The Accidental Caterer
I have to share this story with you all. It comes from my friend Richard Radbil – a veteran of the catering industry and one of Wisconsin’s most successful caterers.
Here’s the story as told to me by Richard:
My wife and I opened a glorified Chicago-style hot dog stand as our first restaurant. We occupied a 700 square foot hole in the wall, we were carryout-out only, and only many months after we opened did we finally added some tables and chairs. After we had been in business for about a year, a customer asked if we would cater a party at his house; he and his friends were going to watch a football game, and they thought it would be great if the restaurant came to them.
Of course I said yes, and the thought that our restaurant was going to have a day with 30 extra customers that didn’t even have to be served on premise was exciting. We knew nothing about catering, and I did the job myself. I brought a pot to boil the hot dogs, another pot to heat the Italian beef au jus, and all of the appropriate condiments. Luckily, our customers were easily pleased and could have cared less about presentation, so we survived the event.
Here and There
Once in a great while, another customer would ask us to cater a birthday party or a similar small event, and again, we would always say yes. Since these parties were sporadic, we never felt the need to develop systems; this was merely a little side business for some extra cash.
Slow in the Summer
Our restaurant was located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the Marquette University area, and the majority of our customers were students. Even though there were summer school sessions, June, July and August could be very slow, as most of our customers would go home for the season.
Wisconsin residents lived for those three months, however, since the warm weather could be fleeting. It seemed that almost every business held a picnic or tailgate party for their employees, and after a customer had asked us to cater one of these events, we decided to actively try and get more, and after a few years, we were catering over 150 of these summer events per year.
Full Time Caterers
After a number of years, for various reasons, we decided to sell our restaurant and become corporate caterers. As I have mentioned before, Mike Roman helped us with menus, but we had very few memorialized systems. I specifically remember that when our first box lunch order arrived, I spent the morning putting the boxes together. [By the time we sold our catering business, we never had less than 500 boxes ready to go.]
As our business, grew, we realized that the systems were the key. We developed standards for food and paper quantities, had delivery times down to the minute and knew what we could safely prepare the day before. In short, we figured out what we were doing.
It Took a While
This process took us years to figure out. We had many days when things didn’t go as smoothly as they should have, and as we sat down and crafted solutions, we swore we would never make the same mistake twice.
Mike Roman was literally the only catering consultant out there when we started. There was no website—since there was no Internet—and while there may have been some old school catering books we could have looked at, we didn’t have time to go to the library and find them.
You have Catersource and The Corporate Caterer. Use your resources!