Writing and rewriting your menus is not something you can do in a morning, an afternoon, or an evening. Set aside time every day over a period of weeks — or even months. If done correctly, innovative menus will help you grow your top line, while your chef skills will ensure that you can deliver your menus in an efficient and profitable manner.
Now that you have a good idea about your concept and what types of foods you'll be offering, start with a clean sheet of paper or a clear spreadsheet and label it “Classics Menu.” Begin by listing the dishes you think you'll make the most. For example, if you plan to specialize in catering bridal showers and other brunch/luncheon parties mainly for women, then list the salads, quiches, sandwiches, desserts, and beverages that will be the mainstay of your menu. If you plan to specialize in barbecues, list pulled pork and ribs along with the specialty coleslaws, potato salads, homemade baked beans, and other specialties you'll be offering. Your classics menu should reflect the pillars of your catering business. These are — maybe literally — your bread and butter. They will always appear on your menu, and repeat customers will recognize and request these staples.
Grandiose menus with many exotic ingredients don't pay off unless you're a top caterer charging $150 or more a head. Smart menu design uses the same ingredients over and over again in clever ways so that food buying can be done efficiently. A well-thought-out menu will have chicken breast in one dish, for example, chicken stock in another, and gizzard stuffing as a side, so that the entire chicken can be used.
If you use catering software like CaterEdge, CaterEase, or Synergy, you can develop your menus right in the software, and it will be easier for you to do cost analyses.
Make a list of seasonal items that highlight the produce of spring, summer, winter, and fall. Every season, you'll want to add a few of these items to your classics menu so that your menu stays fresh and not dated. For example, in winter you may want to offer some heartier fare, liked a spiced pumpkin soup, while for summer luncheons you'll want to offer a couple of cold soups like watermelon gazpacho.
For Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's (or for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur if you're a kosher caterer), you'll want to create streamlined menus to help you get through the busy holiday season. Offer plenty of roasted meats and vegetables that aren't labor-intensive and dishes that can be prepped and made ahead of time like pies, tarts, soups, and cranberry sauce. Some items can be made ahead and frozen, so you may need additional freezer space starting in your busiest seasons.
If you don't start out with catering-specific software, put your menus in a word-processing program on your computer, since you'll need different versions. Once on your computer, you can easily customize and tailor your menus as needed for clients. The menus will need to be modified depending on the size of the group, the location, and the type of event and venue.