Catering involves the production, supply and service of food and drink to guests at private parties or events.
Catering involves a range of skills and duties, some creative, some hospitality-related. Common tasks include:
- Managing budgets and completing costings
- Designing menus for clients
- Producing food in large kitchens
- Travelling to deliver and serve food at different premises
- Organising waiting staff
- Setting up and clearing at different venues
- Building a client base and reputation
Many different events require catering, from corporate or commercial to weddings and parties, and catering involves supplying these events with the food and drink required.
Catering businesses make money on a per-event basis and so the level of income a caterer can expect varies greatly, depending on the number, size and budget of events, the amount of hours worked and the cost of basic ingredients. Extra services such as the supply of decoration, seating plans, flowers, personalised cakes and so on can all increase the turnover and profit. All in all, a busy caterer working on medium sized functions could expect to earn anything from £20,000 – 50,000 a year, and possibly more.
Caterers are in charge of the food and drink, and this is a key element at many functions. People often remember the food and delivering good quality service can make or break a party. The range of what is required varies greatly and some parties require only cold snacks such as sandwiches, but there are more extensive responsibilities, including serving aperitifs or champagne at the start of an event, followed by snacks or canapés and then a full dinner with various courses, and coffee and dessert.
Formal qualifications are not strictly required for catering, which relies more on the ability to produce and deliver good food. However, the business and organisational aspects of the job may be made much easier with some teaching. The standard is to go to catering college and complete a City and Guilds certificate (NVQ or other) in a related field, such as hospitality and catering. Various levels of qualification are available and a full list of the options can be found on the City and Guilds website.
Another option would be to complete a cookery diploma or masters course at a private school. These schools can be expensive, however, and the teaching more specifically focused on cooking in general rather than catering, which entails more focus on the business side of things.
Caterers need a passion and flair for good food and the organisational and business skills to deliver that food to large numbers of people, on time, and in good condition. This means being a flexible cook, being prepared to meet the demands of a client, and having a good sense of cost, customer service and hospitality.
Catering operations are run as private businesses and many caterers are therefore self-employed. This involves a range of separate skills, including managing accounts, dealing with staff issues, maintaining a contact list and working in a team to deliver a professional and consistent service. Being prepared and well-ordered will ensure that things run efficiently and a good service is delivered.
Caterers are usually based in a large-scale production kitchen where the food is produced. These kitchens may be busy, hot and cramped but are not usually dangerous. Beyond this, caterers travel to various venues and events, both indoor and outdoor, and this involves adapting to different environments and being flexible and responsive.
Experience is important for caterers as it gives knowledge of timing, presentation, clients’ demands, the challenges presented by different venues and so on. In addition, more experience of cooking usually leads to better food, and as catering companies often work on reputation it would be difficult to find success without any experience. However, it is not essential, and it might be possible to find work within a catering company as a waiter or assistant then move into the more hands-on aspects of food production. Employers will look for experience in restaurants or hotels and hospitality.
Catering businesses are privately owned and usually serve an individual area, town or city, rather than working on a national scale, and this means there are no major employers in the standard sense.
As most caterers are self-employed the career progression for caterers is far from formal, and most caterers hope to establish and grow their own business. This would mean starting out on small projects and developing a reputation before expanding to service larger and more expensive events, such as weddings and balls, and offering a wider range of services, such as cake-making or supplying alcohol.
From the point of view of someone entering a company at a lower level, they might hope to work their way up from basic tasks such as assisting with set-up and delivery, before moving on to serving and preparing food and then helping with menu design and more complicated cooking tasks.
Also known as…
- Food supplier
- Food producer
- Chef de Partie
- Catering Assistant
- Commis Chef
- Head Chef
- Restaurant Manager
What’s it really like?
Tom runs a successful catering company supplying weddings and other functions in a range of venues in Dartmoor and South West England. To find out more about Tom’s work and ethos, and to find out more about his services, visit the Dartmoor Kitchen website.
How long have you been working as a caterer?
Around six years now. I got into it after working in a few restaurants in England and abroad, gaining lots of practical experience cooking and seeing how food businesses operate. I did go to college when I was sixteen, but only for a year or so, and that was studying outdoor leisure and I did not do much in the way of formal qualification for catering, and did not go to catering college.
I guess the only real formal qualification I did was an NVQ Level 1 in Catering, a practical placement completed at work, where the teacher comes in to assess you. But this has not been a disadvantage; I think practical experience is often more important – getting out there and understanding food and business. Things are running well now, but the business was not a family one and everything has been started from scratch. I now run the catering operation with my wife, and I am also working on a wholesale food production business with a partner, offering products direct to retailers.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
The work is very varied and involves getting around a lot. Summer is wedding season and everything gets very busy as the number of events increases. Common day-to-day tasks include dealing with customers, holding wedding meetings to discuss client requirements, visiting different sites before events, sorting out staff contracts, taking orders and so on. The days are often pretty long.
What do you like and dislike about the job?
Seeing the business deliver successful returns makes it all worthwhile, and being able to run the business without going to every single event and still getting positive feedback is very encouraging as it means that the business model is working and a quality service is being delivered.
We aim to offer high quality simple, seasonal food from the local area and when the feedback comes (we include customer feedback forms with our invoices) it is very rewarding. Getting the letters of praise and knowing you have added that aspect to someone’s wedding or party is very satisfying.
On the downside, the hours can be long and dealing with so many different personalities can be a real challenge, both in terms of staff and customers. It has taken a long time and many hours of hard work to get the business operating successfully and establishing a reputation, but now all the hard work is paying off.
Any other advice?
Getting into catering is difficult and you have to be motivated and prepared to put the hours in. You also have to love food and have an interest in hospitality. I would say that once you have a business running it is important to have proper procedures in place. When you are cooking at an event you will be doing it in unfamiliar surroundings and often on a makeshift basis so you need to think carefully about what you need to bring and not doubling up and bringing things unnecessarily.
Making lists to take along to events can definitely help with this. On the night it is important for things to run smoothly, with everything tidy, clean and well ordered. This takes good planning. Finally, keeping things simple is always a good idea. Do not try to do too many fancy things with the menu that will cause problems later on.
As with most services, reputation and recommendations are essential to growing the business and maintaining a consistently high level of service is important in getting repeat and referral orders.