How to start a catering company

Catering has been one of the most consistent high growing industries of the past decade. This is not just due to people being inspired by programmes like MasterChef, but, in part, due to the rise of organisations taking on small businesses to provide food for their events.

If you've got the stomach for hard work, a flair for cooking and a personality that shines under the pressure of constant interaction with clients, starting up a catering company could definitely be for you. You can easily start-up your own catering business with Smarta's formation tool.

Day-to-day

Few start-ups require a more varied lifestyle than running a catering company. Depending on the events you're catering for, you could be out from the crack of dawn until late at night.

If you're going down the most common route, catering for evening events, your average day would start at around 8am for food preparation.

During the day you'll also be accepting deliveries and should keep on top of phone calls with potential future clients, as well as organising any necessary equipment and staff for upcoming bookings.

Different events will require different start times, but you'll usually need to be with your customers by 5pm.

Once the event is underway you should be close by as the face of the event. Your greatest opportunity of snapping up new clients will be in situations where people are already enjoying your service.

After your food has been eaten, it'll be time to clean up and leave a great impression on everyone involved. Never forget, one perception of you will easily be transferred to friends and family and could either create or lose your future business.

Of course, this is not the only option. Early morning and all-day events are just as lucrative if you don't see yourself as the evening entertainment type, and for these, most of the preparation will be done the day before. However, an earlier start may be required on the day.

Location

There is a demand for catering all across the country but the opportunities will vary greatly in different areas.

Take the time to research other catering companies, see what they're offering and if there are any events that aren't being supplied.

Be careful with the assumption that companies not catering for certain events mean a gap in the market. There's a good chance there's just no demand for it.

Luckily, market research for a catering company isn't difficult and could be the start of drumming up some business.  If you're planning on starting your catering company in your own area, ask friends, family and local businesses what events they would need catering for.

Keeping an eye on growth is one of the most significant elements when starting up and, while you should be perfectly able to start a catering business out of your own kitchen, make sure you won't have to go too far to find a professional kitchen if things get busier.

Natural Skills

Running a catering company will require you to operate in a lot of different roles, and all the following skills will be essential to at least one of them…

  • Interpersonal expertise
  • Multi-tasking
  • Organisation and prioritisation
  • Quick reactions
  • A passion for meeting new people and delivering exactly what they want
  • Creativity
  • Grasp of business and accounts
  • And, of course, a flair and passion for cooking and having others taste your food

Training

Catering is one start-up where your natural prowess will always be more important than the training you may have.

Saying that on-the-job training surpasses qualifications when it comes to impressing with your culinary skills. If you aren't confident enough in your abilities yet, look for an established chef in a reputable institution to learn from.

Beyond this, understanding your accounts and tax information can save you a lot of money in assistance. There are endless resources available online to help you get a grasp of what you need to know, so you may not need to pay for courses in these areas, at least not from the start.

Premises

The greatest thing about starting a catering company is your own kitchen could suffice to prepare the food for your early events, although it may need some updated equipment, as long as it is a reasonably fitted kitchen, there shouldn't be much you can't make in the comfort of your own home.

Your home can also supply a space to complete accounts and take care of payments.

As your business grows, you may wish to move to a larger kitchen with more opportunities to create a wider range of dishes. The Dephna Group is an established and respected company for renting good kitchens. The hourly rate is £20, which includes the room and all the equipment you'll need but long-term rents are more complicated and require personal meetings to discuss.

Staff

If you're running a catering business by yourself, all but the smallest of events will require extra staff.  Even when you could survive as the sole member of a team, it may not be a good idea. As the face of a company, you should be around to sell what you're providing and deal with clients while allowing staff to handle everything else.

Hiring full-time staff is not advisable when there are such a wealth of temporary options available. Companies such as Lucy Hall offer bar staff, waiters, chefs and even security for any occasion, with prices varying greatly depending on the numbers you require.

Money

Catering companies won't need start-up finance from an outside source as initial costs for equipment; marketing and space can be minimal.

Costs will only start to accumulate when the jobs get bigger. As already stated, you're likely to have to shell out for staff and possibly a professional kitchen.

Other than that, you may need to rent transportation if what you already have available can no longer perform the job.

First Steps

The first step in starting a catering company is deciding what type of caterer you are. Test recipes on friends and family to find what your strengths are. Do you make the perfect desserts? Is your style best suited to children's parties? Or should you be supplying high-class hors d'oeuvres?

Check that your chosen specialisation fits with the area you live in and your personality. It doesn't matter how great your snacks for kids may taste if there are no children in the area and if you can't maintain a smile through an evening with clients your food will be overlooked next to the impression you leave.

Don't overbook yourself too early. You'll learn more from your first event than you ever will again and, while it will be tempting to take on all available work as the soon as you start, try to pace yourself. Leave time to combat any issues you discover before they damage your reputation.

Get the right licenses. You will need basic food hygiene certificates as well as specific licences to serve hot food between 11pm and 5am or alcohol anytime. You will also need to keep a written list of all your suppliers. Take a look at the government's food business guide for more information.

Read our feature: How to start a business: the ultimate checklist.

Tips

  • Keep a complete list of all ingredients, transport and staff costs to make sure you don't overestimate your profits.
  • Build gradually. Learn from each event and take any advice you can from customers.
  • Learn how to sell your company without appearing desperate. Every conversation is an opportunity, especially at your events. Anyone enjoying your food already knows you can do the job. All you have to do is find out when they need your services.
  • Shop around for the lowest stock prices. Being friendly and reliable as a client will get you the lowest possible costs.
  • Don't be too rigid with your pricing. In the catering industry, every job is different and you'll need to be prepared to change your prices to match the specific needs of each customer.

Common pitfalls

Not knowing where your specialities are. As previously stated the most important decision you can make is what type of event you're most suited to cater for. Think carefully about your skills and personality. Don't just go for the first option that crosses your mind.

Not putting money back into the business. Once you start to make a profit, keep in mind how your company may need to grow. If you need to buy more stock, pay for more staff or switch to a professional kitchen, make sure the money is available.

Not cleaning up. Don't think your job is done once all your food has been eaten. Leaving your customers with a great impression is vital to the reputation and survival of your business and leaving your area clean and presentable is the best way to ensure this occurs.

Acquiring too much stock. As a catering company, a huge amount of your stock is going to be perishable. While it's important to buy in the highest reasonable quantities to get the best deals, buying so much at one time that some go off will see your profits rotting away.

Ignoring licensing rules. Once you have collected the terms of your licence do not break them. This would be the easiest way to ruin your business.

Smarta Formations

You can set up your own catering company with Smarta - we offer a company registration service powered by the National Business Register.  You can search for available names then register a business name, or set up a company and/or register a trademark with us. You will receive a professional binder with all your official documents via post within 3-days.

Smarta Formations is the quickest and easiest way for you to register your limited company. All the hard work is handled for you. 

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