The Real Poop
We love to party.
We party at weddings, graduation ceremonies, birthdays—we even party just because none of those things are happening. And most of the time, parties are food-filled extravaganzas of appetizers, meats, cheeses, and cake. Wonderful, glorious, incredible cake.
At thousands of events across America, that food and its service are provided by a professional on-call wait staff known as caterers. Caterers must be able to plan menus, follow a budget, organize their time, negotiate with vendors, set up equipment, oversee their serving staff—and possibly do it while cooking everything. They hope to make $100,000, but on average walk away with closer to $50,000 (source).
A caterer must be a hard-working individual who doesn't easily allow their nerves to become frayed. It helps to be passionate about food, but you shouldn't be so passionate you're just stuffing your face all night. You've got a lot of running around to do.
While not an absolute requirement, most caterers should be able to cook and prepare a variety of dishes for a large group of people. If they can't or don't want to cook, they need to hire someone who knows what they're doing—and then get out of the way. Grilling some excellent hot dogs at your cousin's last barbecue isn't going to cut it.
People who are seriously serious go to culinary school. There are a wealth of dining and hospitality institutes to choose from—you're going to have to do your research to determine which one is right for you. Yeah, this is going to take a little effort on your part. Imagine the effort that goes into feeding 200 hungry wedding guests.
Culinary school isn't for everyone. School is expensive, and some people would prefer not to accumulate a mountain of debt. 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 figurative revolving doors; they don't hold on to their kitchen staff very long, so it should be easy to break in here.
Some of them also have literal revolving doors, so you can have quite a bit of fun running around in circles—until you irritate one of the customers trying to enter the building.
If you plan on catering large events (over thirty people), the stovetop in your kitchen at home won't do. Caterers will rent, lease, or even buy commercial kitchen equipment in order to prepare enough food for weddings and conventions. Scoring huge opportunities like these are pointless after you realize that you have to bake 300 pounds of chicken and have only one oven.
Once you've completed culinary school and you're able to chiffonade leafy greens, you're ready to deal with the business side of things. Besides state-by-state licensing, professional caterers must get certified for sanitary cooking conditions before one piece of food can find its way to a client's mouth.
Local health departments offer two- to three-day courses in health laws for caterers (source). If you can't learn about not poisoning your customers in three days, this probably isn't the best career choice for you.
Marketing yourself as a caterer with a finger on the pulse of the modern culinary and hospitality world is important. People throw events to celebrate, impress, and see their parties all over Facebook. So too must caterers be able to advertise their services through social marketing, a pretty website, and especially word-of-mouth from people who attend your events.
Remember to leave business cards for your company and get some referrals if you can. Talking about how good your services are isn't bragging, it's good business.
If people enjoy your events, they're more likely to use your services when they throw their own competing birthday. Some clients will hire you just because it lets them feel like they're "stealing" you from the original host. This is the one time you'll hear us say it's okay to let them steal. They may think they're doing something baaad, but you're just building a client list.
Make no mistake, opening an upstart catering business will be a long slog and you probably won't have a lot of "date nights." Until you're working regularly and feeling financially comfortable, you may have to forfeit your own social life and leave your schedule completely open so you don't have to turn any business 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 there's a lot to like about this business—the schedule is as flexible as you need it to be, you often get to be your own boss, and you have the opportunity to work incredibly fun events, full of famous patrons and important personages. There are worse ways to make a living than by helping people have a good time.
Own your own successful company and you could be making a nice living. If you feel this career would cater to your needs (we had to), then get in that kitchen and start practicing your cooking.