’s a lot at stake. Nothing is scarier than a hungry stomach, especially when there’s money on the line. An excellent caterer should have the capacity to work well under pressure.

Some pressures a caterer may encounter on the job include:

  • Dietary changes: Dietary changes may cause a last-minute menu shift, and it’s up to the caterer to keep everything together.
  • Grumpy customers: Sometimes, customers may prove to be challenging to deal with on the job. They may be out to get the caterer, and they must stay calm.
  • Weather: Weather may change at the last moment and warrant a location shift. The caterer must keep it together under pressure to cook in a new location.

These obstacles can mess up an inexperienced caterer, throwing them off track for the rest of the event.

If a caterer can work well under the harshest pressures, they’re well on track to success. Not everybody can handle the stress of this job. That will become clear if you witness an inexperienced caterer working under pressure.

They Care About People

A caterer needs to care about the food they’re serving. However, they also need to care about the people at the event. The best caterer is passionate and friendly in every aspect of their job.

If you are looking for someone who knows what they’re doing, look for someone who understands how to talk to people. No matter how they feel about those they’re serving, a successful caterer will make them feel comfortable for as long as the event goes on.

They’re Adaptable

At an event, anything can happen. Sometimes, dietary restrictions may pop up, and the caterer will need to adapt to this. If someone wants to be a caterer, they need to have the ability to adapt to anything thrown their way.

A successful caterer may need to adapt to the following:

  • Menu changes: A menu may change at the last second, and a caterer may need to adapt to this in a limited time.
  • Location changes: As mentioned above, certain events may cause a location to change. A successful caterer will fit into this shift with no problem.

Adaptability typically comes naturally in a person, but it’s also a skill that can be strengthened in time. Look for adaptability in an individual to find a quality caterer, and embrace this trait if you want to become one yourself.

They’re Excellent with Time

A good caterer is good with time. There are several aspects of catering that require timeliness, so a caterer should be able to handle deadlines that pop up in the process of providing food for an event.

This trait goes along with the organization. With food, timing is everything. A successful caterer will know how long it takes to set up, cook, and take down the equipment at the end of the event. Food is critical to a gathering. If they tend to be late or the food is cold, they likely won’t succeed in this industry.

Catering Categories

There are two main categories of catering.

Institutional: These caterers at hospitals, universities, airlines, large hotels, and retirement centers provide a wide variety of food and drink to a large number of people on an ongoing basis—usually at the institution itself. The institution usually contracts with a catering company to have this service provided.

Social: These caterers provide food and beverage services to civic groups, charities, corporations, businesses, and individuals onpremise at a catering or banquet hall or off-premise at a selected location.

The opportunities for a catering business multiply every year, given the right demographics—individuals, groups, or businesses who are able to pay for the service.

Who Uses Catering Services?

  • Convention centers
  • Hospitals, universities, retirement centers, nursing homes
  • The entertainment industry: musicians on tour, movie sets, plays in production, professional sports events
  • Businesses: For meetings, openings, special sales events, corporate retreats, team-building exercises, awards banquets, executive
  • dining, employee meals, galas, and so on
  • Community groups: For fund-raisers, donor or sponsor lunches, galas, and so on
  • Individuals: For special in-home dinners, bridal and baby showers, wedding receptions, birthdays, anniversaries, funerals, and so on.

Career Outlook for Catering

The catering segment of the hospitality industry continues to grow every year. During the mid-1990s, catering was actually the fastest-growing sector of the food service industry. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (a division of the U.S. Department of Labor), food preparation careers will be in demand through 2012.

Institutional catering—to universities, hospitals, nursing homes, and business campuses—is on the upswing. Social catering to civic groups, charities, corporations, businesses, and individuals is the fastest-growing segment, according to the Restaurant Industry Forecast 2000, prepared by the National Restaurant Association.

Why?

Contract catering allows institutions to keep costs down. And in the case of social catering, a home-building trend that includes large kitchens with upscale appliances inspires owners to entertain more often.

The increase of cooking and lifestyle programming on television has led the average person to learn more about food products, wine, and cooking, and thus want a more sophisticated approach to home, business, or community entertaining than ever before.

Profile of a Successful Caterer

According to the Princeton Review, over 70 percent of all catering services are owner run. Thus, a successful caterer usually marries the culinary talents of a chef with the business savvy of a CEO.

For anyone who wants to be a caterer, a passion for entertaining is a prerequisite, because without it, the long hours and hard work will seem tiring rather than exciting and rewarding. Many caterers start out as people who simply love to cook and entertain.

Their guests are always complimenting them on their abilities and telling them that they should entertain for a living. There are some very successful caterers who have begun their career this way; however, the passion for cooking and entertaining alone is not a recipe for success.

Before starting a catering business, you should attend formal classes on catering and business management or work for one or more caterers until you have a high level of understanding and a sense of the business.

Some people try to turn their hobby into a small catering business from home, in kitchens that are not licensed by the local health department.

There is a big risk in operating this way. Home-based caterers may find themselves in trouble with the health department if their guests become ill from their food. In addition, home-based caterers usually do not understand the realities of running a for-profit catering business with many fixed expenses, such as business licenses, separate business phone and fax lines, and a Web site, all of which are necessary for continued business growth.

If you think that catering might be a great career option for you, check your skills against the qualities that a successful caterer ought to have. See how you fit in, or find those areas in which you’ll need more education or help.

Qualities of a Successful Caterer

  • Excellent organizational skills
  • Time-management skills
  • The ability to multitask
  • A friendly, hospitable personality
  • The ability to manage stress
  • An extensive knowledge of ingredients
  • A high level of written and verbal communication skills
  • Natural leadership and motivational skills
  • A knowledge of social and religious cultures and customs
  • Excellent networking skills
  • Proficiency in basic accounting principles
  • Basic mechanical skills
  • Good negotiating skills
  • Quick thinking and problem-solving skills

Some of these qualifications could be a natural part of your personality or education; you might have to learn others. Or you could hire a person or company to handle a part of the business that is not your strong suit. Here are several examples:

  • If your culinary creativity soars, but your spelling and grammar are not the best, contract with a high school English teacher or a professional food writer to proofread your letters, contracts, and menus on a case-by-case basis. You may have the best-looking and best-tasting food in your city, but if your contracts, letters, and menus have spelling mistakes, that tells your customers that you aren’t top-notch.
  • If you’re a talented chef with a sense of style but you don’t have a clue about accounting practices, take a noncredit adult education class at your local community college, hire an accountant, or shadow a restaurant or catering manager to see how the book work is done.
  • If your food and business skills are terrific but your style sense suffers, either concentrate on an area of catering in which this doesn’t matter as much—institutional or outdoor barbecue catering—or hire an assistant or catering manager with a sense of style.
  • If your food sense, style, and business skills are all great, but you can’t fix anything, offer a retainer to a full-time (more expensive) or retired (less expensive) handyman or refrigerator and appliance repairperson to be on call. Then pay the hourly rate for any service call. For a major function, include the cost of this person’s services as an insurance policy against culinary disaster. If you can’t get the blowtorch to work and you need to make crème brûlée for three hundred, his or her services will be worth the extra money—especially if you have already figured the cost into your per person price.

The bottom line: a successful caterer has all the bases covered.

Finding Your Catering Identity

Catering is a popular but competitive field. If you develop an identity or a signature style, you can create the competitive edge you’ll need to succeed.

Most people associate caterers with mainstream events such as weddings and holiday parties. Caterers who seek out a specific group or niche market have the opportunity to become the preferred caterers when that specific style of catering is needed. And caterers who know how to customize their services to appeal to a specific group or type of event usually continue to grow their businesses.

For example, you might decide to specialize in outdoor barbecue catering and market your business accordingly. You would set up your business with the specific equipment needed for this type of catering and create a customized barbecue menu.

If you perform well at the initial events that you contract, you’ll have good word-of-mouth referrals. You’ll earn back your initial investment for the specialized barbecue equipment quickly, making it difficult for other mainstream caterers who need to rent equipment to compete for this type of party.

Here are a few more examples of catering niches:

Party platters: Whether dropped off by the caterer or picked up by the customer, party platters are a great way to create a buzz. Sales reps find they can get more attention from a medical or editorial staff when they provide a free lunch.

Automobile dealers often want finger foods for potential customers coming to their showroom during a special promotion. Real estate agents may provide food and beverages to potential buyers during an open house showcasing a property.

Five-star dining at home: Although popular, this service is still a niche market in large cities. Instead of going to a high-style restaurant, clients want a five-star experience in the comfort (and, usually, elegance) of their own homes, often for a special dinner for either business or pleasure.

Special dietary catering: Your identity might be kosher or weightloss foods, if the demographics in your area can support it.

Vegetarian or even vegan catering is popular with entertainment industry professionals. If your catering operation can travel to movie sets or rock concerts, or deliver meals to customers, so much the better.

Finding the Right Catering Scenario

The big question is: Do you want to be employed as a caterer by a larger organization or start your own catering business?

As an employee of a larger catering organization, you can expect a median yearly salary of $35,000 to $50,000, according to www.payscale.com, a Web site that publishes accurate, real-time salary reports based on job title, location, education, skills, and experience.

The benefits of employment are that you do not take the financial risk of starting a business, you have fewer job responsibilities than a catering business owner, and you gain valuable experience. The downside is that your earning potential is more limited.

As a caterer owning your own business, there is no guaranteed salary. You risk the money you use to start your business, your job responsibilities cover all aspects of the business, and any mistakes you make affect you directly. The upside is that your earning potential is virtually unlimited.

A medium-size catering business grossing $500,000 per year (about $10,000 in receipts every week) can realize a profit ranging from 10 to 20 percent, or $50,000 to $100,000. Top caterers can gross $1 million or more with a similar profit margin—about $100,000 to $200,000 per year.

Keeping expenses in line and factoring profit into your pricing are the keys to that profit. (See Chapter 3, “Pricing for Profit.”) Whether you want to start your own business or to be employed as a caterer or catering manager, there are many types of catering to consider.

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