A caterer works closely with clients to design, prepare, and serve menus for events, including wedding dinners, charity balls, holiday brunches, office lunches, and any other occasion where people gather and consume food. A caterer must understand how certain dishes work together, have strong interpersonal, particularly listening, skills, and the ability to manage a cooking and serving staff. Over 70 percent of all catering services are owner-run, so many caterers must also have sharp business acumen. Most people are drawn to the industry because of their love of cooking or preparing elegant meals for special events. In their first few years in catering many find that talent only gets you so far. “You can have dozens of clients, great reviews, and the best products--and you can still lose money hand over fist,” said one ten-year veteran. Management and organizational skills are critical for those who wish to keep their catering concerns solvent. Caterers spend considerable time developing menus, a unique style, and a business plan.
“You have to oversee everything,” one caterer mentioned to us, “that’s why catering services never get too large.” While some catering services do employ hundreds of full- and part-time staff, the large majority have fewer than six full-time employees, and hire temporary staff for the rest. Business is driven by season. A caterer may have three to five meetings with prospective clients to work out details of the event. The caterer provides menus and the clients choose their favorite dishes and work with the caterer to assemble a meal where each dish compliments the others. Successful caterers are able to gently guide people to decisions that will benefit the event.
There are no educational requirements for becoming a caterer, though many choose to attend a culinary academy to learn the basics of certain schools of cooking. Others attend restaurant management school, or at least take coursework in schools that reflect some of the concerns of the business, such as finance, management, and organization. Those who do not attend any special schools should have some type of professional food preparation experience; cooking food for large numbers of people in a limited time frame is a skill to be learned. Caterers have to be certified for sanitary cooking conditions and safe equipment, so contact the local board of health in your area. Most offer two- or three-day courses in health laws for prospective caterers and restaurants.
Caterers are chefs of a sort, and many become chefs when catering concerns fold (and they do at a significant rate). Others become involved in the service end of the industry, and become event coordinators, party planners, and waiting staff managers. A small number go into the mass-produced food industry, but many view that life as “selling out.” Most frequently, caterers who leave the industry take some time away, review their situations, then enter the field again with a little more knowledge and a little more experience.