People want to eat my pie...
June 2, 2006 11:20 AM   Subscribe

I'm considering starting a small catering company. I know nothing of catering, waitering, or anything connected to the business. I just like making desserts, dips/spreads, and soups that just about everyone who's tasted 'em thinks I should sell 'em. Advice? Book recommendations? Next steps? Caveats? What should I charge? More questions inside.

So the more outside explains the gist of the situation. Here are more specific questions:

Everything I make (dips/spreads, soups, desserts) is vegetarian (because I am). Many are also raw and/or vegan. Should I strongly promote this aspect or is it too hippy-ish?

How much does one charge for a dessert? I make individual-sized tarts and full-sized ones as well. Is there a general percentage markup that's a good guideline (cost of time + ingredients multiplied by X)?

A local jazz musician who plays many private functions has tasted my desserts and is keen on promoting me to his clients so that they can purchase a "jazz set with dessert" sort of thing. He already charges a hefty fee (to my ears) of $1000/hour for music. If I go with something like this, do I use the same formula, above, to figure out my costs or... ?

How do caterers deal with allergies? I mean, I know you can just ask the client if their guests have any allergies but is that all there is to it? Or does one provide a list of ingredients to the client?

Do I need insurance in case someone has an allergic reaction? (Many of the dishes I make have nuts in them... where people aren't expecting nuts.)

What's a good way to promote the (non-Jazz thingy) side of this business?

How can I get restaurants to carry my tarts and other desserts? Since they're reselling, how do I figure out what to charge them so that they don't have to charge $10 a slice?

I'm not really interested in much beyond making the food... do all catering business provide servers as well or can food just be delivered?

Absolutely any advice you have would be appreciated. I'd also be interested in hearing any horror or wonderful stories with caterers you have hired or worked for or been served by (to let me know what to do and not do).

posted by dobbs to Work & Money (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, and I should say I read the other related threads from past AskMes... but am still confused.

I am also fine with doing it "on the side" as I have another career. However, I hate my other career so if this takes off, that's fine with me.
posted by dobbs at 11:27 AM on June 2, 2006

I made a very brief foray into selling cookies (chocolate chip and peanut butter) when in college almost 10 years ago. What I did was drop off a big bag of cookies and my phone number at a café where a friend of mine worked and invited the employees to help themselves. When the owner got there her employees told her about the cookies and how good they were, and she tried some and called me in.

Her offer was 65 cents for each large-sized cookie. As it turned out, I couldn't make a decent wage off of this amount of money. My main mistake was in paying retail for my ingredients. Also, I just had a regular home-kitchen sized oven so couldn't make that many cookies all at once. It was fun and all, but not sustainable and I only lasted a few weeks.

So I guess my advice is that your best marketing strategy is free samples, but you'd better make sure you've got the production side organized before you get serious about it.
posted by hazyjane at 11:51 AM on June 2, 2006

Everything I make (dips/spreads, soups, desserts) is vegetarian (because I am). Many are also raw and/or vegan. Should I strongly promote this aspect or is it too hippy-ish?

Promote it, but don't hit your customers over the head with it. We non-veggies are happy to eat delicious vegetarian food, but don't want to feel like we're being prostyletized to.
posted by desuetude at 12:00 PM on June 2, 2006

hazyjane alludes in her comment to what I think is probably something you'll have to come to terms with sooner rather than later: non-professional equipment. The big one is the oven, which can be a huge rate-limiter. If you live in an apartment and are friends with your neighbors you might be able to get around it, but it can be a real pain to bake things one at a time rather than in bulk. I say this as someone who has been a cook in a commercial kitchen and also in a home kitchen. I c ould crank out dinner for fifty in the commercial kitchen in two hours, I can get the same dinner for 6-8 done in my home kitchen in the same time. There just isn't room to do more.

In terms of marketing, I'd take a look at what kinds of veggie catering options there are around. It can be quite good to have a niche like this, it provides a stream of customers who come to you because they need vegetarian food. On the other hand, if you limit yourself to the niche the potential pool of customers is smaller. desuetude's comment notwithstanding, the people eating won't necessarily know the caterer is vegetarian, but the people buying will.
posted by OmieWise at 12:29 PM on June 2, 2006

Thanks for the answers so far.

desuetude, I do plan on mentioning it (say, in the About section of a web site or brochure), but I'm curious whether I should market around it--for instance, in a slogan/tagline. I'm not the kind of vegetarian who preaches or tries to convert people or anything like that.

I guess more just curious if non-vegetarians would see the slogan and think "hippy" or even "preachy". Does the slogan count as "hitting over the head" or is it welcome angle?
posted by dobbs at 12:30 PM on June 2, 2006

non-professional equipment. The big one is the oven

Well, the majority of things I make at this time don't involve an oven in any way--that's one of the reasons I got into raw food in the first place. Working with stoves and ovens seems to frazzle me. Some of my desserts (macaroons, for instance) use a dehydrator and almost everything I make requires a blender, but I have pro versions of both things.
posted by dobbs at 12:33 PM on June 2, 2006

A man who lives close by me started what is now a huge ship-by-mail raw/vegan food business by picking a select few raw or health food stores in our area and delivering fresh food to them twice a week. He went with a raw cafe (who placed his food in their grab-and-go fridge) and a few health food stores that catered to upscales. This stuff was not cheap, and it was literally flying off the shelves. People (I would be one of them) would show up at the stores to wait for him when they knew he was coming, to grab their favorites before they were all gone.

The health food store I frequent was charging 5-6 dollars for a slice of pie, 5-6 dollars for a slice of pizza or lasagne, and 4-5 dollars for other specialty items like raw burritos, falafel, dips, spreads, and salads. I imagine that Joel was getting about half the money. He started out delivering the fresh food, and then many people wanted lessons on how to make their own. So he supplemented his delivery income with lessons, and the rawwies and vegans started asking him to cater their affairs, and it just snowballed and now he seems to have the world by the...uh, some vegan raw thing. He's running an empire of raw mail-order, let me tell you. Check out the prices...this guy is making money hand over fist. I think he started all this less than 3 years ago if I'm not mistaken.

So start small, and hand pick a select few places that you want your food to be associated with. Wait for the positive and the negative feedback on taste, price, longevity, etc, and perfect the four or five menu items that you do best. Word will get around, and people will be wanting more. Make nice labels for your goods. Look into appealing yet environmentally aware packaging, with expiration dates clearly marked somewhere on the label or package. Start up a website and put the url on your labels.

You should email him or call him and pick his brain a little. Find out how much stores were marking up his product - I would think this is the most important thing to know off the bat, so you can estimate whether it's even worth your while. And are there codes or laws governing what you can and can't produce within the confines of your own kitchen - you'd need to know that too.

I don't know what most non vegan non rawwies think of the food, since I am a vegan rawwie. My husband and son (neither are vegan or raw) don't like it. I love it. Cater to your demographic, is what I would say.
posted by iconomy at 12:34 PM on June 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ooops...I have no idea how those words got linked in my next to last paragraph. Maybe I started to link to his site and changed the link to the first paragraph. Ignore that bad link.
posted by iconomy at 12:37 PM on June 2, 2006

Yes it's me, posting again. If you want some great raw "un"cookbooks, email me your address. I have 5 or 6 of the best, and I've memorized the recipes that I like. You can send me some pie in exchange.

Also, this woman's been collecting raw recipes from all over the web, and some are exceptional.
posted by iconomy at 12:49 PM on June 2, 2006

I don't want to sound discouraging, but most restaurants don't make any money on food, so you're going to have to run a tight ship to be profitable just selling food. There's a lot more money in service.

In order to keep food costs down, you'll want to buy large volume wholesale as much as possible. Of course, you have to have sales volume in order to not waste product trying to keep everything fresh. This is the tricky chicken-and-egg part.

Depending on what kind of catering you do, you'll be pricing per person or per container. Sounds to me like you're more in the per container situation. Given that you're not interested in running the event, but just making the food, you should consider delivering product to delis and groceries and so on, as well as offering your stuff for events.

My recommendation would be to brand yourself as a gourmet food vendor rather than a caterer. Vegetarian is a nice niche, but it shouldn't be your major selling point. Tasty first, good for you second.

Given that you won't be making much profit on most items anyways, aim for volume. This is the best way to keep your food costs low. You should sell your bread-and-butter things for barely enough to cover costs but offer some really nice premium things for a mark-up. This allows you to do volume and makes you competitive, but adds in profit, too. Grocery stores use a variant of this, called the loss leader strategy, except you'll be doing the inverse. The key is to make the premiums irresistable, because that's where the majority of your profit will come from. You can't do only premiums, though, because you won't be able to do enough volume and food costs will eat you alive.

Good luck with it. It's a tough business.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 12:51 PM on June 2, 2006

Consider hooking up with places which do weddings, especially if you can also do cakes. People seem to be willing to pay more for food for a wedding.
posted by joannemerriam at 1:07 PM on June 2, 2006

I had a family member try to make a go of lunch deliveries to local office buildings and businesses, as well as one-time events. The kicker for her was that once it took off, it was increasingly likely that a food inspector would want to see her kitchen. If that happened, it would be required that she could show that food for her family and food for her customers was strictly separated, and that all health code regulations were followed. Her home kitchen wasn't big enough for two pantry set-ups, and they had pets which had free run of the house, so she basically needed to stay just below the edge of success (thus off the inspector radar) to continue. Not a good business model, so she quit. Regulations might differ where you live (I'm in Kansas), so you might want to check that out.
posted by donnagirl at 1:11 PM on June 2, 2006

We own a bakery.

Before you do anything take an honest assessment of your abilities as well as your equipment. Do you have enough room for production, ingredients and packaging? What about deliveries? How hard are you willing to work? How much could you comfortably do out of your home?

Perhaps most importantly, what are the health dept regulations for your city? Can you do wholesale out of the house? If not, what about farmer's markets? Do you have to have labels on your items listing the ingredients if another business sells your stuff (I'm thinking of coffee shops that might sell cookies in this instance).

Regarding pricing for desserts and/or getting places to carry your stuff, make a list of places you think you'd be a good fit for. Health food stores, coffee shops, etc. Then drop off samples with some info on what you do as well as how long it'll hold up. As far as pricing goes, you want to cover your costs with some left over. And that means all costs, not just ingredients. Packaging, utilities, gas, etc. Trust me, if it's really good, they'll pay for it. Don't underprice yourself from the get go. You can always lower prices later.

Get everything in writing. Wholesale orders and catering jobs especially. Be very clear what you will and won't do. Stick to those rules. Some googling should yield a bevy of results for this. Contracts are your friends.

As far as the nuts go, if you're catering an event, there will most likely be a printed menu, right? Put a disclaimer on there and make sure the servers/hosts know where the nuts are.

Lastly, it sounds like you need a little focus on what you'll be making. You mentioned dips, soups and desserts. I would caution you against spreading yourself too thin from the start. If you're making soups and desserts for three coffee shops and delivering four times a week and you get a catering order, can you handle that? What are you best at? What are your signature items? That might help you figure out where you should go. Good luck.
posted by Atom12 at 1:14 PM on June 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, I'd avoid weddings unless you have a) the patience of Job or b) a source of top-notch heroin that delivers 24/7.
posted by Atom12 at 1:16 PM on June 2, 2006

I guess more just curious if non-vegetarians would see the slogan and think "hippy" or even "preachy". Does the slogan count as "hitting over the head" or is it welcome angle?

Interesting...I had to think about this. I think that while you're building your business, having a veggie-specific slogan is going to put you in too much of a niche. A lot of people would look at a veggie-identified business and take it as a cue that those people don't want to work with meat-eaters. Or that you won't understand food the same way they do. Or any of a bunch of mostly subconscious assumptions.

Once you're well-known in the area for deliciousness you can more safely play up the veggie angle, because you'll already be known as awesome first, veggie second.
posted by desuetude at 1:40 PM on June 2, 2006

First, read or listen to "Kitchen Confidential." Anthony Bourdain relentlessly mocks the foolishness of people who get into the food business because they "like making desserts, dips/spreads, and soups that just about everyone who's tasted 'em thinks I should sell 'em."

If you still want to have a go after reading that, you'll know its really something you want to do.
posted by GregW at 2:47 PM on June 2, 2006

You could try mentioning "healthy" in your slogan or name, which would allude to the veggie/ raw thing without being super obvious. I don't know about other people, but it's a pretty clear line from "healthy" to "vegetarian/ raw" for me.
posted by MadamM at 3:57 PM on June 2, 2006

I'm not a vegetarian, but I am health-conscious and I do love baked goods. For me, the most important thing that would certainly attract my attention (i.e. on a label, sticker, ad, etc.), is "no partially-hydrogenated fats."
posted by invisible ink at 4:16 PM on June 2, 2006

I think if you're going to refuse to cook anything that -isn't- veggie, you should definately make that clear in your advertising. If it puts you in a niche, so be it. If I was an omnivore hiring a caterer I'd want one who would serve meats; but then again, if I was a staunch veggie, I'd take great delight in hiring someone who wouldn't try and sneak eggs or lard into my veggie repast.
posted by Rubber Soul at 4:19 PM on June 2, 2006

Thanks to everyone who answered. Excellent posts abound!

I'm gonna read it all over a few times and do some thinking.

posted by dobbs at 5:34 PM on June 2, 2006

I suggest working for a catering company before you decide to start a business plan. You can freelance as a bartender or waiter for a catering or service company and make a pretty good chunk of change doing a party. Even if the party is 4-5 hours long, you still put in about 8 hours of work (at least). That could give you a real idea of the operations side of the business. It's not all kitchen-based.
posted by FergieBelle at 5:40 PM on June 2, 2006

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