Catering: Owning a catering company
Entrepreneurial catering is a distinct part of the culinary industry. Entrepreneurial caterers range from part time free lancers who will work in private homes, for which there is a reduced licensing requirement, as the “caterer” is really a household employee working as an independent contractor – to very serious businesses with full commissaries and waiting lists of clients. Others start illicit businesses, which Susan Parish Schwab, owner of the well established and much respected Splendid Fare& Catering in Ohio, addresses below.
Catering is unique as a business opportunity in that it is possible to enter on some levels with less business experience and on the job training or investment than required for running a successful restaurant or a café. The jobs coordinator for SF City College once stated that most of their students were over thirty years old and intended to open catering businesses rather than apply for jobs.
Asking an expert however, one who has done this, paints a much more complex picture of the career choice. I asked Susan to answer a few questions. Instead she sent me so much exhaustive and fascinating information on the world of caterer, that I think it better she speak.
Susan Parish Schwab on starting, owning and running a catering company:
The beginning: I started my culinary journey as a waitress.. I turned my love of food into a job as a garde manger in an independant French restaurant in Ft Wayne IN called Du Jour. I moved up to sous chef. I moved back to Akron and became the first woman chef in Sept 1981 at Maison Martel another French restaurant. I decided to open my own business after leaving the restaurant. It took me three years to be able to quit my other jobs to focus directly on catering and I have been doing it ever since.
Early on, I decided I wanted to be hands on. I kept my company small and flexible. I did have many opportunities to grow; but keeping the business small afforded me the flexiblity I needed for my personal life. I have always been a hard worker and catering is hard work. Period. Schlupping product, lifting heavy pots/pans etc. Loading out/loading in/ and then doing it all over again after a long day. Obviously, if you are an owner of a larger company you don’t do this an a daily basis, but if employees don’t show, you have be able to step in and do everything yourself.
Startup: I originally set up as a partnership and that quickly went down the drain as my partner did not share the same business building ideals that I had for the business. I then went into a sole proprietorship. In 2003, I incorporated.
Permits, laws, ordinances and formalities: For the first few years, I also sold jams/jellies and a mustard, so to take care of the legalities involved I contacted the Dept of Agriculture. You can’t do this in alot of states, but Ohio has provisions for home baking/jams/jellies etc. So I went that route. It was, and still is, a $50 yearly permit that includes a kitchen inspection. I operated with that license for years. However, in early 1990’s I started catering huge events and esp political ones that culminated in an event for President Clinton. I started searching for an expanded kitchen as my home kitchen, while licensed, wasn’t large enough. I scouted the area and found a Masonic Lodge with a smaller membership that had a kitchen that they weren’t using to capacity. I brought it up to code, small expense as it was basically a fully furnished restaurant style kitchen. I pay them $50 every day I use it and it is on an as needed basis. I have the best of both worlds. We continue to have a wonderful partnership. I am fully licensed by my county health department at $700 year for the permit, insured for $2M, and pay every employment tax known to man and probably more. I resent illegal caterers operating from their home, wherever….it’s an unfair competition especially where staff is involved…I can’t compete with their bids and am losing more and more business to them..that’s obviously a downside that CC, restaurants don’t have to face.
Equipment investment: I had alot of pots/pans and cooking equipment when I first started. I scoured garage sales and restaurant sales for the rest of my inventory. I was fortunate to know people in the business and purchased for pennies on the dollar double door refrigerator, two large standup freezers. I have countless shelving filled with display pieces that I pick up at Big Lots or our local thrifts; Home Goods and TJMaxx are also great for interesting decor items and display pieces. I have not invested in linens, china, stemware or silverware. I don’t have the storage and/or staff to haul it all around and my client’s have yet to complain. I do have service for 24 that are my personal pieces and have used them for smaller corporate jobs..otherwise I have great relationships with the rental companies in town. I work out a deal and get a 20% off cost of rentals which I do not pass along to my clients. I do not upcharge ordering rentals for my clients. I want to know I am in control of the rentals.
What it takes:
1. be incredibly organized;
2. be flexible in each and every situation (food, personal and professional relationships, time constraints);
3. make instantaneous decisions and follow through;
4. have a sense of humor. I have yet to meet a client that I can’t get along with for 3 months or so.
5. be comfortable in both the FOH and BOH and know both well.
I chose to remain a small catering company because it allowed me flexibility with my family. In my opinion, the larger you grow, the more you work to pay employees etc. Since I am a control freak, being small works for me, but it also means I am the only one that makes decisions in all areas…at times I feel overwhelmed. So it becomes necessary to delegate some things to other professionals (payroll, acct, office work)
The personal cost: Family time suffers due to working weekends and holidays. There are no 401K’s, no paid vacations, no health insurance, no one else to blame if something goes wrong. The buck stops with me. I would be sitting pretty right now had I chosen to go into the corporate world…a few years from retirement and a lovely pension. Instead, I am reinventing myself and will probably work until I drop dead at an event.
The satisfaction: Had I chosen that world, I would have never met and worked for two presidents, countless heads of state and myriad politicians… sweet newlyweds with their lives just starting, charming graduates, beaming mothers to be, and all the rest of life’s celebrations. I am a part of some family’s traditions; I make people happy and in doing that I am blessed.
Getting outside help: I didn’t find Catersource until 2004 or 2005 and it became a great resource for me. There were other websites that were just as important..some of them are no longer in operation as they became part of Catersource and dwindled away for lack of posters. It was a huge relief to discuss issues with other caterers. Caterers keep their specialties, recipes and ways of doing things close and no one in my area was willing to share/discuss. Having a large amt of education available from caterers in different regions but in the same situation is fantastic and invaluable. And while I have slacked off on the Catersource Forum as both a reader and contributor, I so respect the work that Mike Roman continues to this day to offer.
The most challenging issue with catering is obtaining enough clientele to create a living wage. I worked three jobs for four years prior to catering full time.
I started in 1981 with a few small holiday events. My company grew quite fast considering I was a single mom with two small children…I really only grew from Word of Mouth..in fact that was the name of my business until I realized when I went to trademark the name, someone else already had it in Ohio. I have catered events from 2 to 600 guests. The bulk of my events range from 24 guests to 150 guest weddings.
Moving up: Once I got in with a certain segment of society, it seemed that I was the “Martha Stewart” of Akron. My style of food and design were radically different from the older ethnic women caterers I had replaced. I became in high demand and catered many important civic functions, which in turn led to political functions, then I started kosher catering and boom! that was it!
Economic factors/ The future: Those were the high rolling 90’s and early 2000’s. Of course, after 9/11 it took years for companies to come back to full scale entertaining and then the corporate climate in NE Ohio declined drastically. We are still struggling here regardless of what economists say. I don’t see that way of entertaining going back for a few reasons. The money isn’t there; and this is a big one…this generation of women (and it’s mostly women that have the control over events) are different than their mothers….they don’t want to open up their homes; they are happy to entertain in restaurants.
Catering requires you to think quickly and act fast and be calm while you do. I have never been one to yell/scream as I’ve been in kitchen where chefs have done both and thrown things at staff. I never yell and rarely raise my voice.
The Satisfaction: I believe and know from talking to other caterer’s that we love the thrill of the event…solving last minute issues, racing against all odds to create and bring to fruition our foods and design under stressful conditions. It is not a job for the faint of heart. Sometimes I wonder why I do it…but the many many letters of thanks I have received from my clients and their families make all our work worthwhile. I love seeing the joy in a MOB face; love having someone tell me I made their day special…will I be around to cater their yet to be born daughter’s wedding?
I had to sacrifice many of my own holidays and my children learned that mom wasn’t always going to be around…I’m hoping it made them realize that a day is just a day..we celebrated certain holidays a day later (big deal). But I always made sure that Sundays and July 4th were reserved for family. Otherwise the business can cripple you..take over and I don’t think that’s healthy