Think you make a mean chicken Kiev or create especially awesome buffets? Others might think so too–enough to the point that maybe you should consider starting your own catering business. But just because you’re a great cook or baker doesn’t mean you’ve got what it takes to run a successful catering company. Following a step-by-step, pre-launch research plan, you can determine in advance how likely it is that you’ll be able to pursue your dream of starting your own small-business and making it work.
Step 1: Research the marketplace.
The first step in launching a catering company is to check out who else is offering catering in your area. Check out your competitors’ menus, their list of services, prices and customers. Visit their websites and see if you can quickly find their unique selling benefits. You might think that successful caterers sell food, but you’d be wrong. Sure, you start with your food, but why should customers buy that food from you instead of somewhere else?
People who buy catering can get good food from a wide variety of local providers. When they shop for catering, they look for more than just food—they look for a benefit.To be a successful caterer, you’ll need to sell convenience, affordability, unique menus, or corporate style or white-glove service.
If you’re looking to do in-home catering for private parties, contact your friends with a short survey. Ask if they use catering services, and ask them to tell you why they hired certain caterers, what they liked about the providers and what they’ll look for in their next caterer.
Step 2: Identify potential customers.
Contact your peers in the business community to find out what their companies look for in caterers to help you determine what your potential customers want. If you don’t have personal contacts who can help you, cold-call a few potential customers. Let them know you are not selling anything and simply want to ask a few questions about what they would like caterers to offer. But be sure to take time to find the appropriate person at each company to contact, otherwise you’re likely to get the brush-off.
This will help you gather information about the services that corporate customers want beyond food (such as set-up, take-down, staffing, a bar, etc.). You can learn how these businesses budget for catering and how often they use catering. These interviews or email exchanges will help you launch your business with with a benefit or benefits you know customers will want, instead of ones you think they will want (“Everyone will love my dim sum carts!”).
Step 3: Choose your niche.
You might think you should start with your catering concept and research how to start your business from there—but you’re assuming people will like your idea and want to pay for it. Starting with marketplace and customer research will better help you decide what type of catering you should offer. Once that you know who your potential customers are, what they want and what your price range will probably be, you can decide what you think you should offer to attract enough customers to make a profit.
How to Brand Your Business: A Beginner’s Guide provides valuable information on how to determine your niche, develop your product or service to target specific customers, and manage your brand once you launch. You can go very narrow (corporate events) or offer a wide variety of catering services. But if you try to be everything to everyone, you might end up being “nothing to no one.” If you want to offer a broad array of catering services, set up different pages on your website and create different brochures or sell sheets that sell each service separately. Niche options for a small caterer include:
•Corporate events (cocktail parties, banquets, executive luncheons, golf outings)
•Adult parties (anniversaries, bachelorette, birthdays, holiday, dinner parties)
•Festivals, concerts and sports events