A catering program can help serve diners' needs outside of regular mealtimes and provide a new revenue stream. Here's what catering vets recommend when getting one off the ground.
Insist on specifics
Documenting as many details as possible in your catering contracts will help set expectations on both sides. “I would really, really stay away from going into a contract that has too many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and ‘what ifs,’” says Rahul Shrivastav, director of catering at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where the catering program did $5.2 million in revenue last year, and $6.2 million is expected this year. “It needs to be very clear [as to] the vision of the event; otherwise … in the communications of it to the staff who is executing it, it becomes difficult.” For example, if a client is asking for a “rustic” vegetable dish, discuss and come to an agreement about what that means to them exactly—the type of veggies used, how they are cut or cooked—so you can clearly relay that to the staff.
Start with buffets
When your catering program is small, start with buffets and don’t hesitate to stick with them, says Anna Gunsten, director of dining services at St. Thomas More Hospital in Canon City, Colo., which consists of a 35-bed hospital and 60-resident skilled nursing facility. “Logistically, we usually always do buffets, as we don’t have serving staff to do plated or passed,” she says. “We’re just not trained for that at this time.”
Establish a clear system
With a small catering program, operators can afford to wing it when it comes to procedures and still get by—but that will backfire when the program starts taking on more business. “If you want to grow without systems, you’ll grow initially, but then you’ll flatten out,” Shrivastav says. A good system should include a contract template for clients, a detailed prep sheet for staff, and a consistent process for billing and feedback. “The devil is in the details. It absolutely makes a difference,” he says.
In the beginning, you don’t have to accept every catering job that presents itself. “We’ve learned to say no,” Gunsten says. “There are people who come in with really high expectation and a really low budget, and we have to say, ‘No, that’s not doable.’ It’s been tough when you want to build a business and keep saying yes.”