From the February 1999 issue of Startups

Catering isn't for sissies, as Jill Albanese, 32-year-old owner of Catering Works Inc. in Raleigh, North Carolina, has learned. The pressure to perform--despite setbacks--adds to the creative tension inherent in the job.

"This can be an unforgiving business," Albanese says. "Doing someone's wedding is a one-shot deal. If you mess up, it's over."

But even a hurricane that knocked out electricity for miles didn't stop Albanese from going on with two wedding receptions.

"We cooked with generators and modified our menu to include grilled foods instead of baked," recalls the entrepreneur, who opened her business in 1989, a year after graduating from culinary school. "We often have these big dramas, but somehow it always works out."

A little wizardry and lots of energy are the ingredients for a successful catering business, experts say. Limited funds? Not to worry: Catering is a business you can start on a shoestring and grow faster than you can say souffle.

Many off-premises caterers--those who work independently and aren't employed by the hotel or restaurant industry--invest less than $15,000 to start, mostly to rent a school or church kitchen; get a food preparer's license from the local health department; and buy or rent equipment, utensils and tableware. As a caterer, you can wait until you land your first client, then buy or rent only what you need for that order to conserve cash.

No matter where you live, you'll find a market for catering services. There are about 41,000 off-premises caterers in the United States, and the industry is growing by 7 to 10 percent annually, says Michael Roman, president of CaterSource, a Chicago consulting and training firm.

Revenues for an off-premises catering business can range from $250,000 to $12 million a year, Roman says, with profits between 9 and 28 percent. Ambitious caterers with excellent cooking skills and business sense can gross up to $400,000 in the first 18 months.

Despite high pressure, frequent staff turnover and sometimes capricious client demands, most caterers say they enjoy their work. Often, their love affair with food started early. Albanese remembers how much she enjoyed baking desserts with her grandmother as a girl. "In high school, I learned about Martha Stewart before anyone else did," Albanese recalls. "Her books inspired me to become a caterer."

Beyond Appetizers

A knack in the kitchen isn't enough, though. In addition to food preparation and presentation abilities, you need accounting, negotiating and people skills. The most successful caterers have a background in food service as chefs or servers. If you don't, it's a good idea to learn the ropes in a restaurant or established catering company first.

Formal training at a two-year culinary institute is strongly recommended. "One of the biggest challenges caterers face is sanitation," says chef John Carlino, 35, an instructor at the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach and a former restaurateur and caterer. "Without training on how to [prepare food] properly, you can make a lot of people sick." Training also exposes you to a variety of cuisines and preparation styles.

Before turning on the stove, apply for a state food dispenser's license, and get the facility where you'll be cooking approved by the local board of health. Most beginning caterers who don't have their own shops rent kitchen space from a school, church or community organization. Selling food prepared in a private residence that isn't up to code can land you in jail.

A catering business can be started with bare basics if your savings is minimal. Sara Corpening and Mary Barber, 29-year-old twins from San Francisco, launched Thymes Two Catering in 1994 with a $10,000 business loan. In 1998, the company--which specializes in classic, globally inspired cuisine and lists actors Jim Carrey and Lauren Holly as clients--will earn $250,000.

Albanese started her business with $14,000 financed through credit cards and a bank loan co-signed by her mother. Her company, which offers party planning as well as catering, now earns $2 million annually.

Dinner is Served

Since traditional advertising isn't an effective way to find catering clients, you'll need other, more creative ways to tell people what you do. Corpening and Barber kicked off their business with a party where several hundred people, including friends and business contacts, sampled their talents. "We got three orders that very night, and were off and running," Corpening says. Carlino sent letters to companies telling them he could cater parties or business functions. Albanese publishes a newsletter and has a web site. You should also get the word out to social halls and event planners who can make referrals.

As their companies grow, many caterers develop offshoots of the core business. Albanese and her 34-year-old sister, Lorin Laxton, company vice president, have developed software for caterers, while Corpening and Barber have written three books, Smoothies: 50 Recipes for High-Energy Refreshments, Wraps: Easy Recipes for Handheld Meals (Chronicle Books, $15.95 and $14.95 respectively, 800-722-6657) and Simplify Entertaining (Reader's Digest, $17.95, 800-310-6261).

Despite the challenges, most caterers thrive on the adrenaline rush each day holds. "Even though I've been in business for 10 years," Albanese says, "I still get excited about going to work in the morning."

Market Places

Where can you market your catering business, anyway? Here are a few prime targets:

  • weddings
  • corporate functions (including conventions, business meetings and training sessions)
  • parties on tour boats, buses or trains
  • beach parties, lobster-bakes, clambakes
  • birthday parties
  • bar or bat mitzvahs
  • golf tournaments, fun runs, charity sporting events
  • corporate jets
  • hotel openings, book signings, barbecues
  • grocery stores and gourmet specialty shops
  • other caterers

Get Cookin'

Ready to get started as a caterer? These resources can help:

  • Consultants: CaterSource, (773) 975-8446 or http://www.catersource.com , can refer you to cooking schools, information sources and potential mentors.
  • Membership organizations: National Association of Catering Executives, (847) 480-9080; National Caterers Association, (800) NCA-0029.
  • Cooking schools: Peter Kump's New York Cooking School, (800) 522-4610; Florida Culinary Institute, (800) 826-9986; Scottsdale Culinary Institute, (800) 848-2433.
  • Books and publications: Most caterers rely on consumer-oriented books and magazines for ideas. Top titles include Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites, by The Moosewood Collective, Bon Appetit magazine, Food and Wine magazine and Martha Stewart's Living magazine.

Pamela Rohland is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in national and regional publications.