Most restaurants offer some type of catering service, since they already have a licensed kitchen and staff. It makes sense for most restaurants to sell catering items because it provides added revenue for the business. Restaurants already employ prep cooks and chefs and have to pay rent or a mortgage, so the more revenue they can generate to offset their overhead, the more profitable they'll be. Party platters, cakes, and other catering items can be prepared during slow times of the day in between meal services.
Since restaurant chefs are already adept at devising menus, creating a catering menu is a relatively easy process. They're already established and set up with food vendors and suppliers, so ordering food for catering jobs is simple. Little special equipment is needed for restaurants to turn out catered items. All that is required are some platters, special packing materials, and extra refrigerator space.
Some restaurants say they cater but aren't really set up for it. Other restaurants get a substantial amount of their revenue from catering. When doing competitive research, make sure to ask the restaurant owner or manager how much catering they do and what kinds of events they cater.
If the restaurant doesn't have a separate party room for on-site parties, the owners may offer to rent out the entire restaurant for parties. Often they'll do this only during slow times of the week or year or they will charge the equivalent of a weekend night's business. If the restaurant has a separate space for parties, they're more likely to have a more sophisticated catering program and an in-house event person.
National restaurant chains are part of this segment of the business, and they can afford to advertise on television. Red Lobster, for example, sells platters of shrimp and other seafood that can be ordered by phone and picked up.
If a restaurant is known for its great gourmet sandwiches, fried chicken, salads, or brownies, it probably offers platters of these items for office and in-home parties. Sometimes the dishes that a restaurant is known for, however, don't travel well, so the restaurant can't offer its house specialties for off-site events. French fries, soufflés, and other delicate and intricate dishes that aren't designed for catering can't be sold for off-site enjoyment.
While this means that you'll count local restaurants as your competition, don't despair. Most restaurants don't have separate catering divisions, so their marketing and customer service for catered events isn't that evolved. Restaurants focus on the guests eating in their dining rooms. You, as an independent caterer, will focus exclusively on your guests and their needs, whatever they are. You will be totally focused on your customers and able to service them better than a restaurant where catering is just an added revenue stream.