Catering Noob



I am looking into starting my own catering business. I didn't go to culinary school but I do have nearly 8 years of various restaurant experience including apprenticing for a CIA chef for a year. I have a very good grasp on the culinary side of things and I have been a business owner for a few years as well. I live in a small town in Florida. I have been working with another caterer in the area and I have really fallen in love with it. I do realize that there is MUCH more to catering than cooking and I'm up for it. Chances are that I will be doing very small gigs (30-100 people -100 max-) so I don't worry so much about staffing them as I can find help when I need it. I don't have access to an onsite location so all jobs would be offsite.

I do have a few questions:

1. What are some of the best ways to market myself as a new caterer in the small town I live in?

2. From what I understand I CANNOT cook from home, I must have a professional kitchen and be licensed by the state. Where are some places I can check with for using a kitchen and what are the odds that I could use it on a per job basis instead of being out $xxx/month for rent that, in the beginning, might be hard to come by?

3. How long do you generally need to put together a job from initial meeting to clean up at the end? How do you handle proposals, payment, etc?

Thank you so much for your time in helping out.
Joined Apr 3, 2010
 Time wise, every party different. A simple cocktail party is quick a dinner more time and effort required. Try renting a church or hall kitchen some are happy for additional revenue. As far as marketing yourself, network all your friends and relatives first they in turn tell others. Keep a scrapbook of your work get letters of reference from any clients you have had.  Good Luck


Thanks Ed, I realize that the planning phase is going to be different for each job. I'm just trying to get a feel for what the acceptable standard is... I am coming from a graphic design world (big jump, huh?) and I usually tried to have a 2-3 day turn around from the initial meeting to sending out a proposal. Obviously this was an average job but I could be as fast as a few hours on really simple ones up to a week on bigger projects.

I will check out some churches around here, we have lots, like I said I am really just looking to use a kitchen on a per job basis so I don't have any more monthly bills than necessary.

Thanks again.
Joined Sep 8, 2003
The time frame from the initial meeting to clean up could be months!  I don't know how other caterers do it, but I'm working a job tomorrow night and the initial contact was back before Christmas.  I do a lot of menu work via email and probably only meet with the clients once or twice- once in the beginning, and once to view the site.  Often the hard part is not spending the deposit and payments for an upcoming job well before it happens.  I've done that before!  It's just like working for free.....  I try to keep the deposits and payments in a separate account specifically for that reason, but there are those times when a wedding deposit for June will pay the electric bill in January.

Market yourself  to groups, Dr's offices, clubs, etc by dropping by a catering menu and maybe a box of treats you've made or a small platter of sandwiches.  Once you have your kitchen, take out small ads around holidays or events- graduations, Fourth of July, and try to pick up some small parties.  Do them well, and you'll soon be picking up more business by word of mouth.

I started out as a personal chef, and almost immediately got a few small jobs for birthday parties, grad parties.  My first wedding for 150 was during my first 3 months of being in business.  It was a nightmare; not because of the food or anything I did, but because I didn't have the experience to stand up for myself and didnt' make much of a profit at all.  What was supposed to be a 5 hour job turned into 8 or 9 hours plus travel over an hour each way.  I'm still doing it, but I've become much more assertive.  Since you've already been in business, you'll probably have better luck in that department.  Best of luck!
Joined Sep 15, 2006
What part of Florida are you in?  If you are not in my backyard, then I would be happy to talk on the phone a bit with you.  I began my catering company almost 2 years ago and things are booming.  My background was varied, but I spent several years in corporate technology sales before opening my business.  There is so much to learn and know, I can't begin to type it all out here.

Check out Mike Roman's newest book about catering.  You can buy it for about $100 from  Best investment you can make.  It will save you from making plenty of mistakes.  Also, the forum archives here and at Catersource are priceless.


p.s. as far as turnaround time?  I have spoken with clients who book me within hours of sending over a proposal.  And others (weddings, mostly) have strung it out over months.
Joined Aug 11, 2000
Repeat after me.  "It's not booked until reciept of a NON_REFUNDABLE deposit"

That's what happens when you first start out.....people call, want you to invest time in developing menus, bids, even tell you to book the date ......then go with someone else.

Offsite catering is the commando version of's the are many times setting up a kitchen in the middle of nowhere, if you forget something SOL. 
Joined Apr 21, 2010
I think your best bet to increase your business exposure and get your name know is to print some nice flyers (leaflets) with a sample menu and a few nice images of some of your specialities. Do mail drop to upmarket residential homes and businesses in your local area. I noticed you said you come from a graphic design background, so you can get ya mac out and do the design work yourself (save money).

Be lucky mate /img/vbsmilies/smilies/thumb.gif


@manlovesfood - I think it's funny that you mention getting out my Mac... In reality, though I own an older MacBook, I haven't used a Mac since design school.
Joined Apr 21, 2010
/img/vbsmilies/smilies/lol.gif i'm such a typical pc man "ignorant"
my autocratic "but very charitable" leader bill gates has gotta lot to answer for!


Joined Oct 12, 2009
/img/vbsmilies/smilies/chef.gif  I make attractive brochures with my computer, But to be honest most new clients want a recomendation from one of your clients. A lot of events are booked a year before and after a bad experience with one of your competitors. New clients will seldom book an event from  just advertisements or a brochure so mostly I use business cards. And it's best to invest in a mobile kitchen and concentrate on events of 100-500 and let the little guys fight over the small parties. For it take the same amount of time to cook one Prime Rib as it does ten. I know, you will be missing out on a lot of hard work by limiting yourself to 100-500 but you will live longer.  Being a new caterer in a small town can be tough without taking the small parties. So, expect to do a lot of traveling and I base all events on a Food Cost+Labor Cost +Expenses Good Luck!
Joined Apr 6, 2010
Might I suggest your local civi clubs and churches, as you haven't said how small your town is, a lot of times these organizations will let you time lease from them  and it serves two purposes, one you have a place to cook, and they mae money on dead space.

Make a careful distinction on the use and locationof your products wether dry or refer or freezer, most people and organizations think you are rolloing in the clover so a little here and a little there doesn't hurt, mean time you are putting up a going out of business sign.

there is more but I have to run my grand daughter to school late start day.
Joined Oct 23, 2008
As stated a lot of churches have full kitchens, and if perhaps you could strike a deal to trade services, you would get the use of the kitchen and could cater for some of their events. I see this as a win win for you because the kitchen costs are gone, and you get tons of exposure to the entire congregation. Knock their socks off and the word of mouth alone will start to bring you business.

Oh, and hello from a little east of you (DeLand) /img/vbsmilies/smilies/smile.gif
Joined Aug 14, 2010
Most "civic center" type places have multiple kitchens that are often not  in use and available for rental by the day. Check similarly for 'lodges'  ie Elks Eagles etc who might be interested in a little extra revenue, as do the churches.  Occasionally you may run across a non-chain hotel that no longer uses it's restaurant/banquet facility and might be open to the kitchen rental  (you will want to be sure that the kitchen is still licensed by health dept tho).  On occasion years ago  I even rented the kitchen in a couple pizza  places for a half-day  ( locally owned) and as long as I cleared out by lunchtime it worked pretty well..  If you have any good contacts , the health dept inspectors are good sources for info and often know about facilities that are under-used or struggling.

It's a pain to drag  every food product and tool in and out but on a shoestring it will get you started. 

EDITED to add that another  often empty  location  is    union halls, most  rent them out to members for parties , and have kitchens that sit empty 90% of the time.  Try your local plumber/pipefitters or   UAW  or electricians  unions...ask them who has such a  facility in your area.  Maybe you can  barter a  party for use of the  kitchen. 
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Joined Dec 27, 2010
You can always "buy" some business also.  OK, not "buy" in the money sense but give an open house.  It takes money to make money.  Now granted, you can't feed the entire town.  However, rent out a hall that has enough seating to invite whomever you think would spread the word in the right places.  Since you're not charging you can prepare at your home.  Have brochures and do a buffet style so they can get a teaser of your different styles.  Don't forget to play to the minority groups as well as the upper class power brokers in your area  I'd suggest invite about 30 couples.  Be prepared to feed 30 but don't be surprised if only 15 or 20 couples show up.

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