The catering business, like the candy business and the floral business, is highly seasonal. People tend to celebrate and have parties during certain times of the year. November and December are prime catering times, as are the summer months and late spring and early fall. There's a slight pickup toward the end of January if you cater Super Bowl parties and a blip in February if you specialize in catering romantic dinners for Valentine's Day, but the rest of the winter is usually pretty quiet. Of course, this will vary depending on where you live and what kind of cultural calendar your community follows.
Mid-November through December is one of the busiest times in the catering business. Unlike wedding season, which stretches from April to October, the holiday season is compacted into six weeks. Chances are that once you're up and running and people know about your services, you'll get more holiday requests for business than you can manage.
While you'll want to do as many jobs as you possibly can during this short period, be careful about promising too much to too many people. It takes time and experience to reach maximum efficiency and learn how many jobs you can handle. For holiday jobs, plan menus so that you can do as much as possible ahead of time, freezing stocks, pie shells, soups, and sauces.
The key to managing a busy holiday season is to start booking holiday jobs early. This will allow you to plan ahead. Offer clients an incentive to book their events with you by the end of September if possible, or by mid-October at the latest. If clients book their events with you early and give you their deposits, offer them free pies for dessert, free quiches for appetizers, or anything else that you can make ahead and have in your freezer.
Record the food and labor costs of the complimentary items in your promotions budget, not in your regular food costings budget.
It's well worth the labor time and cost of the ingredients to provide an incentive for clients to book early. Much of catering involves planning and logistics. If you know what you need to prepare and when, you can group jobs together and prepare dishes more efficiently.
If you have four holiday jobs within two days, for example, make sure your holiday menus are streamlined. Remove labor-intensive and exotic dishes that aren't your best sellers. Most caterers, restaurants, and bakeries offer special holiday menus instead of their year-round menus. The sheer volume of orders dictates that special requests not be allowed and complicated multistep dishes be temporarily removed from the menu.
While a commercially bred turkey costs less than $2 per pound, for around $3 a pound you can buy a crossbreed turkey — a cross between a heritage turkey and the Broadbreasted White. This turkey has the same overly large amount of breast meat that commercially raised turkeys have, but it has a richer flavor that will wow your guests.
Make sure your holiday menu includes plenty of roasted and braised vegetables and meats. Mashed vegetables like potatoes and turnips and purees of carrots, squash, broccoli, and cauliflower are easy to make, especially in bulk. When planning for the holidays, double-check that you have enough large baking and roasting pans and mixing bowls to handle the quantities of food you'll be preparing. The last thing you want to do is realize on November 20 that you need a twenty-quart mixing bowl and there isn't one within 100 miles.
Fresh Direct, a food-delivery business based in Queens, New York, is able to deliver deli, produce, and prepared food item orders to thousands of people a day in the New York metropolitan area. They receive the next day's orders the night before, compile the orders, prepare all the stir-fries, chili, soups, and stuffed chicken breasts together, and then fill the orders individually.
Apply a bulk cooking method to your holiday orders. Rather than buying for one job at a time, you'll need to order for a week's worth of jobs and prep the orders dish by dish rather than job by job.