How to Start a Catering Business

Turning your love of cooking into a viable business can be a great way of unleashing your culinary skills, while also making money from providing people with excellent food. However, there’s a lot to think about before you launch your own catering business.

Practice!

It’s probably safe to assume that you haven’t decided to set up the business on a whim. More likely, friends and family have told you that you’ve got a flair for cooking, and perhaps you’ve completed a college course in catering or hospitality.

Before you hurl yourself into your business plan, it’s time to do some research by holding some specific events in a party atmosphere. Organise an evening or weekend event for loved ones. Getting those you trust to test your food – honestly – could save you a lot of pain down the line. Ask them to provide anonymous responses, and if you’re feeling really brave, get people you don’t know to test it.

You can identify your strong dishes; whether you should specialise in events, desserts, appetizers and cocktails; how to organise kitchen and storage facilities; specific cooking times for varying quantities; and how to transport food safely. One final consideration is simply this – which food do you enjoy making?

Starting a catering business: Food safety and kitchens

As one might expect, there are a large number of regulations that need to be fulfilled when setting up a catering business. The Nationwide Caterers Association website is packed with information, but the minimum requirements for you to trade include:

  • Registering with your local authority: The Environmental Health Department will carry out an inspection of your site within the first three months of trading to ensure standards are met.
  • Registering as a business: You’ll need to contact HMRC and ensure that you have an accounting system for orders, invoices, and payment of staff. Your structure will be dependent on the business itself, but options include Limited Company, Limited Liability Partnership, or sole trader.
  • Risk assessment: Food businesses must have a Food Safety Risk Assessment.
  • Food hygiene certification: This can be arranged through your local authority and is mandatory for all staff members in your company. There are various levels that may apply, depending on staff roles.
  • Gas safety/electrical certificate: Ovens, appliances, trailers, heaters and equipment will need to be regularly inspected. This is also true if you’re intending to become a street trader.
  • Insurance: As a minimum you’ll need Employers’ Liability Insurance (to protect against compensation claims by employees) and Public Liability Insurance (which protects customers and members of the public). However, it may also be prudent to consider insuring equipment as well, in the event of failure or breakage.
  • Due diligence: Employing a due diligence system – with a through record of every policy introduced and action taken – is not only good business practice, but also acts as a defence in legal proceedings should someone decide to take action against you, providing you with the evidence you need to support your case and show you took ‘all reasonable precautions’ to avoid an issue.

Practical considerations

  • How will you transport the food? You may think that a single van would do it for 40-50 people, but what happens if you’re catering for 500? The logistics of keeping the food warm must be carefully considered, and you’ll probably need to invest in cabinets, sheet racks, chillers and warmers, dollies, and of course at least one van.
  • What else will you provide? An event organiser may expect tables and chairs, cutlery, napkins, glasses, and canopies (if outside). If you do provide these, how will you transport them?
  • Where is the event being held? The logistical differences between hosting an indoor event and an outdoor one, for example, should not be underestimated.
  • Will you use your own kitchen, or a commercial kitchen? While it may be tempting to cut costs and prepare food in your own home, practical and logistical considerations might make this impossible. Do you have multiple sinks and refrigerators, and a walk in freezer at home? Renting a kitchen space will probably give you more room (larger fridges and ovens) and reduce overheads – and perhaps provide space for you to test your business concept.
  • Who will help? Will you use family members or friends, or employ staff to help? What qualifications will they require? Would you use a temping agency? Will you need a uniform?
  • Will you offer table service?
  • Will you charge for transport?
  • Will you need a street trading licence?

What food do I prepare?

The menu will likely vary depending on the event; a wedding will be different from a Christmas party, which may also be different from a work conference. However, ultimately, the style of food you offer will depend on the demand – and you need to develop a menu that suits the tastes of your target customers. Research this and always look for ways to refine your catering offering.

If you’re going for more complex food-types, consider the difficulty of the tasks and time practicality. There’s no point in offering a particular cuisine that either no-one wants or takes too long to prepare, or – worst of all – costs too much. Perhaps the safest way of progressing is to offer set buffet menus, such as hog roast buffet, healthy option, business lunch, and so on.

Once you’re established, it’s time to source the best supplier for your ingredients. A large supplier might provide discounts if you buy regularly, or if you’re willing to display their logo at events. If you’re hosting events close to home, purchasing from local retailers and farms benefits the local economy and probably ensures freshness – and a lot of clients will probably like the fact that they’re supporting local suppliers.

Your food will also inform your cost structure. There are multiple models for charging in a catering business. Fixed price implies a set cost per person or per platter, while tier pricing suggests a cost that varies depending on the number of guests. Typically, the more guests the cheaper the tiering.

To help organise your cost structure, you may want to construct a pricing plan per number of courses; for example £15 per person for a one course meal, £20 for two, £23 for three etc. Don’t forget extras such as tablecloths, napkins etc.

Name and Marketing

Don’t underestimate the value of your name, and the effect it can have on people’s perception. A title such as ‘Low cost catering’ will be attractive to some potential customers, but frighten others, while ‘Fine dining catering’ or something similar will have the opposite effect.

You’ll need to set up a professional-looking website that ranks well for SEO. Big pictures are good, and other details on your site should include your contact details, the distance you can travel, and fulfilment of specific requirements (eg vegetarian, gluten-free).

Social Media is the simplest and probably cheapest way of marketing yourself; as you become more proficient you’ll learn to take photographs of venues, locations and happy customers to accompany your posts. Encourage satisfied clients to share their delight via reviews and social media ‘likes’.  Make sure you respond to messages within 24 hours as old clients will appreciate the gesture and new clients will acknowledge the great customer service. Word-of-mouth is still so important!

You can find more information on marketing strategy and execution in our free Marketing Toolkit.

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