Developing a Catering Menu
Creating a versatile catering menu that fits your concept and pleases your customers is tricky. Before you begin to develop your catering menu, scope out the competition’s menus. Make note of the dishes they offer as well as their pricing. You want to make sure you are differentiating yourself from them, so steer clear of the same menu items. Getting a good idea of what other caterers offer will allow you to develop a marketable menu that is unique and competitively priced.
Choosing Your Menu Items
After you have done some market research, you have a good idea how to make your menu stand out from others’. Now it is time to consider the other factors that will help shape your menu:
If you want to create a successful catering brand, you need a consistent concept. Be sure your food matches the feel of your business. Keep your menu in line with your concept and with what you know how to do. That way your food will be consistently good, and you will send a clearer message of what you are all about. If your concept is catering “Southern Comfort Food” at special events, you probably shouldn’t offer sushi. If you know people are looking for sushi and you want to serve it, you should rethink your concept.
The type of food you can create will be limited by the resources at hand. The equipment available in your kitchen, the skills of your employees, the ingredients available in season and other factors will guide your choices of menu items. Time is also an important resource. Leaving everything until the last minute is risky. Instead, construct your menu from dishes that can be prepared a day in advance, or at least a few hours in advance, like pasta salads, soups and casseroles.
You can only prepare a limited number of recipes on-site, and you will probably need special equipment to do so. No matter how delicious they are when freshly prepared, if your other menu items don’t transport well or hold up well after sitting for a while in a chafing dish or bowl, your catering will not be a success. Create a menu out of dishes that transport well, such as soups, braised foods, or chilled or room-temperature dishes. >>Learn more
The cost of food should heavily influence the development of your catering menu. If all of your dishes include highly expensive ingredients like truffles, caviar and saffron, you will have to charge your clients an arm and a leg to make a profit. Even if you are a gourmet caterer, always offer menu items that are affordable as well as more expensive options.
Offering a variety of food types on your menu will assure that every client has options they can appreciate. Offering the following will also allow your clients to choose a variety of dishes to be served at their event, so that every guest who goes through the buffet line finds something they like and leaves happy:
- Variety of ingredients. Offer dishes made of a variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins and sweets. That way, if there is something your customers do not like, they will have plenty of other options.
- Multiple preparation methods. You may want to offer grilled, braised, roasted, poached and fried items to please a range of tastes. This will also make it easier to prepare food with limited kitchen equipment.
- Range of mealtime options. Unless you only plan on running part-time, you may be contracted to cater brunches, lunches, dinners or late-hour cocktail parties, so make sure you offer a variety of dishes that are suitable for these different mealtimes.
- Options for those with food limitations. Be sure you have dishes on your menu for vegetarians, vegans, kosher eaters, diabetics and health-conscious diners.
- Variety of styles. While your concept will guide your choice of recipes, you should also make sure to offer dishes in a variety of styles, including both contemporary and classic items. For example, an Asian foods caterer may want to offer Asian fusion dishes like cheese cake egg rolls as well as classic recipes like sweet and sour chicken.
Seasonal and Holiday Dishes
You will probably want to vary your menu according to the seasons and holidays. In the summer, offer more fresh, cool dishes like salads and fresh fruit. In the winter, offer gamey meats and winter vegetables like winter squash and yams. During the holiday season you also might want to offer seasonal foods, but make sure they fit with your concept. For example, during the holiday season a Mexican caterer might offer buñuelos, tamales and Mexican hot chocolate. A comfort foods caterer, on the other hand, might offer stuffed, slow-roasted turkey, pecan pie and egg nog.
You have chosen menu items that are profitable, please a variety of tastes and suit your concept and talents. While you want to guide your clients’ meal choices with your menu and general concept, most caterers find more success when they give their clients a little flexibility in deciding what dishes will be served at their event. This is because people have very individual tastes, and they want their big event, whether it’s a wedding or holiday party, to reflect their individuality.
A delicatessen and catering company keeps multiple catering menus in a menu rack in the deli
If customizing a menu does not appeal to you, you could create multiple menus for different kinds of budgets. For example, a caterer who specializes in Mexican food could have a “gourmet” menu featuring more expensive items, like portabella & goat cheese tamales, a “mid-range” menu featuring standard mid-priced items like grilled chicken enchiladas, and a cheaper “taco bar” menu for those with a tight budget.
Another option is to have three mirror menus at different prices and alter the same menu items for those different budgets. For example, you might offer garlic mashed potatoes drizzled in truffle oil with a caviar garnish on your most expensive menu, garlic mashed potatoes with caviar garnish on your mid-price menu, and plain old garlic mashed potatoes on your budget menu.
Once you have decided on your menu, it is time to think about pricing. Pricing a catering menu is significantly different from pricing other menus, since you will likely be catering to clients with different guest counts, needs and budgets. >>Learn more
More from Catering Education...
- How to Start Your Own Catering Business
- How to Cater a Party for 25
- Catering Display: How to Design the Perfect Buffet
- How to Start a Home Catering Business
- How to Price a Catering Menu
- Marketing a Catering Business: How Caterers Get Clients
- Types of Catering Operations: The Pros and Cons
- Developing a Catering Concept
- Creating a Catering Proposal and Quote
- Finding a Commercial Kitchen for a Catering Business
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