by STUART LEVENTHAL
Catering is a complicated business. Everyone has their own idea of the perfect party, event or celebration. Should we have an open bar with generic booze and draft beer or a cash bar serving fancy label, top shelf beverages? Fresh fruit, shucked oysters or both? Should we rent a chocolate fountain? Or an ice sculptor? Hire a Band or DJ? Black tie or business casual? Should we engage a limo service for transportation? Formal invitation only or bring a friend or two? These are just some of the questions that set the tone. Prices are a big factor that determines who wins a catering bid but playing to egos can go in your favor too. Let’s face it, there are clients who simply want to be able to say “I hired the best caterer in the tri-state area for my party.” If you are just starting out, you may need to really offer something spectacular, to win over the event throwers who are too scared not to go with one of the big names. But can you blame them? If you were given the responsibility of throwing the most important event in town, would you risk going with an unknown caterer? No one wants to be remembered for throwing the worst party of the year!
The way to counter this objection is by first taking a good look at your whole operation and listing all the positives you can come up with. You only need to write two or three flattering paragraphs about yourself or your restaurant venue. Once you really get creative you may find that on paper you and/or your establishment’s story doesn’t sound half bad. You yourself may have been in the restaurant business for some years before you opened your own place. Your chef and cooks may have come from unusual career histories or a personal triumph story which you can capitalize on. Maybe even some of your wait staff, hosts, hostesses or bartenders come from working for some unique past situations or prestigious establishments that you can play up an angle on. Our kitchen manager studied in France for a summer. Our pastry Chef comes from New York City, the cheese cake capital of the world. Just wait until you taste his raspberry, caramel cheese cake. Get everyone’s help in making your list of positives. Then write up a few paragraphs designed to sell your establishment and crew, making them sound like experts. Put this on the inside cover of your new catering menu.
Next draft a quick news release based around those same few paragraphs and stories. Add the part about how your fabulous restaurant is now offering catering. Explain why your catering selections are so special. Enclose a copy of your new menu and mail or email the whole package to the local newspapers and radio stations. If anyone bites and writes a story on you, add the story to your menu, frame the story and post the story all over your restaurant. If the radio station does a shout out, print the best quotes of the DJ on your menu. Now you are building credibility. The next step is to look at your loyal, repeat customers. There may be a local celebrity among them who could be talked into giving you a nice letter of recommendation for the price of a free meal, appetizer or piece of pie. As a last resort, you can cater one whole event for free just to get a great endorsement from someone in your community whose name carries clout. The stamp of approval, from a very prominent figure will pay for itself, many times over, for years and years to come. Be sure to take plenty of photos and post them on display everywhere; your website, YouTube, Facebook, on the menu, and on all the walls.
Anytime you service a party or event, always get testimonials from your happy customers and take some photos of the catering set up for your scrap book. If you have the time, stick around a snap a few photographs of the party in action. Your sales team can use the photo gallery and customer praises to help them close deals. In time, you will become the big name caterer that everyone else is trying to beat out!
Big corporate parties almost always go to the big nationally recognized and reputed catering organizations simply because they have accounts set up with these organizations. But, the decision maker might be persuaded to go with you, the hot new local caterer for smaller department luncheons or when time constraints are short. You can leverage your way in by developing a limited menu so customers can order from you with only a twenty four hour advance notice. The key to gaining corporate accounts is to get your restaurant onto their approved vendor list. Any order over a certain monetary value usually has to be placed with a pre-approved company. The good news is once you get approved you have very little competition because they only bother to approve a few caterers.
It is very important to know who your competition is. Before you make your menu, collect copies of all your competing caterers’ menus. Study your competition. What are their strengths? Are there any groups of customers who are being neglected? Is there any opportunity to specialize in servicing a certain price range of food? Is there any service points that your nearby competition is neglecting to offer? Many caterers have a minimum order of 20 people. Maybe you could start claiming your piece of the catering pie simply by offering a special menu for a smaller number, like 10 or 12 guests. The idea is for you to bust into the catering business by offering something no one else is doing.
One mention of caution; many beginning caterers try to claim their first customers by being the cheapest. This is a bad mistake. Being different sets you apart enough. Don’t sell your catering business out cheap before you’ve even given it a chance! In the catering business you can scare more people away by being too cheap. Remember you can always lower the price later, if you absolutely have to. Although, I always recommend, it is a better practice to throw in an extra freebee, rather than lowering your price to close a deal. Reputation is everything, in the party supplying business. You don’t want to gain the rep of being the bargain basement. Yes, throwing in something for free may actually end up costing you the exact same amount but it sounds a lot better to say, “how about if we deliver it all for free, this one time? And, we’ll even set it all up for you.” Or “I can throw in plates, utensils, napkins and even all the necessary condiments for free.” This helps you close the deal and leaves a better impression with the customer than just agreeing to give them money off the food.
Always be on the lookout for networking opportunities. Can you partner with party organizers, event planners, party shops, event venues who don’t have onsite kitchens, entertainment venues, photographers, DJs and bands, transportations businesses, wedding consultants, florists, table/chair, equipment and outdoor party tent suppliers etc.? Make sure all of the above get copies of your latest menus and your business cards.
Make sure you do a Google search to see what online ‘Catering Directories’ service your local. With so many people searching online these days, you need to get your restaurant’s name added to all the local lists of caterers that are out there! Now-a-days, it is always a good idea to have a good mix of online promotions as well as off line promotions.
Remember you can’t be everything to everyone. Don’t spread yourself out too thin. Choose a few niche markets to go after then become an expert at serving those particular niches.
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