Cater for your customers first

11 TBC 300x200 Cater for your customers first

Co-owners of catering business The Business Of Catering: Imran Khaki, Mark Shaw and Lee-Ann Laüfs.

Think about it – you cook regularly at home, and you’re quite good at it.

You’re organised, and good with people, so why not consider making food for a living, as a contract caterer?

These are caterers who provide food in the workplace, schools, universities, hospitals and homes, as well as for occasions such as weddings, funerals, conferences and dinner parties.

While restaurants and coffee shops usually need a lot of investment for startup costs and working capital until their clientele grows, a catering business can be started small and slowly built up depending on the available resources. You can even run it from home at first, if you have the basic kitchen facilities.

The idea is to start off with one or two customers (a good entrepreneur always finds customers first, even before starting the business!) in your area, whose needs you understand well and who you can provide top-class food and service to.

This way, your first customers will also be your advertising platform; their ‘word-of-mouth’ references will lead to more customers.

Could YOU do it?
Your chances of success are better if you have some previous experience of working in the hospitality or food industry. But if you are already a homemaker or domestic worker with daily experience of preparing food that people enjoy, then you already know the basics.

You will often spend long periods on your feet, and will need plenty of energy and enthusiasm. You’ll need good interpersonal skills for dealing with your staff and customers. You should also be able to offer a range of food, and be willing to change your menu from time to time.

The legal regulations concerning food are strict. You and your staff must follow hygiene procedures, such as using separate chopping boards for meat, fish and vegetables.

Remember that you will be operating a business, so self-discipline and an ability to adapt to what the market wants will be vital.

You will also need basic word processing and mathematical skills to manage the administrative and financial aspects of your work.

In particular, you will need to be able to calculate the costs, quantities and preparation requirements for each meal.

What about training?
The hospitality industry is controlled by a number of laws and regulations – mainly dealing with health and food safety – so it’s a good idea for you and your staff to get some formal training in how to comply with these. Even if you are starting up on your own, you might soon land a large client (a government department, for instance) who needs proof of your qualifications and compliance standards.

Target markets

Your customer base could be any or all of the groups listed below; choose a target market that is not too far from where you live and work, and also suits the scale of your operation and the range of food you can offer:

  •  Private customers who organise events such as dinner parties or concerts may be a source of business
  •  Organisations running courses or workshops often need to provide food for their delegates
  •  Businesses that operate staff canteens often bring in an outside caterer to prepare and serve the food
  • Wedding organisers sometimes employ contract caterers when arranging receptions at venues that do not offer in-house catering
  • Leisure venues similarly need contract caterers from time to time for conferences and private parties
  • Corporate hospitality businesses occasionally employ contract caterers when they cannot cope with their workload.


Where you can get your catering training

Speak to the Tourism, Hospitality, Sports, Conservation and Arts Education and Training Authority (Cathsseta) about certified training providers in your area:

The website of the South African Chefs Association also has a useful list of trainers, categorised by region so that you can find one near you:

A useful resource for finding a variety of training courses is the Skills Portal, with courses on offer from a range of training companies around the country:

Contact the Tourism Enterprise Partnership about training opportunities; it has regional offices in the main centers:

The Institute for Hospitality Education (SA) offers courses from City & Guilds International (certificate and diploma) in the hospitality industry, where you can work and study at the same time:

Training is also available from food hygiene organisations like Swift Silliker in Cape Town and Gauteng:


Straight from the caterer’s mouth…

Nothing is more valuable than getting first-hand advice from someone who has already walked the path you plan to set off on.

Small Business Connect spoke to Mark Shaw, co-owner of The Business of Catering, on key points to remember when starting up.

Q: How did you get started?

A: I trained as a chef and worked in restaurants and hotels and eventually bought a small restaurant. After running that for a few years, my business partner and I decided to sell the restaurant and go into the catering industry.

Q: What services can caterers offer to remain cutting-edge?

A: Great service and a quality product! As you identify your market, pay close attention to what their needs are and find out what it is that you can offer them that will set you apart from others. Apart from your basic role as caterer, you should also be able to assure your customer that the catering is in good hands.

Q: What kind of person does it take to do what you do?

A: It takes a hard-working, dedicated person with an eye for detail. You will need to be organised and able to solve problems “on the fly”. You also need to know that you are choosing a job that requires you to work when others are “playing”.

Q: What kind of training and background are necessary?

A: While formal training may not be necessary, it is advisable to have some experience in the professional food service industry. As the owner of the business, you will need to develop an understanding of all facets of the business: costing, purchasing, recipes, menu planning, hygiene, sales and marketing etc.

Q: How much capital did it take for you to start your business?

A:It didn’t take a great deal – I think we started with R50 000, but have done it for less.

Q: What are your closing words of advice to would-be caterers?

A: While it requires hard work, catering is a very fulfilling career. There are few more satisfying experiences than seeing all the different parts of an event fall into place, while the client and their guests enjoy themselves. Research before you start – speak to other caterers and familiarise yourself with the different services offered. Make sure you have a business license and know what your obligations are to Sars.


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