Who is it suited to?
You might think that preparing a few sandwiches for a business meeting is a job pretty much anyone could do. Don’t be fooled, however. There’s a lot more to outside catering than meets the eye, and if you’re going to make a success of the business, you’ll need some fairly specialised skills.
Rather unsurprisingly, knowledge of food has always been a major requirement. However, recent trends mean that this is now more important than ever.
Firstly, customers’ tastes are becoming more sophisticated, due largely to the increasing availability of different types of food and the education of British palates by the media. Consequently, your offerings may need to be more imaginative than the stereotypical cheese and pickle sandwiches that come to mind when you think of conferences and business gatherings.
The taste factor of your meals is not your only concern, however. No one that works with food will forget the BSE scares surrounding British meat, or the more recent concerns over genetically modified food, so it's increasingly more important to offer food that is good quality, fresh, and hygienically prepared.
Producing tasty and healthy meals quickly for groups of 200 people is no walk in the park. Even if your business is big enough to have a head chef to deal with the food preparation, having your own catering knowledge will still be crucial. Hugh Walker, owner of The Factory House corporate catering company in London explains.
“It would be madness to try and get involved in this industry without knowing about food. I’ve seen it happen in restaurants, where people have set up with no food experience, and the head chef has ended up ruling the roost. This can be a disaster.”
Catering expertise will not only enable you to produce the right meals for your clients; it will also be essential for the business end of your enterprise. Anyone working in the industry will tell you that the key to success in outside catering is controlling costs.
“As with any other business, it all comes down to cost. So if you have no experience in food operation, you won’t know what costs are possible,” explains Walker.
Catering is a competitive market and how you price your service could be the difference between success and failure. “Catering is about cost control as much as it is about cooking. You can easily waste money if you over order on food. You need to be pretty astute with figures,” says Quest.
You also need to be very well organised in order to run the operational side of your business, explains Walker. “You are dealing with a high number of staff and a perishable product. Controls and routines have to be stringent. It can be quite a bureaucracy.”
If you lack the necessary experience, consider taking some courses. Walker completed a degree in Catering Systems, which taught food technology, but also management, accounts and how to set up catering systems. If you don’t have the time or money to do a degree, there are a range of Catering Hospitality NVQ’s/SVQs available. At the very least, you should get some managerial experience in a catering business for an insight into how it all works.
Finally, this is not a nine-to-five job. Sue Roberts of Topline Catering explains, “Catering is unsocial since you’re inevitably working when everyone else is partying. We do a lot of unsociable hours over the summer and work a lot of hours in the week.” It is important to bear this in mind when considering if catering is for you.