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Sunday, 27 January 2013

How to get started with a catering business?

My Uzhunnu vada (Urad Dal vada) is always a hit in our party circuit. When I hear people appreciating, I feel proud of myself.  Once a family friend of ours asked “Why don’t you start making vada to sell it to the adjacent snacks bar?”  That time I did not take it seriously. But what he hinted is indeed a grand business idea for any home maker. Just devote a couple of hours a day to make large quantity of your favourite dish and sell it off.  More people appreciate your work and you earn money.

What if not just a single dish but a whole meal? Yes it works! When I was working in Infosys Bangalore, my colleagues and me often used to get bored of the same office food. Of course there too had variety, but the longing for homely food which is moderately spicy and least oily was always welcome. We were so happy when a family of four started delivering, simple home cooked food consisting of plain rice, dal, roti, vegetable and pickle. We felt like heaven then.  If they could do it why can’t we?

Food is an integral part of Indian celebrations. It is something that is always in demand.  Even for a millionaire, there could be nothing more fulfilling than a hearty meal. A food catering business cracks the need for good food especially for the ones who can’t cook by themselves. For example, for a party at home, it is impossible to manage everything by a single person. When the food is outsourced, a big headache is covered.  This is the opportunity that we should tap - Serve good quality food to those who ask for it.

How to get started with a catering business?

 “Start slow, but aim big” that should be your motto with a catering business.  Start with a single dish, get feedback from people and then keep improving and adding more items to the menu. That way you will have a slow yet steady growth. To have a real know how of the working of a catering system, you can work under already established people before you start your own. And importantly, before every business hits the open floor, a proper plan should be ready.

Setting up a catering business plan

For a catering business, the planning phase should cover the basic aspects like know your customers, what will you cook, where will you cook and what all you need.  The planning should start with an ideal customer in mind. Say for example, the mother of a toddler who is arranging a birthday party for kids of similar age, or be a set of teenagers celebrating their victory in an examination, or a group of ladies having a chit chat party, or a battalion of senior citizens at the laughing club or a family get together at a friend’s home. Having a prior intuition of what all customers to expect, you are setting a boundary for your venture. And you know exactly what all stuff is required to keep them happy which will in turn give you a fair idea of the setting up cost. If you plan to cater food for a wedding or a corporate function the cost will be higher and preparation has to be elaborate in comparison to a family get together. 

Fixing the Menu and Venue
Once you have an idea of the possible customers, you can fix on your menu. Keep a variety of options open as it is human nature to ask for more.  Say if you are planning to start a baking service, you can tell them what all sorts of cake you serve provided your menu card ready. Another important factor which is more of your comfort is to decide on where you will cook – at your home, or the party location or a separate place from where the food will be delivered.   

Manage Material Supply
When you have the menu and venue ready, you can start talking to the grocery men and the vegetable sellers to provide an adequate supply of raw materials at discounted cost.  You will also need to plan about buying necessary utensils. Most importantly, you should make provisions for required cooking gas supply. Also a good functional oven or gas stove is a must.  Otherwise, if you accept an order and fail to execute it, your reputation will be affected. You can also try to rent out the necessary utensils and cooking mechanisms to reduce the initial cost.

Labour force and Conveyance
It won’t be easy for you to do all the cooking by yourself. You might need help from other people, say for cutting vegetables. You should know in advance how many labourers you need and how much you can pay each of them. You can start hunting for reliable workers before you make your service announcement public.  If you are cooking at a place other than where it is served, you have to have a transport option. You can decide on options like parcel service or delivery boy or delivery van depending on your budget.  You should also plan for a proper packaging system in case you offer delivery service.

Price fixing
When you know the average cost of running your catering business, you can fix price of items in the menu. The price has to cover all the overhead costs as well as fetch you some profit. Have a fair idea of the profit you expect so as to surpass the shooting material and labour cost in the adjacent future.

Getting that first customer may not be as easy as you think. You will have to plan for a good advertisement strategy to let the world know what have to offer. It can be just by word of mouth, a small notice at the local notice board or a national daily or through JustDial. Food is something for which the quality speaks for itself. Once your business is up and running, the quality of food will fetch you more and more customers.  

Well, that explains how to get started but how to sustain?

Once the plan is ready you can start working on it to pull off the business to public. Remember, your customers are just humans like you. Every negative thought that you have while having food from outside now applies to your food too. To ensure the sustainability of your business, there are a few points worth to be noted:

If your food tastes perfect it is guaranteed to sell. But hygiene or cleanliness is more important than that. Do you think someone would order your food again if they found a dead cockroach in a tasty dish? While cooking, make a regimen to follow strict hygiene measures – starting from using clean utensils to unadulterated raw materials to name a few. Periodic cleaning of your cooking area is a must to maintain hygiene.Always neatly cover your hair and wrap any cuts or wounds.

 Once you agree for an order, put your heart and soul to serve the food on time. Hungry customers will flee to other resorts if you are late. This will definitely drop your rating. So ensure that you know in advance how much time you will need to cook and present the dishes. It is always better to be early than late. But of course nobody prefers cold food, so better find the perfect placement between cooking and serving. Also ensure that your planning accommodates solution for worst case scenarios like quick replacement for burnt food which will not delay the serving time.

Feedback necessary
You should always ask for feedback about food and service from the clients. Keep your positives as strength and keep working on your negatives. Feedbacks are essential for the growth of your business. A negative feedback can be disheartening for that moment, but it is the best catalyst to boost your growth. To succeed in food industry, keep the operational cost as low as possible without compromising on the quality of food.

Legal Aspects 
Once you are through with the initial hurdles in getting into the catering business, and if you are really serious with taking it forward, you need to be more professional on the legal front. You have to obtain a trade license, a health certificate, an establishment license, a labour license and a VAT registration. A chartered accountant can help you to acquire these required licenses. Please note that, this is not mandatory for a small scale catering unit though

You can always improve on your service by offering special menus during special occasions. Keep in mind to exceed customer expectation at every moment. As the next step, you can talk to event planning people for a collaborative business model. Food tastes good to the one who is the hungriest. Make a pledge that you will feed many under privileged hungry ones once in a while. This way you never forget the value of food, no matter how high the catering business will take you.