As a personal chef, Chef Mark Davis Jr.’s kept getting invited to his clients’ offices to cook. They wanted his food at home and for their meetings. So, in 2011, Portrait on a Plate started as a catering business. Now Portrait on a Plate is not only a corporate catering business but also manages social catering, personal chefs, six venues and a bistro.
We talked to Marcia Davis, Catering Director, about what she has learned from starting a catering business and what advice she has for those looking to do the same.
“I’ve learned that catering is very fast paced,” shares Marcia, “If you’re not fast paced or a fast mover this is probably not a business for you.”
“You have to make sure that every little step is taken care of,” says Marcia. Know what to ask, because your customers may forget to tell you a preference, allergy or intolerance. Ask “Are you gluten free? Do you like sugar? Do you like spicy food? Do you like spices?” shares Marcia.
You “always have to think of the next best thing because there are so many caterers,” advises Marcia. “It’s not something like owning a pillow company where not that many people are trying to make pillows. There are a million, billion caterers… You have to think outside of the box.” When you’re starting your catering business, think about what will make you stand out from the competition.
“I also learned that having amazing customer service is what brings clients back,” shares Marcia. Every meeting Portrait on a Plate has starts with discussing customer service. It’s a value they strive to instill in all their staff.
This is Marcia’s number one piece of advice for opening a catering business. “You’re going to have to really make time. It has to be something that they’re dedicated to,” Marcia shares. “I know a lot of caterers that start with full-time jobs and that’s a great way to start off, but if you’re in the corporate catering world, the customers are calling every single day.”
Another suggestion Marcia has for starting a catering business is to “find a great staff that’s able to handle and assist you with getting the orders out, marketing, email, keeping up with clients and following up with clients.” A good staff will help keep your customers and scale your business.
Even though other catering companies may be your competitors, you should still build relationships with them. One day you may need them when you’re down a chef with a large order to fill.
Find all the wholesale vendors that you need in one place so you don’t have to pay retail prices. Portrait on a Plate attends Catersource to find exactly who they need.
While the benefit of joining associations isn’t for you personally, your business will see it. “If you’re looking to get more business, join additional associations that are in your target market. A lot of people are looking for the film industry, then you should join a film association. You may not make films, but you should be part of the association,” shares Marcia. Marcia is a member of the Apartment Guide Association, not because she needs an apartment, but because that’s where her prospective clients are.
If you receive a request for catering that isn’t the type of business you would like more of, think again before accepting it. When your customers are looking at what you can provide and stumble on a one-off meal you catered, you could be in trouble. Even if you’re just opening your catering business, “don’t set yourself up for failure because other people are looking at what you’re doing and they’re going to go off that,” says Marcia. That doesn’t mean you should try to work with your clients, or be flexible – after all customer service is an important value — but if it’s work you don’t want to be doing again, you should consider if it’s worth it in the first place.