How to Make Catering
Work for You

Adding a catering arm may bring in
that added revenue stream you're
looking for.

Building a new line of business makes a lot of sense, especially in today's economy. Catering is a natural offshoot to restaurants and can be a worthwhile extension of your brand. But launching a catering division today requires a new set of rules—rules that cater to more austere corporate events and scaled-down special events.

"The catering customer has changed," says Michael Roman, president/founder of Catersource Magazine, Conference & Tradeshow, based in Minneapolis. "They're looking for catering at less cost, but they don't want cheap. They want less fluff, so no big shrimp hors d'oeuvre, but maybe shrimp salad. They're looking for good value. Corporate shoppers are looking for catering that's easy for them to justify."

"Because of the economy, people are drawn to comfort foods," says Michael Sullivan, president of Hill Top Inn Restaurants, Banquets and Catering , Elmira, N.Y. "So we're doing macaroni-and-cheese bars, mashed-potato martini bars. They're not necessarily new, but they're elegant and fun and answer that call for comfort."

Although the type of catering that works in today's market may have changed, many strategies for implementing a catering division remain the same. "Catering is the art of quality, volume foodservice balanced by the science of making profit," says Roman. Here are three of Roman's strategies that may help you launch a profitable
catering service:

  1. 1.Hire and manage a really good salesperson.

    This person is selling your catering orders. Chefs need to be involved throughout that process. Make a list of dishes that are easy to execute in the kitchen and a list of dishes that require chef approval. Allow the salesperson access to the kitchen. Let him or her get involved in your world, so they can understand it better. A chef should have veto power over a salesperson's wishes, which are really the customer's wishes.

  2. 2. Create a catering Cost Wall in your kitchen.

    Use Velcro and stick items you use for catering on the wall. So, have a foil pan on there with the cost underneath it, for instance. Put an empty bag of corn on there with the price underneath it. Your kitchen staff needs to understand food and equipment costs in catering.

  3. 3. Form a customer advisory board before finalizing your catering menu.

    Ask your best customers, folks who are passionate about your food, to come in and talk about what they'd like to see on a catering menu. They'll help you form a good core, and may give you ideas for things you haven't thought about.

Hill Top Inn, opened in 1933, is nestled in the Finger Lakes. This family-run institution had always catered for corporate picnics and some on-premise wedding banquets. But Sullivan expanded the catering arm in 2001. "I saw an opportunity in the market. Plus, people were constantly requesting it," he says. Back then, catering sales brought in 10% of Hill Top's revenue. Today? Catering accounts for 60% of its revenue. His catering business follows several different profitable streams—from weddings and parties to off-site concessions, such as wine festivals and farmers' markets.

Three of Sullivan's catering strategies:

  1. 1. Be first to the market with food trends, catering displays.

    We always want to be a leader in what we offer. We stay on top of current trends by staying connected with a network of caterers throughout the country. Go to conventions, read catering magazines. People are looking for new and exciting, and if you have a reputation for that, they'll seek you out for their special event.

  2. 2. Never stray from your culinary strengths.

    If you're known for great barbecue, that's where you can expand into with catering. Don't try to be something
    you're not.

  3. 3. Don't offer "A" menus at "B" prices.

    You won't survive if you do that. Find items that are good value and run a decent food cost.

WOW Factor

"Find a creative way to serve your food," says Sullivan. "Display the food beautifully and make it easy to eat. Sushi bars are really popular for us—people love that it's fresh and healthy. And make things exciting: use Parmesan crisps or lettuce cups for passed hors d' oeuvres. Have fun with the food!"