AmazingRibs.com is supported by our Pitmaster Club. Also, when you buy with links on our site we may earn a finder’s fee. Click to see how we test and review products.

Starting A Catering Business

Making the leap from hobby to business is crossing a huge chasm. Even if you don’t go whole hog and trick out a food truck like this one in Seattle (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons). Many caterers start out with only a smoker and a grill loaded on a pickup truck.

No matter how well capitalized you are, you need to do it right. First of all, get a copy of the rules and regs for your state, county, and city. Each jurisdiction might have its own rules and licensing. And don’t whine about government intrusion. I want them to make sure that the folks feeding me won’t kill me. The food code is hard to understand so you might need to hire a consultant. Trade associations often have people who can help members, answer questions, and they often give classes. Join your state restaurant association to gain access.

Join the National BBQ Association. Their annual conference in February has numerous sessions on BBQ catering, cooking, competitions, and much more. It’s also a lot of fun. I usually go. They also offer a mentoring program with students working for a few days by the side of a pro and their website has checklists and spreadsheets. The annual National Restaurant Association show in Chicago is a also good place to go to learn all about the food service industry. And this GrowThink has good info on its website and will sell you business plan and financial management templates.

To get licensed, your food preparation space must meet legal requirements. It will be inspected before your license is issued and periodically thereafter. The law requires you to take a food safety class. They are often conducted by ServSafe. The authorities can fine the heck out of you if you skip any of these steps.

This is a litigious society. If somebody gets sick, kiss everything you own goodbye. Even if your food wasn’t the cause, a nuisance suit can cost a fortune. If a child touches your smoker and burns herself, you will be sued. You need a good lawyer and an insurance agent, and both should be experienced with food service issues. Your brother-in-law won’t do. You should also form a corporation to separate your personal from business finances to limit your liability. You need general liability, products liability, automobile liability, and possibly liquor liability. You need contracts that guarantee you’ll be paid and to protect you from last minute cancellations. Don’t think about selling your first meal until you’ve done all this. Intelligent customers won’t hire a caterer unless you can show you have proper licensing and insurance.

You need to locate suppliers. You can’t make money buying your meat at the local grocery. You need to buy it where the groceries buy it, from wholesalers. You might need to establish credit with them if you can’t pay cash for all the meat you need for the big graduation party.

You must buy professional grade tools and equipment that can take a beating and will not break down when you need them. And you need redundancy. If your cooker breaks down the morning of a client’s wedding, you better have a backup. Fail to deliver on time and it’s a guaranteed lawsuit. You can save money by buying used gear and there is a lot of lightly used gear out there since restaurants fail fast. But locating it takes research. You need cookers, cambros, chafing dishes, tents, fryers, trucks, refrigeration, storage, plates, first aid kit, utensils…

Security is an issue. Your pit is on wheels, and it may just decide to drive away in the middle of the night. How do you plan to prevent this?

You can’t prep and serve a big party by yourself. You need employees. Finding talented and trustworthy people willing to work weekends is not easy. Theft of meat is a major problem is this game. They also need to pass safe service tests and be insured. Then you need a payroll service. A good accountant is a valuable asset.

You need a logo from a pro not a nephew, menus, a website, bizcards, marketing, uniforms, and promotion.

Remember, most restaurants cater, so you need to think about how you compete with them. Their brand is well known. They have a big building advertising themselves. Thousands of people eat there. How are you going to get customers? Pricing is crucial. Many businesses fail because they are not priced low enough to compete or high enough to make a profit. There are often ads for pricing worksheets and software in trade mags like Restaurant Hospitality magazine. Get them. Remember to price for paper, labor, mileage, and waste.

Another route to travel is the food truck or trailer. It is an expensive licensed mobile kitchen that you can park on street corners, at festivals, fairs, sporting events, or alongside the road. Of course you need permission for wherever you park and you may have to pay a percentage to the owner. You also need another place to store food and supplies and do prep.

You are often in a remote location. If you need more water, forks, charcoal, you might not be able to get them. You have to be self contained and self reliant. Are you willing to give the keys to your truck to the teenager helper to run to the store for charcoal? You have to know exactly what you are doing at all times.

Last, and least, is the food itself. Menu planning is an art. Sure your ribs are great, but do you plan to get to the site at 6 a.m. to cook from scratch for lunch, or should you cook the day in advance, chill them, and re-therm them on site? Do you know what re-therm means? What about a 12 hour brisket cook? You can’t be pulling a hot smoker down the highway. Do you know where to get a whole hog? Can you cook one? That’s a popular request. Is garlic bread on the menu? If you cook it at home base it will be a soggy mess when it is time to serve it. Can you handle a crowd of 100 that includes 20 children, 5 vegans, 3 gluten frees, 6 observant Jews, and 6 Muslims? And the smart aleck walking around telling everyone your pulled pork can’t hold a candle compared to Cozy Corner in Memphis.

And heaven forbid you decide to open a brick and mortar restaurant! You the old gag, “How do you make a small fortune in the food business? Start with a large fortune and open a restaurant.” If such foolishness should cross your mind, here is a great article titled  “Eight Things I Wish I Had Been Told Before I Opened A Restaurant.”

I have just scratched the surface. There are numerous books and publications on catering with more detail. If there is a culinary school near you, visit the library. OnCue Consulting runs a series of classes on catering and restaurant business. Here is an article on the costs of opening a restaurant from Bankrate. They do a bang up job. Do your homework.

I’d wish you luck, but you need a lot more than luck.

Published On: 7/13/2015 Last Modified: 5/27/2021

  • Meathead - Founder and publisher of AmazingRibs.com, Meathead is known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of the New York Times Best Seller "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", named one of the "100 Best Cookbooks of All Time" by Southern Living.


If you help us, we’ll pay you back bigtime with an ad-free experience and much more!

Millions come to AmazingRibs.com every month for quality tested recipes, tips on technique, science, mythbusting, product reviews, and inspiration. But it is expensive to run a website with more than 4,000 pages and we don’t have a big corporate partner like TV network or a magazine publisher to subsidize us.

Our most important source of sustenance is people who join our Pitmaster Club, but please don’t think of it as a donation. Members get 21 great benefits. We block all third-party ads, we give members free ebooks, magazines, interviews, webinars, more recipes, a monthly sweepstakes with prizes worth up to $2,000, discounts on products, and best of all a community of like-minded cooks free of flame wars. Click below to see all the benefits, take a free 30 day trial membership, and help keep this site alive.


Post comments and questions below

grouchy?

1) Please try the search box at the top of every page before you ask for help.

2) Try to post your question to the appropriate page.

3) Tell us everything we need to know to help such as the type of cooker and thermometer. Dial thermometers are often off by as much as 50°F so if you are not using a good digital thermometer we probably can’t help you with time and temp questions. Please read this article about thermometers.

4) If you are a member of the Pitmaster Club, your comments login is probably different.

5) Posts with links in them may not appear immediately.

Moderators

  Max

Click for comments...

Spotlight

These are not ads or paid placements. These are some of our favorite tools and toys.

These are products we have tested, won our top awards, and are highly recommend. Click here to read how we test, about our medals, and what they mean.

Use Our Links To Help Keep Us Alive

A big part of this site is our unbiased equipment and product reviews. We love playing with toys and we have no problem calling them the way we see them. Some companies pay a finder’s fee if a reader clicks a link on AmazingRibs.com and buys a product. It has zero impact on our reviews, zero impact on the price you pay, and the sites never tell us what you bought, but it has a major impact on our ability to keep this site alive! So before you buy, please click our links. Here’s a link that takes you to a page on Amazon that has some of our favorite tools and toys: https://tinyurl.com/amazingribs


Finally, A Great Portable Pellet Smoker


Green Mountain’s portable Davy Crockett Pellet Smoker is one mean tailgating and picnic machine. But it’s also gaining popularity with people who want to add a small, set it and forget it pellet smoker to their backyard arsenal. And with their WiFi capabilities you can control and monitor Davy Crocket from your smart phone or laptop.

Click here to read our detailed review and to order


Grilla Pellet Smoker proves good things come in small packages

We always liked Grilla. The small 31.5″ x 29.5″ footprint makes it ideal for use where BBQ space is limited, as on a condo patio.
Click here for our review on this unique smoker


Bring The Heat With Broil King Signet’s Dual Tube Burners

3 burner gas grill

The Broil King Signet 320 is a modestly priced, 3-burner gas grill that packs a lot of value and power under the hood. Broil King’s proprietary, dual-tube burners get hot fast and are able to achieve high, searing temps that rival most comparatively priced gas grills. The quality cast aluminum housing carries a Limited Lifetime Warranty.

Click here to read our complete review


Our Favorite Backyard Smoker

The amazing Karubecue is the most innovative smoker in the world. The quality of meat from this machine is astonishing. At its crux is a patented firebox that burns logs above the cooking chamber and sucks heat and extremely clean blue smoke into the thermostat controlled oven. It is our favorite smoker, period.
Click here for our review of this superb smoker


The Good-One Is A Superb Grill And A Superb Smoker All In One


The Good-One Open Range is dramatically different from a traditional offset smoker. By placing the heat source behind and under the smokebox instead of off to the side, Open Range produces even temperature from left to right, something almost impossible to achieve with a standard barrel shaped offset.

Click here to read our complete review


The Cool Kettle With The Hinged Hood We Always Wanted


Napoleon’s 22″ Pro Cart Charcoal Kettle Grill puts a few spins on the familiar kettle design. In fact, the hinged lid with a handle on the front, spins in a rotary motion 180 degrees. It’s hard to beat a Weber kettle, but Napoleon holds its own and adds some unique features to make the 22″ Pro Cart a viable alternative.

Click here for more about what makes this grill special


Compact Powerful Sear Machine For Your Next Tailgater


Char-Broil’s Grill2Go x200 is a super-portable, fun little sizzler made of heavy, rust-proof cast aluminum. The lid snaps shut. Grab the handle and you’re off to the party! Char-Broil’s TRU-Infrared design produces searing heat while reducing fuel consumption. A 16 ounce LP gas canister is enough to keep you flipping burgers for hours.

Click here to read our detailed review and to order