Advice On Starting A Personal Chef / Meal Delivery Business?
May 1, 2012 3:33 PM   Subscribe

Recently I've been considering starting a small personal chef business. I was hoping there might be some personal chefs here on MeFi that could offer me some advice/tips.

Some questions off the top of my head (sorry If I have a lot):

1. Any websites you find useful? Places where other personal chefs hang out?

2. Is being a personal chef a viable full-time business, or is it likely more of a side income?

3. In general, what do you think is a manageable number of clients to accommodate?

4. Do you find that business is mostly referral based?

5. Do you dictate your menus or let the client choose?

6. Where do you do the cooking? Home? Commercial kitchen? Client's home?

7. Do you generally charge a la carte or for meal packages?

8. (If you feel comfortable sharing) What do you generally charge for your services?

9. (In your opinion) what are the most difficult aspects of running a personal chef business?

Of course any additional advice/opinions are greatly welcomed and appreciated.

Thank you!
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb to Food & Drink (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
10. Should I have insurance to protect against injury and liability?

Yes. You absolutely should.
posted by bilabial at 8:37 PM on May 1, 2012 has caterers and personal chefs (among other "regular" chefs) that may be able to answer your questions. has less of the same.
posted by karlos at 8:41 PM on May 1, 2012

Hi. I am not a personal chef, but I have a culinary degree and know many people who have done private client cooking.

A lot of your questions are up to you. Businessnes can be structured as full-time or part time, a la carte or packages, etc etc etc. You could cook for just one client (full time) or for many clients. You can have a limited selection of menus from which the client can choose or it can be a thing where you make what you make and they like it or they don't (I would not recommend telling the client you'll make whatever they want as most people are hiring you because they don't want to plan menus, but that's not always the case). You could take 50 private clients a week if all you are making is soup and they all get the same kind and they pick it up from your commercial kitchen. If you're doing a week's worth of meals per client, I would probably only take 1 person per day (be sure you factor in the shopping). Or you can do anything in between. I know people who have done every permutation of these variables!

I strongly suggest you look into the rules and regulations that govern private cooking in your jurisdiction. Most states in the US do NOT permit personal chefs to prepare food in the chef's home. You either have to go to the client's home or rent a commercial kitchen that gets regularly inspected by the local health department.

I also recommend you make a business plan that includes marketing. Marketing is one of the biggest challenges of any service-based/private client business. Your business plan could also include details about how you will run your operation. For example, if you are cooking in the client's home, where is the food going to go? Will you provide new containers each time? Will the clients be required to buy a set of reusable containers from you each time? How will your contracts work? What kind of liability will you carry in case someone gets sick from your food?Will you be paid up front? Will you require money for the food shopping before you buy ingredients? Will you be schlepping your equipment with you every time? Will you be leaving any pantry ingredients at the client's home? If you plan on catering parties in addition to day-to-day cheffing, how will that aspect of the business work? Etc. Chamber of commerce or local SBA should be able to help you with this. Also chef's professional organizations like the International Association of Culinary Professionals, etc.

Also, you have not mentioned your cooking experience yet, but it might be good to know where you are with that. Private cooking is often grueling, physical labor. Familiarity with sanitation procedures is essential. Do you have restaurant experience?

That's all just off the top of my head. There's lots more to consider. Feel free to memail with more questions if you want!
posted by pupstocks at 8:41 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hi, yes, I had a personal chef business a few years ago, for about a year. I did not have any formal culinary training, I was a hobby cook.

You should definitely have insurance. Nothing would ruin a good day faster than setting someone's kitchen on fire and not being able to pay for the damages.

I left a job in a TOTALLY unrelated field, and jumped into my new career with both feet. I learned two important things - that while I was (am) great at inside sales, I had sorely underestimated my outside sales skills. Outside sales are important when you have your own business. The other thing I learned the hard way was that while I like to work with autonomy, I really thrive in a team environment. I hate working alone all the time, and that's what my business was, either working from my home office trying to figure out how to get clients, or performing the service at my client's home, usually while they were at work. It got lonely fast, and that, plus a lack of a supporting level of income, really fucked with my relationship (our marriage still bears the scars of this time period, but that's another post).

Were I to do this over again, I would start it as a side business, doing parties and small jobs, building a clientele and a reputation, and generally evaluating my weak spots. If you are not great at sales, you can hire someone who is to help you, for instance.

To try to answer your specific questions; I had an evaluation / questionnaire that I used to determine my clients preferences. I used that to dictate the menum and my clients were pretty easy-going about it. I cooked in the clients homes, as per the law, but I would try to do something different now if I did it again. My business was not really referral based. I really had to get people to justify the cost of a personal chef in their own minds; most people (on the middle-class strata) can justify house-keeping help, but still can't get over how much they spend on food / meal-planning / take-out vs. the elitist-sounding "personal-chef". My client base was upper-middle-class, not super-rich and we want to pretend we are Oprah with her own chef. All that said, I think people were embarrassed to admit that they were using a cheffing service, so no, not a lot of referrals. That is an important point in this economy.

Some of my best money came from catering for parties, but those were A LOT of work, and still didn't generate referral business.

I don't remember now what I charged, but I think I worked it out to a liveable daily wage plus expenses. But I didn't sell it that way, I sold it as a package price.

Like I said, I was a hobby cook. Someone with restaurant experience (both from the business perspective and from the culinary training perspective) might be able to make a real go of it, but I know few who did. Also, most chefs in my area (Los Angeles) did not want to network, they were afraid of competition even though we weren't really working the same neighborhoods and there was plenty of business to go around. It would have been good for me too if I had put together a more formal sort of Board of Advisors, for advice when my inexperience got me into trouble.

If you really want to do this, particularly in this economy, I suggest you start really really parttime, and see if you can build it into something you can make a go of.

Final thought - if cooking is your hobby, find another hobby fast. Nothing sucks worse at the end of a long day than not having your hobby to engage in and relax from your day, because you've already been doing it all day.
posted by vignettist at 1:08 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

My wife was one for a short time. She had three clients. The easiest was the bachelor interior designer who literally appreciated everything. He was very low maintenance and happy to have balanced meals he could heat up whenever he wanted.

It's a lot more work than you think and you really have to have a handle on food costs. Little things like cilantro, spices, vanilla extract for specific dishes can really eat into your budget. You need to make sure you're making money. Your best bet would be to have a handful of clients, so things can stretch. A sheet pan of brownies, a large batch of soup or chili, etc so you're cooking efficiently and getting the most out of your ingredients will make it easier. That said, each client will likely be different. VERY generally speaking, women were more particular than men in regard to calorie/fat counts, so dishes like clam chowder, mac and cheese or cheesecake didn't always work for everyone. Some clients may even want/need specific menus for gluten or other food allergies.

Check into your local regulations regarding kitchens. Your choices will likely be renting a commercial kitchen or cooking out of your client's kitchen. Logistics there -- storing spices, refrigerator/freezer space may require some creativity.

If you just like cooking, host dinner parties. As Vignettist said, a hobby's one thing and a job's another.
posted by Atom12 at 6:42 AM on May 2, 2012

(Meant to say I OVERestimated my outside sales skills... Oy, posting in the middle of the night / baby-brain).
posted by vignettist at 6:59 AM on May 2, 2012

If you're going to do it, learn how to cook around every type of food allergy. I know a personal chef, and about half of her business came from people with pretty intense food allergies who couldn't go out to eat or buy many prepared foods. They are more willing to pay the high price of a personal chef to get stuff that they can eat and tastes good.
posted by markblasco at 7:54 AM on May 2, 2012

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all the detailed responses! I've never worked in the restaurant industry, but I do have a lifetime of experience cooking at home for family and friends. Judging by your responses it seems to me like marketing and budgeting are the two biggest challenges. I also didn't really consider the food allergy issue. Looks like I have a lot of work to do! Again, thanks for all your help.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 11:58 AM on May 2, 2012

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