So You Want to Start a Catering Business

Everyone loves a good party, and being able to offer celebratory food and drinks with class and style will help you separate your catering business from all the others. Figuring out how to open a catering business can be a mind-boggling venture, even for people with experience in a commercial kitchen. With the right guidance and help from those in the industry, your dream of starting a catering business can become a reality.

Arguably the most important decision to make will be what type of catering you’ll be doing, and then how you’ll go about preparing the food you’ll be serving. There are four main types of catering: industrial, business, mobile, and social events.

Industrial catering includes serving schools, prisons, and other large contracts that require food to be brought in due to space or other food preparation constraints. Television, movie, and music production companies also hire industrial caterers, if you're looking to move into the entertainment industry.

Business catering typically includes relatively simple drop-off or pick-up service and may include buffet style and boxed lunches. Many restaurants offer this type of catering to local businesses and non-profit organizations. If you want to make a name for yourself within your community, this will be a good route to get your brand out there.

Mobile catering includes businesses like parking lot vendors and concession stands. These tend to have more limited menus due to the confined workspace. Some benefits to this type of catering are that you control the complexity of the menu offerings and you can essentially set your own schedule.

Probably the most intricate and demanding catering role is that of the social event caterer, as the sky is the limit to what a good caterer can provide their customers when it comes to throwing a lavish wedding, a spectacular quinceañera, or a simple retirement party. There are many places that will rent all types of equipment and supplies, but you will quickly discover the benefits of purchasing your own.

Meeting with Clients

No matter how elaborate or simple your business will be, it will be important to have a dedicated space for meeting clients. You may opt to have some tables or a counter where you can discuss times, venues, and menu options.

Your menu should consist of foods that you know you can prepare well, given time, volume, and mobility constraints. Often, popular restaurants decide to offer their signature or most popular dishes for catering. If catering will be done as an offshoot of a restaurant, it will still benefit you to have a designated area for securing catering business.

If you'll also serve as the wedding cake provider, you will want the proper utensils and service items to offer tastings with class and style. Even if you won't be supplying the cake, your clients would definitely appreciate the option of tasting some of your offerings.

If you won't be maintaining office space or a retail storefront, word-of-mouth will help get you started, but a great website will certainly help your efforts. In this industry, branding and marketing are everything, so get the word out about what makes you special and why clients should choose you for their needs.

Choosing Your Kitchen

The type of catering business you choose to operate will ultimately dictate what type of equipment you’ll need. Once that decision is made, you’ll need to determine if you’ll be leasing or buying a kitchen, sharing the lease on one, or preparing food onsite, when facilities allow or through a mobile kitchen set-up.

While sharing a lease, choosing to co-op with a restaurant, or preparing onsite may cost less in the beginning, all of these options will put you at the mercy of someone else's time, equipment, and capabilities. By creating your own kitchen, you can stock it the way you want and use it anytime.

Another option is to cater out of your own home, but this may lead your clientele to question the legitimacy of the business. Some states and municipalities will not grant permits for this type of operation, and many insurance companies will not cover commercial kitchens in homes.

If you choose to share the lease on a commercial kitchen, you’ll need to keep in mind that scheduling may become an issue, and it may not have all of the equipment you’d like. For these reasons, you may find it more beneficial to buy your own, so you have control over the types and quality of the equipment. See if there's a local commissary kitchen that allows users to bring their own equipment.

Getting the Right Equipment

Will you be starting with a blank slate? While this may be expensive initially when you consider what you'll need to make the kitchen function, it will also give you complete control over how and what you buy. Depending on your budget, you may find that a kitchen with some existing equipment may be more feasible. In order to cater effectively, you'll likely need cooking equipment, refrigeration, food prep equipment, smallwares, storage, and clean-up supplies.

With the availability of portable sinks, prep tables, and butane stoves, mobile kitchens are another good option. If available space at the venue is limited, you may still need to do quite a bit of prep work in a different location.

There is some equipment that you’ll need, regardless of the type of kitchen you choose. You will need plenty of storage and cooking vessels, like hot and cold food pans, coffee brewers, and tea brewers. To ensure you'll be able to plug in almost anywhere you go, you'll probably want to choose 120V equipment, since many locations don't have larger power supplies.

Transporting

The challenge nearly every caterer faces is transporting the dishes they’ve worked hard creating from their kitchens to the venues. Today’s technological advances in food transportation have helped to relieve much of the stress surrounding this process.

  • Food carriers, available in vinyl or plastic, can hold as many as 24 food pans that are loaded from the top or the end. They'll keep hot food hot and cold food cold for hours. Some of these are small enough to carry, but if you'll be moving several of them at once, you'll probably want a dolly or cart designed for that purpose.
  • Mobile beverage dispensers are available in 2-1/2 to 10 gallon sizes that help you serve up hot and cold beverages to the masses. There are even kits that can transform these dispensers into mobile hand-washing stations. You'll most likely need to purchase several to keep a variety of beverages flowing.
  • Heated cabinets are a vital need for virtually any catering business and can be found in a range of sizes to fit any venue or scale. While tall units will require a vehicle that accommodates them like a box truck or van, they carry significantly more than their smaller kin. However, half-size units may be more convenient if you don't have a tall vehicle. To further ensure food is kept at proper serving temperatures, these units can either be heated with electricity or heater packs, which can come in handy for outdoor jobs and others where power isn't readily available.
  • Ice caddies can transport between 75 and 200 pounds of ice for hours with these convenient ice bins. Opt for one on casters for easier mobility.
  • Mobile freezers can help make the caterer’s life a bit easier, especially at venues with ready access to a power supply. They can hold up to 10 full-size sheet pans and are made of durable stainless steel to hold up to constant use and travel.
  • Any self-sufficient catering business will have a number of different types of carts to move equipment, dishes, drinks, and food, and also to display and serve certain items.

    • Utility carts are a must-have for anyone taking their show on the road. They are useful for hauling everything from the wedding cake to table linens and everything in between. Clean up is also a breeze with the use of bus carts.
    • Beverage service carts make it easy to offer a variety of drinks and all the trimmings, while keeping it all mobile for flexibility. These may be utilitarian or decorative, so you may need more than one to ensure you have the right fit for any catering opportunity.
    • Portable sinks are ideal for locations that lack running water and are available in polymer or stainless steel. Some units will even have water heaters.
    • Dish dispensers will help keep your delicate plates and other tableware from moving around and getting cracked or broken during transit. They have heavy-duty casters that make it easy to move a lot of weight across ballrooms, hallways, and even outdoors.
    • Cooking carts allow you to add a personal touch by offering tableside preparation and flambé presentations. They are also ideal for exotic or remote locales that may not have easy access to stoves or other cooking equipment, since they typically operate on gas heat.
    • A cheese and dessert cart can make it easy to set up stations for these popular items. They can be highly decorative for a distinct touch and may be open or have domed covers to keep out insects.
  • Catering coolers and warmers will help keep food safely out of the temperature danger zone until you're ready to serve it. They're available in a number of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Serving

Buffet stands and risers not only add a touch of elegance to your buffet table, they also enable guests to reach food items more easily. You’ll definitely need flatware and kitchen utensils, as well as drinkware and dinnerware. A selection of special serving dishes, such as chafers, will help round out your look and help make your brand one that people will remember.

To ensure you can offer lucrative alcoholic drinks at almost any location, you may opt to purchase a portable bar. If you do, you’ll also need to consider the bartending supplies that will be needed. Another option that may be helpful to your clients would be a mobile food bar, especially if you would like to offer catering in non-traditional locations that may not have ready access to buffet tables. Where buffet tables are available, a countertop buffet warmer will keep food piping hot throughout service.

Drop Off and Pick Up

If you're considering only providing drop-off and pick-up service, you'll need to make sure to include user-friendly transport containers that are disposable. Styrofoam, lightweight plastic, or aluminum containers are relatively inexpensive alternatives. You'll also need to include condiments and utensils so your clients have everything they need to offer their employees or business associates a lunch or breakfast they'll remember.

You'll also want to consider how you'll transport beverages and what kinds of containers will be the most efficient for your clients to use. For instance, if they'll be serving outdoors, you might opt for insulated dispensers, but if they'll be inside where they have access to refrigeration, they may not need to be insulated.

Permits and Licenses

When considering how to start a catering business, an important step will be to look into what permits and licenses you’ll need. An excellent source for information on permits and licenses is the Small Business Administration. They have a tool that will allow you to enter your zip code to find out what laws, restrictions, and codes are in force in your market area.

You’ll also want to check with your local health department for inspection and consider obtaining an ABC license if you plan to offer alcoholic beverages. You'll need an Employer Identification Number from the federal government in order to pay federal income taxes, and you'll need to pay into the state any sales and employment taxes that you generate. You also need to make sure you have insurance to protect your employees, your business, and yourself.