There are two big considerations when developing a catering concept: market research and your personal interests and talents. You can tailor your offerings to food that you enjoy cooking, while still leaving room for exploration in other cuisines that you may not be familiar with right off the bat. This guide will help you develop a catering concept that is not only fun and enjoyable, but one that has the potential for real success.
Choose a Type of Operation
As you form a concept for your catering company,think about which field of catering you’d like to work in. Do you want to provide more fine dining experiences or do you want to be the hip, funky queen of fried chicken catering to the masses? If you aren’t sure, here are a few different catering types and what kind of events they’re appropriate for.
- Business catering – Providing meals or snacks for corporate meetings, lunches, training sessions, conferences and parties.
- Social event catering – Providing food for private affairs or social events like weddings, holiday parties or dinner parties.
- Industrial catering – Supplying snacks or meals for large institutions or businesses like schools, prisons, factories or airlines.
- Mobile catering – Selling food from a van, trailer or temporary kitchen at parking lots, festivals, fairs or markets.
You may decide to go with one of these concepts, or work with several. For example, you may want to provide social event catering, but also vend at farmers markets and festivals during the summer to make a little extra profit. However, if you already have corporate or industrial connections, see if you can work with those. Because let’s face it. A foot in the door from a friend doesn’t hurt, especially in foodservice.
Once you have decided what kind of caterer to be, you may want to develop an even more specific focus. As a startup, you will want to focus on mobile, social or business catering to make a name for yourself, so your next step is to specialize. Depending on the marketplace in your area and what is in demand, you may want to specialize in a specific type of event or cuisine.
Focus on a Type of Event
Some caterers choose to market themselves to a specific clientele for only one kind of event. For example, there are caterers that target wedding-related events like wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners and bridal showers. These caterers often provide everything needed for a wedding, from the wedding cake and cake toppers to the disco ball above the reception hall dance floor.
Other mobile, corporate and event catering businesses have grown successful by focusing on the following types of events:
- Outdoor barbecues
- Birthday parties
- Cocktail parties
- Corporate lunches
- Music and art festivals
You may want to focus on one kind of event for your marketing, but still offer catering in other areas to broaden your concept. If you do choose to cater for one kind of event, you will need to diversify your menu options to be able to capture a large enough segment in that market. However, if you are considering specializing in a single type of event, it is good to keep in mind that it limits your customer base as well as your ability to make profit. Once you brand yourself as a specialty caterer, it may be difficult to break into a new market. Still, if your niche market is large enough, you may be able to run a successful specialty catering business for many years.
Determine your Cuisine
Before you decide exactly what menu items you will offer, think about the “concept” behind your cuisine. Your cuisine should be suitable for the type of catering you do. For example, if you want to cater for businesses, consider providing lunch fare for their corporate lunches and meetings. On the other hand, if you want to cater special events, gourmet food is a better choice. Popular catering cuisine concepts include the following:
- Gourmet food or molecular gastronomy
- Ethnic food like Indian, Mexican or Cajun
- Comfort food
- Lunch fare: sandwiches, salads, soups & deli trays
- A mobile caterer prepares food on site
Some types of cuisine just do not work very well as a catering concept. For example, seafood is difficult to cater. After hot fish sits in a chafer, warmer or food pan for too long, the whole area will start to smell fishy, and the fish will quickly become overcooked.
Pizza is another example of a not-so-hot catering concept. There are already many places that deliver pizza, so it would be hard to carve yourself out a space in this market.
Examine the Marketplace
Look at what the caterers in your area are offering, and try to find some way to make your own cuisine stand out. Determine what type of catering is in demand and in low supply in your area. Chances are, the majority of caterers in your area offer a standard menu of chicken breasts, tenderloin and poached salmon. Stand out from the crowd with dishes that haven’t been done a million times over.
When it is time for Cinco de Mayo or a girl’s quinceañera, who will provide the Mexican or Latin American food and drinks? Who will cater the vegetarian options for a vegan’s wedding? More and more, people are showing interest in ethnic foods, healthy or gluten-free food, eco-friendly or vegetarian cuisine and other unique options that caterers rarely offer. This is a market with a ton of untapped potential.
Decide on the Services You Will Offer
A mobile caterer will always sell food from a booth or van. However, different social and corporate catering businesses offer different service options for their clients. The type of services you provide will help determine your concept. Some caterers only do food drop-off, while others will provide a full-service buffet, sometimes even offering table-service and event-planning. The more services you add to a contract, the greater the labor costs, so your pricing should go up accordingly. Catering service types include the following:
With no-service catering, the food is dropped off at the event location or picked up at the caterer’s kitchen. No clean-up or set-up of a buffet or table is provided. The food comes packaged in disposable catering supplies, like aluminum food containers or paper lunch boxes, and usually paper napkins and plastic cutlery are included. This type of service is cost-effective for the caterer, since no extra staff is required beyond the kitchen and deliverer.
A caterer that offers partial service will provide the set-up and clean-up of a self-serve buffet. Usually this self-serve buffet includes the chafing dishes, table skirts, table runners, serving utensils, commercial dinnerware and flatware. It normally will also include a beverage station, if the customer desires. After setup, staff usually exits the scene for the event, then returns afterward for cleanup and collection of their supplies.
Full-service caterers often provide bartending services.
When a customer requires full-service catering, the caterer offers set-up, service and cleanup at a full buffet. Generally, each buffet is staffed with one buffet runner – who makes sure all chafing dishes and serving bowls are stocked with food – and one attendant to answer questions and provide buffet services to the customers who need it. A bartender and portable bar may be provided. Most full-service caterers will even offer table set-up and table service to the client’s guests, whether it is full service of all courses or simply beverage service and clearing of dishes at the table. Full-service caterers may also provide the venue decorations and full event planning for the event.
These different catering types are not mutually exclusive. Most businesses that provide full-service catering often offer simple drop-off or partial-service as well, and they may also vend at local farmers markets or festivals. However, many businesses choose to limit themselves to drop-off or partial-service catering. This controls the amount of employees and supplies they need, but it also limits the type of events they can cater.
The Big Picture
Catering is a diverse craft. Some caterers have found that, over time, they grow into a business that can do just about anything, from wedding planning to festival vending and providing meals for cafeterias. However, if you are new to the catering world, specializing in a clear-cut concept will help define your business and give you a focus, while still leaving room for future growth in other areas. Once you have defined your concept, you can start developing your menu, finding a commercial kitchen and looking for clients.