A Profitable Feast

Want to start a catering company? We've got the secret ingredients.

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."

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