Running a catering business isn't so different to running a restaurant.
You need to prepare and cook food to an acceptable, consistent standard, and within a certain time frame. This all takes not only culinary skills but also the ability to remain cool under pressure and coordinate a team working in a potentially stressful environment.
However, catering can potentially offer a major advantage. As the food is served not in your own premises but in various locations, you can feasibly operate a catering business from home.
Home-based catering businesses are thriving, with the ability to choose your own hours and work from home, allied with being your own boss, an alluring combination. With modest overheads and the mark-up from raw ingredients to final product considerable, a work-from-home catering business is hugely scalable and potentially lucrative.
Chantelle Ludski is founder and managing director of a chain of organic cafes. A graduate in law, Ludski changed tack completely working in restaurants and the events industry before deciding to start Fresh!
Ludski, whose catering company's food is best summed up as organic and healthy, says: "We probably don't make as much money from our sandwiches as most other companies do, but we want to give good value at a good price. It's all about cost-efficiency."
Modest about the business's income, Ludski nevertheless describes a business success story. "I started in a café with four people, and have grown a company that supplies Selfridges," she says, adding: "I kept the business growing, making delicious food and always moving forward."
Fresh! now supplies major retailers and supermarkets such as Sainsburys and Tesco.
Catering entrepreneur Damian Clarkson suggests budding caterers "need experience, energy and stamina." As for qualifications and experience, The London Kitchen founder believes "you can get a good approach to the industry from an events management course or catering course. There are many different ways to get into the trade, but nothing in my mind beats experience or positive mental attitude."
A variety of clients are served by the catering industry, the three foremost being corporate, social/private and industrial. Corporate catering receptions usually include a generous budget and demand an elegant menu and artistic presentation.
However, Clarkson considers corporate catering to be "very price-sensitive at the moment. People are terrified of spending and I think it will take a long time for that market to recover any degree of confidence."
Social catering encompasses receptions, breakfasts, luncheons and dinners, mainly on a small scale. According to Clarkson, "private catering is always discreet, it's not as sensitive as corporate. What both types of catering have in common is that clients of each expect value for money."
Social catering is one of the fastest growing sections of the food industry, according to the National Restaurant Association's 2008 Restaurant Industry Forecast. Industrial catering, meanwhile, can rely on robust demand as for institutions like schools and hospitals, serving food to their pupils/patients is a must.
Planning and passion
You must be an outstanding planner and manager to run a catering business, as well as having a passion in food. Having the ability to think on your feet is vital, so you can deal with last-minute changes to orders.
Unless you're not planning to be involved in food preparation - and few people won't in the first few years - then obviously you need a food hygiene certificate and to adhere to the raft of hygiene regulations.
Whatever people feel about red tape in other areas of life, when it comes to food few could argue with the importance of food hygiene regulations; failing to adhere to them can get you shut down and attract costly litigation.
The typical income for a caterer varies according to the scale of the event. It is also dependant on business size, location and quality.
"In terms of salary it depends on a number of factors," says Clarkson. "I think the whole market is saying 'hold on, we're trimming it'. It really depends on the environment you are in; smaller companies offer more flexibility, bigger companies offer more stability."
A realistic salary range is between £20k and £45k per year, although much depends on your marketing, management, and of course, culinary skills.
Catering relies on events, and being hired for an event is a chance to make your company synonymous with delectable dishes, value for money and reliability.
People spend a lot of time, money and effort putting on events, so if hired caterers performs a smooth service and provide tasty food it's much appreciated and much discussed with guests, as well as people long after the event. Conversely, if the catering lets them down they're likely to make it known.
Good food - and, even more so, terrible food - is an experience that lodges in the memory. Everyone likes to report memorably eating experiences so this is an industry, more than most, where word-of-mouth referrals or criticism can really make or break a business.
Clarkson says a memorably experience is about getting a combination of elements right. "If you're referred because of your quality, you're left open to be beaten on price," he says. "You need to have the whole package. We've never advertised and grew solely by word-of-mouth."
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