Tips for a Successful Catering Event

Your job starts as soon as your customer calls. Find out what you need to know while you're on the phone, getting ready for the event and on the job in order to please your customers and earn their repeat business.

JGI / Jamie Grill

The following excerpt is from the staff of Entrepreneur Media's book Start Your Own Restaurant and More. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes

The first step to getting hired as a caterer happens when a client calls, emails you or inquires through your website. Once you've been contacted, it's important that you respond promptly. Be prepared to answer all their questions, make suggestions and generally handle yourself in a pleasant and professional manner. Be prepared: The first phone call will rarely result in a sale for a number of reasons. First, the customer may be shopping several caterers. Second, you probably won't decide during that conversation exactly what's going to be served, so you won't be able to give a specific quote. Third, you'll want to inspect the site of the event before putting together your final proposal.

Related: The Staff You Need to Hire to Run a Restaurant

Many clients will pressure you for an exact price quote during the first phone call. Resist the temptation to do this. Even if the client knows exactly what they want served, you won't know how much the cost of food and labor is going to be until you've had a chance to do your own calculations. If you make up a quote on the spot, it may either be too high, in which case you'll lose the job, or too low, in which case you'll lose money -- or you'll have to raise your quote later, which isn't good for customer relations. Instead, try to satisfy the client with a general price range and promise a full written proposal later.

Many clients will be reluctant to tell you their budget for an event, but try to get a fairly good idea of how much money they have to spend or at least how many people they'll have in attendance and for what type of occasion. You should be able to adjust your menus to suit their budget, but you'll have to know what that budget is first. There are many cost-cutting methods you can use if the client seems uncomfortable with your more expensive-sounding suggestions. For example, you can substitute lower-cost ingredients with a similar flavor or use dishes that are easy to prepare rather than more labor-intensive ones.

After the first telephone conversation, your next meeting will likely be in person, preferably at the site where the event will be held. Bring your menus so the customer can review them and determine exactly what to serve. Get a firm number of guests and put it in writing; let the customer know that you'll be planning your quote based on that number and that any changes will affect the final price. Determine the style of the event (sit-down, buffet, cocktail) and any particular equipment or service needs the client will have. While the client may not immediately know exactly how many people will attend, you should give them a definite date by which you will need a final head count for which they'll be charged.

Take a tour of the site to see what equipment is available for your use and what you'll need to bring. Decide where the buffet will be, if there is one, and where the bar setup will go. Discuss staffing needs, and be specific about who will provide what to prevent misunderstandings later. This information should also be included in your price proposal.

Take a day or two to calculate the final price, and be sure it includes everything, then call the customer with your quote. If it's acceptable, send out a detailed contract that itemizes the prices, outlines mutual responsibilities and requires a deposit (typically 50 percent of the total amount) on signing.

Related: What You Need to Know Before Starting a Catering Business

Once you've received the signed contract and deposit, you're ready to start arranging for staff and purchasing food. A few days before the event, call the customer to confirm the number of guests and other details. If the customer wants to make changes to the contract, be as accommodating as possible, but don't let it cause you to lose money.

Make a packing list

Once the food for an event is prepared and ready to go, you'll need to pack it along with the serving dishes, utensils, linens and other necessary equipment. To be sure you don't forget or lose anything, prepare a packing list.

A day or so before the event, sit down with your menu. List the equipment you'll need to finish preparing each dish on site and serve it. When you're finished, double-check your figures, taking care to properly count multiple units of items, such as when different dishes require the same serving equipment. Don't forget miscellaneous supplies, such as cocktail napkins, toothpicks, salt and pepper shakers and so on. If you're taking care of rental furniture or flowers, make sure these are either going to be delivered to the event site or to your kitchen or will be available for you to pick up.

With your completed packing list, you can start assembling the food and supplies. Pack the items you'll need first on top so you don't have to dig through several boxes to find them. Place items close together so nothing has room to shift and break. Use common sense: Don't put sacks of crushed ice on top of the bread. Make sure all containers of food are covered tightly so they won't spill if you have to turn or stop your vehicle suddenly.

The packing list will also serve as a checklist to help you collect all your items when the party is over. Leaving items behind can quickly eat up your profits. Caterer Maxine Turner puts waterproof labels on trays and other items that identify each piece of equipment for inventory-control purposes. "If something's missing, we go back through the inventory sheets to see what party it was used on last and contact the person who ordered the catering," she says. "It's amazing what we have found. One lady had coffeepots, trays, and serving pieces from a year before. It was a drop off, and we forgot to go back and pick it up. She put it in a cupboard and forgot about it."

At the party

Once you've arrived at the event site, unpack everything and organize your service area. You'll want to arrive an average of 60 to 90 minutes in advance to make sure the food will be ready and available at precisely the right time.

Start reheating or cooking anything that needs to be served hot. Make sure every tray that leaves the kitchen has been attractively garnished and arranged.

As the party gets under way, keep an eye on what food is being consumed, and have more trays ready to go out as the empty ones are returned. If you're serving from a buffet table, continually replenish the trays so they don't look like they have been picked over. Throughout the event, your serving staff should be collecting dirty dishes, returning empty glasses to the bar and taking care of other things so the party site doesn't look cluttered and untidy.

One of the keys to doing good job serving is to be present without being present. Your staff should be as inconspicuous as possible. This means ducking out of photos, not clanking dishes while someone is giving a speech or engaging attendees in long conversations.

As your servers return the dirty dishes to you, rinse and pack them for later washing. After the event is over, clean any of the client's dishes or utensils that have been used. Get out your packing list to make sure you retrieve all your own glassware, tableware, cookware and other equipment. Also, take care that you don't accidentally take any of the client's property. Check off each item on your packing list as you load it into your vehicle.

Related: 5 Money-Making Mainstays of the Restaurant Industry

Leftover food should be wrapped and left with the client. Floors and counters should be clean, but you shouldn't be expected to function as a maid service. Just leave the facility as you found it. You're only responsible for your own messes.

Some caterers demand payment of the balance due immediately after the event; others will send the client a bill the day after the party. Whichever you choose, be sure the client knows in advance what to expect, and make it clear that the bill doesn't include gratuities for the serving staff. If the client decides to tip, the money should be divided among the staff after the party.

While you should always be on the alert for ways to promote your business, you should never promote yourself at an event you're catering. "I never market myself at events," Turner agrees. "We're there as a support to whatever event we're doing, and that's not the proper time for us to advertise." Her company name is on the aprons the staff wears but not on anything else. And while she'll provide a business card if asked, she doesn't put her cards on display.

A truly professional caterer, she believes, is virtually invisible at the event, where the focus should be on the occasion itself. "We don't intrude. We're not guests; we're there to provide a service. Also, I don't allow [my staff] to talk to each other when they're in front of the client, other than to take care of business. Even if they have friends who are attending the event, I discourage them from stopping to talk. They're there for a purpose, and that purpose is to serve the client."

The Staff of Entrepreneur Media, Inc.

Entrepreneur Staff

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