Every business faces specific challenges inherent in its particular industry. Some businesses face stiff price competition, others have to constantly change their business model. Catering presents unique challenges, most stemming from the fact that there are many uncontrollable factors business owners must deal with.
From fluctuating guest counts and seating changes to weather delays, nothing in catering is static. These changes can seem daunting for an inexperienced caterer, but it's part of the business.
“I've often said that the c in catering stands for changes, because up until the event starts, we're constantly dealing with last minute changes,” says Stephan Baroni, managing director of Hudson Yards Catering. This is the nature of the business, and caterers set themselves up for success.
All caterers face the same challenges. The only difference is that the more experience you have, the better equipped you are to face the challenges head-on. The more challenges you face, the easier they become to meet. With experience, you also can avoid some of the biggest obstacles with careful planning and execution.
Hiring and Retaining Staff
Like restaurateurs, the biggest challenge you'll face is hiring good kitchen help and service staff. Hiring and keeping staff is difficult, given the wages you can afford to pay and the seasonal nature of the work. Much of the country is experiencing relatively low unemployment rates, and many young people are seeking more technical jobs, so the labor pool for catering help is tight.
Look to hire staff from different places. Young aspiring actors, singers, and dancers often work catering shifts to pay the bills. Place ads and put up notices at performing arts schools and coffee houses where artists hang out. Post ads for part-time help at women's organizations and community centers. Keep an open mind. A retired fifty- or sixty-year-old who's in shape and likes to work may be a good addition to your team. Also look for student interns. Call the employment offices of local high schools, cooking schools, and colleges and let them know that you'll mentor interns. Some students might be able to stay on part-time after their internship is over.
Trying to Control the Uncontrollable
In catering, you have to deal with many factors that are completely out of your control as a business operator. You need to be flexible and conquer the urge to manage every detail around you. Catering simply isn't a profession where you can be a control freak and survive with your sanity (and your business) intact. There are a number of X factors you'll have to account for in every job, and no two jobs will have the same combination of unknowns.
You're dealing with a live product, namely your food and servers. While you can control them to the best of your ability, you cannot prevent all accidents from happening. Somebody will drop a box of eggs, and a case of wine will get jostled too much when it goes over a pothole in a street. You have to be prepared to repair broken items and allow for some breakage or lost product.
Part of being an excellent caterer is being able to think on your feet and come up with quick contingency plans. If you drop a platter of hors d'oeuvres, then figure out how to come up with a quick alternative.
“Often we are catering events in locations such as cultural institutions or offices, which really aren't designed for entertaining. It is our job to figure out how it can happen and happen well. Sometimes we are at the mercy of space limitations and find our kitchen quite a distance from the guests, and keeping food hot, for example, while it ‘travels’ the distance can be a challenge,” explains Stephan Baroni, managing director of Hudson Yards Catering.
Keeping food safe and maintaining it at the right temperatures is a challenge. The key to keeping food safe is constantly monitoring it and properly training and supervising your staff. Food safety starts when you get the ingredients in your hands. The ingredients must be quickly refrigerated or frozen. The process continues when you defrost foods and start to cook refrigerated ingredients.
Hot foods must be cooled quickly and stored properly if they're not being consumed right away. A good tip for quickly cooling food that must be refrigerated is to pour the contents onto a frozen sheet pan, thus spreading it out onto a larger surface area. Once the food is at room temperature, you can pack it and refrigerate it. Nothing should go into the freezer until it has been in the refrigerator for at least a day.
The best way to get staff to follow safe food-handling procedures is to set a good example. Anytime a chef enters a kitchen, she should immediately go to the sink and wash her hands thoroughly with soap and water and dry them on a clean towel.
Sanitation and disposal offers its own challenges to caterers. Sometimes caterers have to serve large numbers of guests in a short period of time in a hot outdoor or indoor space. Large quantities of refuse are generated, and it must be kept away from perishable foods that guests will consume. Unlike restaurants and other food retailers who have on-site refrigerated rooms to store garbage, off-site caterers don't usually have that kind of facility available to them.
Caterers must anticipate the flow of guests and prevent human logjams. Experience dictates that the bar and the food are in completely different areas of a room, or in different rooms. An inexperienced host might want the bar and the food near each other, thinking that it's convenient for guests. In reality, it's a disaster waiting to happen. Lines for each meld together, and neither moves efficiently.
If you set up a buffet, make sure that people can help themselves from both sides of the table. The buffet line will move faster, and people will be able to serve themselves more efficiently. This drastically reduces the amount of time the last tables have to sit with empty stomachs.
Estimating the quantity of food needed for a particular job is a big challenge, since every crowd is different. The amount of food people will eat varies with the time of day and even the temperature of the event space. If the event is outdoors on a very hot day, for example, people will tend to eat less and drink a lot more. Light, cool foods like cold soups and salads will be consumed before hot foods.
Even the menu choices will dictate how much to make. You might need to make more of a lighter food, like a seared tuna Caesar salad, for example, than barbecue pulled pork sandwiches. People never eat as much cold food as hot food. Even though you should usually offer some cold salad, whether it be a mixed green salad, tabbouleh, or pasta salad, allocate a relatively smaller portion per guest compared to a hot side dish.
If you are serving passed hors d'oeuvres or a plated meal, discuss the guest-to-server ratio with your client. Having the correct number of servers is crucial to ensuring that all guests are served in a timely manner.
Estimating alcohol amounts is just as difficult as the food. Negotiate with the liquor vendor to be able to return any unchilled and unopened wine, beer, and liquor bottles. Always buy more ice than you think you'll need. It's cheap and will be sorely missed if you run out, especially during warm-weather events.
Keep guests out of the kitchen. Discuss with your client ahead of time how important it is to keep the cooking area clear of guests so that no accidents occur and you and the staff can work efficiently.