owner of Flavor Caterer in Los Angeles, was able to stock up. “I started out working out of the home and acquiring equipment, bits and pieces here and there as I needed them,” she says. “I remember I got so excited about buying chaffing dishes for the first time.”
Flavor Caterer now caters small buffet-style gatherings-never beyond 200 guests and primarily during the summer months, averaging between $5,000 to $7,000 per event. “I would buy a couple of platters and then tablecloths,” says Shaw, 39. “I was fortunate to meet a lady whose restaurant caught on fire. Her garage was filled with equipment (plates, glasses, silverware). She told me I could come and get whatever I wanted for free.” All told, Shaw received about $2,000 in free equipment and spent $2,500 over the years on assorted platters, pitchers, baskets, vases, and various sized sets of formal and causal chaffing dishes.
Shaw, who graduated from the Southeastern Culinary Academy, was a household name among her celebrity clients well before she became a finalist on the third season of The Next Food Network Star reality show. Since then, requests to cater jobs have included her as part of the entertainment. “Clients call me out from the kitchen to give a speech and talk to their guests (about the food),” says Shaw, who now does television segments and cooking demonstrations when she’s not catering.
It takes time to set up relationships with food suppliers, which includes getting lines of credit. You also have to build enough volume to warrant wholesalers. Until then, caterers like Shaw rely on shopping clubs such as Costco, Sam’s Club, or BJ’s to buy products in bulk. Another alternative is to contact a restaurant and talk to the owner or executive chef. Ask that person to submit an extra food order and then invoice you.
COOKING FOR SUCCESS
The size and number of events you expect to cater will help you determine a location. “You can rent a facility that already exists or you can build one out,” says Cliff Rome, chef, co-owner, and president of the Parkway Ballroom and Rome’s Joy Inc. in Chicago. “Overhead is a big expense. One way around it is to rent out space from culinary schools.” Also consider signing an agreement with a local church, nightclub, or YMCA-some place that has a licensed kitchen you can use on a part-time basis for a nominal fee. It may in turn hire you to cater one of its events, adds Rome, 36, who has worked with Wolfgang Puck and other chefs.
Initially, Rome used his personal savings, with startup costs of about $40,000 to $50,000, to purchase supplies and storage space. When his catering company took over the management aspect of the Parkway Ballroom, “we built-out a $150,000 kitchen,” says Rome, who again tapped personal financial resources. Today, his business generates approximately $1 million in _revenues, most of that from weddings and holiday events.
Another thing to keep in mind when launching a catering business is that product and personal liability