In this country, we love to party. And we’ve had that love “forever”: As Jesus’ Disciples said, “We’re gonna party like it’s ’99.”
We party at weddings, at graduation ceremonies, at the birth of our next-door neighbor’s puppy. (It’s a boy! We’ll be passing out blue rawhide bones shortly). At nearly every celebration, there is food, and generally quite a bit of it. The custom of gorging ourselves in recognition of an event or triumph is deeply woven into the fabric of our society. A fabric, which, incidentally, is probably going to have to be taken out a few inches.
Making food for parties and events sounds like fun, but caterers do much more than wield a culinary fist in the kitchen. Caterers must be able to plan menus, follow a budget, organize their time, negotiate with vendors, cook, set up equipment and oversee their serving staff. Not to mention pumping out 300 cream puffs for a wedding. A caterer must be a hard-working individual who does not easily allow their nerves to become frayed. It helps to be passionate about food, but you shouldn’t be too passionate about it. You’re going to have to do a lot of running around.
First and foremost, caterers must be able to cook, i.e., prepare a variety of dishes for a large group of people. Grilling some excellent hot dogs at your cousin’s last barbecue isn’t going to get you catering gigs. Many caterers go to culinary school. There are a wealth of culinary schools to choose from, such as Le Cordon Bleu, The Culinary Institute of America and The French Culinary Institute. You’re going to have to do your research to determine which one is right for you. Look at the school’s curriculum to make sure that their classes fit your culinary tastes. Couldn’t give two figs about charcuterie and pate? Maybe you shouldn’t go to a school that focuses on French regional cuisine. Those without deep pockets can attend vocational schools, community colleges and small culinary schools to get certified in a culinary arts program. Going to school will help you learn how to work in a commercial kitchen.
Culinary school is not for everyone. Some people would prefer not to accumulate a mountain of debt. It costs roughly $40,000 to graduate from a prestigious school. Rather than spending years learning how to properly filet fish, some people get the experience they need by working in a restaurant or bakery. Most restaurants have revolving doors, which means they don’t keep their kitchen staff very long. It also means you can have quite a bit of fun running around in circles, at least until you get dizzy or irritate one of the customers who is trying to enter the building.
Visit your favorite eatery and ask if they need help in the kitchen. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll have to peel potatoes somewhere else.
If you plan on catering large events, your kitchen’s stovetop won’t do. In fact, numerous caterers will rent or lease commercial kitchens in order to prepare enough food for weddings, parties and large events. There’s no worse feeling than realizing that you have to bake 300 pounds of chicken in only one oven. You’re really not supposed to cram it in there like that.
If you’re going to go through all that school, why not become a chef? The road to chefdom is arduous and not very rewarding. People start their careers in the restaurant biz as line cooks. Line cooks make between $15,000 to $25,000 a year. Competition in the restaurant business is fierce. There can only be one head chef at a restaurant. Have you ever heard that line about there being too many chefs in the kitchen?
Because landing a chef job is difficult, catering is a good Plan B. But much of the time it’s also a better fit for certain personality types. You’re always on the go, your environment is always changing, you’re forever dealing with new characters… and some people thrive on that. Are you someone who gets tired of always brushing your teeth in the same order? If so, you might be built for catering. In which case, considering all the leftovers you’ll be bringing home, you’re going to have a lot of pulled pork to brush out from in between your molars.
Pig in its finest form.
Once you’ve completed culinary school and you are able to chiffonade leafy greens, you’re ready to deal with the business side of things. Caterers must get certified for sanitary cooking conditions before one piece of food can find its way to a client’s lips. Local Board of Health departments offer two- to three-day courses in health laws for caterers. Clients also want their caterers to have general liability insurance in case someone gets sick from an undercooked clam. And you thought your hands got clammy when you had a simple flu…
Speaking of clams, where can you buy 50 liters of cocktail sauce? Caterers buy in bulk at such places as restaurant supply companies. The cost of food should only account for 27 to 29 percent of the gross sale of the catering job. For example, caterers should only spend $270 - $290 on a $1,000 catering job in order to make a decent profit. If you were to buy cocktail sauce at Mrs. Gooch’s Grocery, it would cost you $3 for 12-ounces. A 2 liter of cocktail sauce purchased at a supply store will cost you $11. Think of all those clams rolling into your bank account.
To buy at one of these establishments, you must have a valid reseller’s permit. They want to know that you’re not going to go home and eat all 500 muffins yourself, because that would just be irresponsible of them. Okay – they also want to be sure you’re not going to sell them illicitly out of the back of a van or something. (Beware anyone who approaches you wearing sunglasses and a trench coat and whispers to you, “Hey buddy… you want some muffins?”) In addition, caterers develop relationships with food vendors, farms and venues. These establishments sell their products (produce, fish, and meat) at a low price to entice future business and loyalty. Those caterers pandering to the “foodie” crowd may market their business to tout the fact that they use local vendors. The “farm to table” trend is so hot right now in the culinary world that many people want to ensure that their roast was organically fed and their produce came from a sustainable farm. There aren’t a ton of people lining up these days to help support Monsanto, or to start a protest when they find out their burger is more than 5% actual cow. Caterers must know about current food trends in order to market themselves accordingly. You don’t want to wind up the wise guy serving Salisbury steak without irony or a contemporary twist.
Marketing yourself as a caterer with a finger on the pulse of the culinary world is important. People throw events to celebrate and impress. Wearing a sandwich board isn’t going to put food on your own plate. Caterers must be able to advertise their services through social marketing, their own website and word of mouth. Serve a flat soufflé, and people will start to talk. Vendors, venues and clients will pass on your information if you consistently execute catering events. Catering gigs is a great way to advertise. Remember to leave business cards and brochures about your company. Websites allow people to view menus and pictures. Bring in the clients by giving people a taste of what you can do and your culinary influences. After each catering gig, get quotes from your clients to use as references. Monkey see, monkey do. If people see that you have good references, they are more likely to use your services for an event. If they see that you have bad references, they are more likely to hire a monkey.
There’s a lot to like about this business – you often get to be your own boss, you have the opportunity to work fun events (depending on where you live and the type of events you work, you may even get to do some celebrity-spotting during your down time), if you have the freedom to pick and choose what jobs you take there’s a degree of flexibility involved, and there are worse ways to make a living than by preparing food. Own your own successful company and you could be making a nice living… but it can also be a grind for very little compensation, especially when starting out and trying to get your name out there. Until you’re working regularly and feeling financially comfortable, you may have to forfeit your own social life and leave your schedule 100% open so you don’t have to turn anything down. The stress can wear thin, and if you’re not focused and aggressive when it comes to advertising, you simply may not be able to gather together enough work to stay afloat. But if you feel it’s worth the gamble, get in that kitchen and start cookin’. Hopefully you’re a good enough cook that we won’t be taking a gamble to eat whatever it is you’re preparing for us.