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A Day in the Life of a Caterer

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.

Paying Your Dues

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.

Present and Future

Catering used to be the prerogative of wealthy, manored families who would have their in-house cooks or chefs prepare meals for large events or parties. In the late-1800s, as the tap-room gave way to the fine restaurant, these families began to expect the same quality and service they received at restaurants at their private events. Deals were initially struck with those restaurants to provide service, and restaurateurs began to see a market. In the mid-twentieth century catering concerns blossomed, and they continue to do so today. Caterers will still face the roller-coaster of success that has marked the industry for the past twenty-five years. Greater specialization seems to be taking place, with caterers choosing their territory more carefully in terms of cuisine and products.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

In the early years, caterers develop their identities, define menus, learn to manage events successfully, and network. Many introduce their services to local restaurant owners who do not cater themselves, to persuade the owners to recommend them to clients who need catering services. Earnings are generally low; hours are long and strenuous. Fewer than half of those who start out as caterers last two years in the profession. The majority go out of business in under eighteen months, due to failure to manage costs, market successfully, or establish a positive reputation.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Caterers who have lasted five years have local reputations, established specialties, and records of performance. Many caterers attempt to expand during these years, but overexposure, lack of centralized quality control, and rising costs, all can make expansion a mixed blessing at best. Hours are long, but many have established areas of responsibility for each of their full-time employees and learned how to delegate. Satisfaction is high, and earnings have become livable.

TEN YEARS OUT

Caterers who last ten years have experience running a business, an established expertise in an area of cuisine, and a repeat client base. Efforts at reinvention, though numerous during this period, are generally not well received by the client base. Reputations for service have also brought with them an expectation of menu selections, but many caterers find that their satisfaction wanes after ten years of preparing the same dishes. Earnings are consistent and strong. Many pass their businesses to newer entrants in the field over the next ten years, teaching them the skills and responsibilities of the job while gradually passing on greater and greater client responsibility. When most people sell their catering concerns, it is usually to a long-term partner.