• Aleya Harris

Launch and Grow Your Catering & Events Business

As a Catering and Events business owner, you have a unique opportunity to share your passion for great food with your clients and help them to (literally) write a recipe for success at their party or gathering. From weddings to galas, to graduation parties, you’ll get to showcase your culinary skills and hospitality expertise in a diverse array of venues, to as diverse an array of people. The world of events, thus, is an exhilarating one; but it’s one which also requires its share of forethought.

As you move closer towards the launch of your Catering and Events company, it’s important to have a strategy for how you will market your brand, so as to most effectively reach your key audience. Creating a Customer Avatar, or ideal customer profile, giving your brand a unique face, and picking up leads through various digital platforms are all techniques you should begin adding to your revenue toolkit. There are also a few common catering hurdles with which you’ll want to familiarize yourself, so as best prepare for any situation that comes your way.

6 Key Pain Points of the New Catering & Events Business Owner

1. Acquiring licenses: As you’ll be preparing, handling and serving food, you’ll need to obtain various licenses before you’re ready to cater to any events. You should begin applying once your business is registered. The primary one is a catering or Food Establishment License, which is usually provided by your state’s Department of Health. The price of a catering license, as well as the materials required to apply, vary depending on where your business is based. Your state or locality may also ask you to obtain various accompanying licenses or permits; these could include fire, health and safety, and air and water. This article from LegalZoom provides a more in-depth look at various aspects to consider when getting a catering license.

If your team will be responsible for serving alcohol, you’ll also need to apply for, and obtain, an alcohol license. Again, requirements will vary by state, so check with your area’s Beverage Commission. Among other prerequisites, you’ll need to complete a background check and staff training, as well as show proof of compliance with local zoning regulations. Also keep in mind that your alcohol license may require a lengthier application and clearance process than those licenses related to food handling.

2. Training for both you and your staff: Catering is a dynamic, multi-faceted industry that requires a unique interplay between business, culinary and people skills. As such, it’s important that both you and your team members are trained to handle the various responsibilities of this work. Some business owners and catering team members choose to complete the necessary courses prior to starting work. Unfortunately for those who don’t, training can be both expensive and time-consuming, making completion of a course difficult to juggle alongside trying to run a business. To make training more feasible, choose a program that fits within your budget, and consider studying a longer or part-time course.

Being able to prove your expertise through a certificate, degree or other qualification will make potential customers feel more confident that yours is the brand they want to be seen at their next event.

What are the relevant qualifications, then? Some professional caterers choose to receive their qualifications from a two- or four-year school that offers a relevant degree. Depending on the program, you may receive a certificate, Associate’s or Bachelor’s. These programs include not just classroom hours, but work experience and hands-on training as well. You also have the option of enrolling in a catering certification training program, such as the one offered by the National Association for Catering & Events (NACE). NACE breaks their program into eight “Core Competencies,” each of which tackles a certain aspect of catering and event entrepreneurship.

Of course, any staff you hire will also need to be trained for their respective positions. When it comes to staff training, CaterEase suggests you start this process with new team members from the moment they begin working. Don’t simply “show an employee your processes” by having them train through passive observation; rather opt for a more active approach, and encourage them immediately to begin honing their skills. Business.com suggests considering whether the organization under which you received your own qualifications also offers employee training.

Furthermore, you should always make sure both you and your staff stay up-to-date on any developing food handling practices, such as those for dietary restrictions and safer food prep. Training in this business is an on-going endeavor; don’t hesitate to strive for continuous teaching and learning.

3. Knowing how much food is needed: It can be difficult to predict exactly how much food guests will end up consuming, especially if service is buffet-style. Not preparing enough food could leave some people without a first helping, while preparing too much could result in monetary loss. An over-abundance of food can also cause a hit to profit due to “staffing extra chefs or other personnel to cook and serve all the food,” when it turns out fewer team members were needed.

Estimating based on the event’s expected headcount is a good place to start; however, it may not be quite enough, as you’ll still need to anticipate varied consumption due to individualized preferences and appetites. Even so, make sure the host tells you exactly, or with as much specificity as they’re able to provide, how many people they expect will be in attendance. Request as well that they update you if any changes to the guest list occur. You should also take note of anyone with specific food intolerances, allergies or special diets.

Based on this information, decide what size portion you’d like to offer each component; share this information with the host as well. CaterEase also suggests considering whether it might be more economical to have “a higher volume of small plate options,” as opposed to large mains. In all, it’s difficult to find yourself over-prepared when it comes to planning the amount of food you will cook and serve—don’t shy away from noting down every possible detail.

4. Stress: Venues. Guests. Supplies. Dishes. Transportation. Not to mention, a few more-than-demanding clients. Catering is a business with quite a few moving parts, and your work will at times feel very hectic. This becomes especially true around periods such as the holidays when customer bookings and employee requests for time off seem to go hand-in-hand.

The reality is, you can’t run a catering business without expecting to encounter your share of high-stress moments. A large part of an event’s schedule often revolves around food, whether it be meal service or the presentation of a wedding cake. No matter how much needs to be done behind the scenes, it’s your responsibility to make sure dishes are prepped, presentable, and ready to go out on the dot. For especially large or complicated events, achieving this might require you and your staff to put in extra hours to ensure everything gets completed on time.

While such moments of stress cannot be avoided, stress itself can certainly be managed. There are a variety of ways you can stay organized throughout every step of the process, from initial customer interaction to the last seconds of clean up, should not be underestimated. For example, keep an in-depth, and updated, a log of your equipment, ingredients and other supplies, as well as accompanying receipts. Take the time as well to develop a coordinated, accessible storage method, so as to avoid last-minute scrambling for important components.

There are quite a few software programs available that allow caterers to collect and keep track of key information such as invoices, inventory, seating plans and more. There are also programs that assist with scheduling employee shifts, which can be particularly useful when trying to ensure you have ample support for an event.

5. Customer Interactions: As a professional in a customer service industry, you are always faced with the possibility of coming across some clients who are difficult to interact with. Sometimes these unpleasant interactions are only momentary and are a product of the stress customers feel after pouring an intense amount of time and resources into planning and perfecting their events. Other times, however, a client may be difficult to work with from the start, offering high demands and frequent criticism.

No matter the demeanor of your client, it’s your job to remain professional and polite and to always keep the end goal of a successful event in mind. Remember that the event’s attendees will be judging your brand based on the final picture, not your client snapping at you over a seating arrangement.

Developing a thick skin, along with learning how to receive and accept criticism, will certainly help you navigate the more difficult dynamics. And, if you do happen to make a mistake, stray from the schedule or arrive late, accept responsibility. Offer your client a way to make up for the lost time, and continue to strive for perfection throughout the remainder of the event.

6. Required Equipment: From spices to chafing dishes, to the company van, catering is an endeavor that requires quite a lot of equipment. Gathering everything you need can amount to quite a lot, especially when your business is first starting out. Conservative estimates put the initial equipment costs at around $130,000. You’ll also need to consider the likelihood of having to periodically replace and restock, so as to maintain a professional and polished image as possible.

When it comes to buying equipment, you have the option of purchasing it either new or used. There are benefits and setbacks to both—for example, while new equipment is properly maintained, functional and still under warranty, it can be much more expensive. Used equipment, while cheaper, more durable and often of higher quality, does not come with a warranty and can often show signs of previous use. Thus, if you do choose to purchase used equipment, make sure to do your research, and ask to test it out, if possible. Furthermore, you always have the option of renting.

We discussed earlier how to handle stress as a catering professional, and how you handle your equipment is a big component in doing so. Keep track of any important information about each piece of equipment, and store it so it’s always accessible. It’s also a good idea to expect the unexpected; take time to put together a catering or event Crash Kit, in anticipation of equipment and supplies getting lost, forgotten or broken. Your Kit can include things such as:

  • Disposable utensils, napkins and place settings

  • Extra fuel for chafers

  • Condiment packets

  • A sewing kit, tool kit, first aid kit and scissors

  • A spare tire

Just make sure to replace items as soon as you use them!

Six Steps to Launching Your Business

Step 1: Choose Your Ideal Customer Avatar

Part of a successful marketing strategy is knowing to whom it is you should actually be marketing. A useful way to zero in on your target buyer base is to create a customer avatar. A customer avatar is a profile of a hypothetical individual who possesses the characteristics of someone most likely to support your brand. It is, in other words, a portrait of your “ideal” customer.

In creating your customer avatar, you are thus not trying to capture aspects of every potential buyer. Rather, your goal is to pinpoint a unique set of characteristics belonging to a certain type of individual. To do so, you want to look not only at basic demography (as you would for a more general marketing persona) but at your ideal customer’s more personal characteristics. Content Champion suggests considering details such as:

  • Their role and influence in the workplace.

  • Their “hobbies, values, attitudes and interests.”

  • Their consumption of both social and traditional media.

  • Their goals.

There are a few ways to go about piecing your customer avatar together. If your business already has customers, you can look at your website, social media and email analytics to determine which populations are most responsive to particular marketing techniques. On a more direct level, consider requesting that a few of your previous customers take part in a phone, video or email interview about what drew them to your brand. You might also consider having individuals complete an online survey. Furthermore, speak any staff you may have who work directly with customer service or sales, and ask them about the most common concerns they hear raised.

If you’ve yet to establish a customer base, you can still create a customer avatar—you’ll just need to turn to outside sources to do so. Content Champion recommends starting with the social media pages of brands with whom you’re most likely to compete—those in the same general location, who offer a similar style of service at similar events. Take a look at which individuals are engaging with those brands the most, and explore their public profiles to collect information on their interests and values. You can also gather customer information from recent industry publications and forums. Pay attention not only to the published articles but their accompanying comment sections; what’s discussed here often involves customer concerns related to your specialization.

With these details in mind, you’ll be able to more effectively direct your advertising towards the physical and digital spaces within which your ideal customer is active. Doing so will not only save you time and marketing resources, but it will increase your potential for referrals and revenue, as well.

Step 2: Develop Your Visual Brand

Catering is a rapidly growing industry. In 2017, the United States catering market was worth $58 billion, with about one-third going to business catering and the rest to social catering. More recently, 2019 data show the industry to have expanded by $11.5 billion over the year, with a simultaneous 2.7% market increase. The industry’s rate of growth has in fact been more accelerated than the rate of growth for the Food Services and Hospitality sector overall. And, it looks like this expansion is unlikely to roll back anytime soon.

Entering into such a dynamic and popular industry, you need to be realistic about the fact that you will face competition. This may seem daunting, especially as you’re preparing to launch a new business, but being realistic in this sense will actually help you to better prepare your methods of differentiation.

One such method is visual branding or adding various elements to your brand’s visual presentation that make it stand out from the competition. This might mean using specific fonts, colors and images—or if you’re working with a storefront or event venue, various interior and exterior design elements. It also includes your logo, and how you choose to present it.

Your visual brand will arrive at clients and event guests through a variety of different products; some more typical ones include business cards, envelopes, social media and website graphics, and brochures. As a catering and event professional, it will also be communicated through your decoration techniques, food and use of venue space. No matter how clients access your visual brand, it’s important that doing so provides them with an obvious example of your company’s unique message or theme. Thus, make sure to maintain thematic consistency at each point of the presentation.

Step 3: Get Started on Social Media

Social media is a powerful tool for entrepreneurs who want to broadcast their brands. With so many available platforms, you have a great opportunity to get creative in reaching your target audience. Doing so effectively, however, requires paying attention to both presentation and engagement.

In order to encourage potential customers to do more than just “like” and scroll past your posts, you need to strategize for engagement. This means consistently interacting with, and encouraging interaction from, those individuals who fall into your target audience (remember the traits discussed in the above “Customer Avatar” section), and perhaps beyond. Before posting, consider what types of content such viewers might find appealing, and to what messages they’d be the most receptive.

You should also consider which platforms, in particular, you’d like to make use of. For a catering business, Instagram and Pinterest can be particularly useful, as the content is primarily photos and graphics. They thus provide an easy platform on which to showcase your best dishes and venue décor. Users can also interact with both your brand and one another, on each post. The more engagement your account has with industry-specific accounts and content, the more likely your posts are to show up on potential customers’ feeds.

Each platform has its individual benefits as well. Instagram, for example, can help you reach more users through including industry- and event-related hashtags under each post; you can also tag any relevant accounts. Pinterest, on the other hand, allows you to add a source URL to each post, or “pin.” Thus, you can accompany images of your top work, with a link directly to your website.

Using social media in such a way is in an initial step in lead generation or the process of catching the attention of those individuals who are most likely to become your clients. For more successful lead generation, make sure you are engaging with followers, as well as other brands, frequently. Be responsive to comments and direct messages, and repost, to your feed or Instagram story, photos in which your account is tagged. You want customers, both current and potential, to feel your brand truly values feedback. And, more engagement, means more visibility, which means more redirection of traffic to your website.

Step 4: Create Weekly Content on Your Website

Your website, essentially, is your digital storefront. It’s here that social media followers, now occupying the role of site visitors, can eventually be converted to paying customers. Thus, you want visitors to be awed by your brand, as soon as they reach the landing page. Keeping consistency with your visual brand in mind, design your site so as to neatly showcase photographic examples of past events you’ve catered, positive customer reviews, and any awards or accolades your company has received.

On a more practical note, you also want all the necessary information to be easily accessible. This might include event pricing, the types and sizes of events you’re able to cater to, certifications held by various staff members, and a contact form for inquiries from potential customers.

Furthermore, you should be updating your site on a weekly basis. There’s little point in taking the time to design a digital storefront if you just end up allowing it to collect digital dust. Make sure your most recent posts are the most visible. As your brand expands, and as you and your team gain experience working more events, it’s likely you accumulate knowledge and experience worth showcasing—be it through even more meticulously-plated dishes, refined color schemes or ornate centerpieces.

Of course, as a newer company, it’s unlikely you’ll be catering events on a weekly basis. To maintain a flow of content during slower periods, share updates from within your business, such as staff training, inventory expansion and examples of new culinary skills. Such internal insight will show potential customers that you’re serious about developing service to its absolute best.

To maximize weekly website traffic, try incorporating Search Engine Optimization (SEO) into each post. Total Party Planner defines SEO as a process by which creators streamline content, so as to gain “greater online visibility, more website traffic, better and more consistent conversions, and ultimately, more business through organic search engine rankings.” The most successful content tends to include FAQs, blog posts and “success stories,” as well as articles optimized with geographically-specific content. SEO can also be implemented into videos; ones showcasing recipes, discussing your brand’s “About us” story or showcasing behind-the-scenes content are generally quite popular.

Step 5: Build Your Email List

Collating an email list of potential, current and former clients is an efficient way to maintain those key business connections. It’s also a necessary component of your inbound marketing strategy, via which you, or members of your team, reach out to leads so as to further encourage them to work with your brand.

Your website is one of the best platforms via which to begin collecting contacts. On the home page, include a small pop-up or widget offering a digital newsletter, free catering quote or other small digital freebies in exchange for submitting an email address. You can also place a “Contact Us” form throughout your website, which allows interested visitors to submit comments and questions alongside their contact information.

Step 6: Add Additional Revenue Models

You also have the option of posting ads to external channels, such as your social media accounts. Pinterest, for example, allows you to promote your best pins to a targeted audience, thus increasing the likelihood your content will reach who you most want it to. This function, called Pinterest Ads, is available exclusively to business account holders, which are free to set up. Once your ads are published, you have the ability to track engagement and reach via analytics, to see which designs are, or aren’t, pulling in traffic.

As the owner of a Catering and Events business, you have the chance to help your customers make their next gathering one to remember. Doing so, however, starts long before the invitations have been mailed. As you prepare to launch your business, take advantage of the planning, presenting and marketing opportunities available to you now. Your future brand will thank you.