Do friends swoon over your strawberry shortcake or cluck over your Chinese chicken salad?
Have you ever taken those compliments to heart and thought: “Since everyone loves my cooking, maybe I should become a caterer?” Well, think again.
Although catering is one of the easiest small businesses to start up because you can get started in your own kitchen, the competition is cutthroat and there is a staggering failure rate. In fact, Persian Gulf War jitters and corporate budget cuts canceled enough holiday parties last year to put scores of caterers out of business across the country, according to industry experts.
“We feel there is a turnaround now,” said Suzanne Kallick, founder of the Catering Co. in New York. “Bigger corporations feel they can spend money a little more freely.”
Kallick and her partner, Jim Gilliam, have watched many novice caterers falter because they don’t run their catering business like a business.
“You have to run the inside of the business very tightly,” Kallick said. “And the spotlight on service is brighter than ever before.”
To control costs, most small catering firms employ a handful of full-time employees and rely on free-lance chefs, waiters and waitresses to staff events.
Being an excellent cook is just one ingredient in a successful catering business. Stashing away enough money to get through the first year is the biggest challenge. It might take months to book your first profitable party and years to build up a good reputation. Before you make your first mousse, be sure you have established a good working relationship with rental equipment suppliers and food vendors. Without them, no one will taste a bite.
“You have to have a real passion and bullheaded desire to succeed, other than just loving to cook,” said Janet Rosener, founder of Thymes, the Special Events Group, in Garden Grove. “You endure tremendous rejection in this business,” Rosener said. “There are times when it is so horrible you can’t bear it. Then, at other times, windows of joy open up.”
Like most successful caterers, Rosener started off doing something else. Although she always wanted to be a chef, she studied business in college and worked as assistant marketing director for a large restaurant chain. When at another company, she was passed over for a promotion she thought she deserved, Rosener bailed out.
Armed with a business plan, she raised $55,000 from private investors to start her catering company.
Today, Rosener’s 4 1/2-year-old company caters between 20 and 30 events each month, ranging from elegant private dinners to company picnics. Although her company is busy, she admits that the competition is tough.
Every successful caterer tries to set itself apart from the pack. Rick Royce of Van Nuys describes himself as a “barbecue fanatic.” He reaches new clients by participating in food festivals and entering barbecue contests. Royce, a Detroit native, has gone beyond catering to bottle his Rick Royce Sensuous Rib Sauce for sale in supermarkets that include Gelson’s and Vons. He also sells a 250-pound, coffin-size Rick Royce Super Q grill to clients who can’t get enough of those ribs.
To keep up with the demand for his ribs, he’s hoping to open a take-out location. “I know there is a demand because strangers who’ve tasted my cooking show up at my house and want to eat dinner,” Royce said.