Catering from your restaurant

Catering from your restaurant
By Christine Emerson
June 27, 2011

Proper planning is key for a successful catering venture

You’d like to increase your revenues and utilize the kitchen during slow times, so adding catering services to your business seems like a slam dunk. If history’s most resourceful caterer fed thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish, how hard can it be? Don’t expect the same miracles in your venture. Catering is never, ever easy, but how you design your offerings can make the difference between not-too-hard (the best scenario you can hope for) and an ongoing nightmare of biblical proportions.

What to offer

Use your current menu as a starting point as you already have established products and flavour profiles that are familiar to prospective clients. It makes economical sense to use many of the same ingredients you regularly order and stock. Design menu items that can be prepared in your kitchen’s down time so as not to interfere with existing service in the restaurant.

Research your market

If you already have a database of patrons, analyze it to find those contacts likely to use your catering services. No database? Start now by collecting business cards from diners, and offer a prize of winning dinner for two. Once the catering division is up and running, continue collecting cards but change the prize to a catered function.

There are countless occasions for catered food.  A few of the simplest to sell and execute from a restaurant are:

  • Large- volume orders of your regular menu foods, for pickup or delivery, usually requiring lead time and pre-booking.
  • Corporate drop-off: foods delivered to an office for internal or client meetings.
  • Box lunches – develop the product and identify the buyers (bus tours, inbound tour groups, or meetings).  Deliver a full sample to key buyers with a sales presentation and collateral materials.

Taking the time to prepare a basic business plan pays off. Apply the same parameters to the catering venture as you would for your restaurant, in the areas of sales and what marketing materials you need to elicit orders. Don’t forget to check with legal, financial and insurance advisors to ensure that you are covered for every scenario.
Also consider having a separate phone number for catering calls –either a cell phone or a line with call forwarding. Voice mail is a must unless you want to answer catering questions 24 hours a day.

For simple orders you can email confirmation of exactly what you are supplying and the cost. Require a signed contract before any large orders or full-service events. Remember, once eaten, catered food is not like a car you can repossess. Demand deposits or full payment in advance or offer an invoicing option on corporate accounts. Prepare policies for minimum orders, lead time, and cancellations — especially the latter, especially for weddings.

Ready, set, cater. Or so you think. Before taking on paid catering orders, do a few for free — for people who will give you honest feedback. This might be the best money you never earned. No need to tell your staff that these are test runs.

Execute

Prepare the order. Before it leaves your restaurant, check it twice to ensure everything is correct, and nothing is missing. Deliver the order, with any instructions if necessary.  Make a second delivery with the salad dressing that the driver forgot. Fulfill, nay, exceed the client’s expectations.

The learning curve to successful catering can be daunting. Others have already invented this wheel so learn from them instead of making it up as you go. Buy a how-to-cater book or attend an educational conference. Hire a consultant for one-on-one guidance and help. Surf online catering forums for free advice and solutions to catering issues. The better prepared you are before leaping into the catering business, the less likely it is to be a leap of faith.

Catering terms

Off-premise catering is the term that applies when food is prepared in one location (your kitchen) and transported to an event locationb(office, venue, home).

On-Premise catering defines hotel catering, banquet facilities, or the private dining room in your restaurant. The event and the kitchen are at the same site.

Drop-off catering indicates food that is delivered, usually ready to unwrap and serve, with no additional services, usually on disposable platters.

Full-service catering indicates food and auxiliary services such as service staff/chefs; rental equipment; beverages; event planning; entertainment; and décor.

See also:


About the author

Christine Emerson has planned and catered thousands of events in Canada, the U.S., and Australia. Most recently, interaction with hundreds of the world’s best caterers during her term as Executive Director of the International Caterers Association has provided Emerson with a wealth of knowledge of creative catering menus and best practices for successful events.

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