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10 Steps to Catering Success – The keys to building a successful catering business

Culinary Capers Catering and Special Events began with a 20-seat café and a staff of four in 1986 in Vancouver.  The company has grown to a $10-million enterprise, catered at three Olympic Games and opened a division of the company in Beijing, China.  Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News (CFRN) recently reached out to CEO Debra Lykkemark to ask her how she built her successful catering business in Canada and overseas.  Here are her Top 10 steps to catering success:

Catering is hard work.  Every event is unique with a different location, client and menu.  Without passion for adopting a client’s vision and turning it into a great event, you will struggle to grow your business.  When I first went into business, I really wanted a restaurant but all I could afford was a café.  In retrospect it was a blessing in disguise because it led me into catering.  I loved off-premise catering because it was so creative and challenging.  It’s definitely not boring!

Decide where your culinary and event strengths lie and focus on these areas.  When I started catering we focused on doing corporate drop-off catering for meetings.  Once we had a solid client base we decided to move into a larger facility so we would be able to offer those clients full service catering for their staff and client events.  To introduce the new full service catering division, we invited all our corporate delivery clients to a catered event in our catering kitchen.  The event gave clients an opportunity to experience what we could do and to assure them that we were capable of handling their full service events as well as their drop off catering.

Catering is an amazing marketing vehicle because your client pays you to have their guests experience your product and service, but it is a double-edged sword: If you mess up, all those guests will talk about how bad it was!  We have a saying in the catering industry: ”You are only as good as your last event.” There are numerous things that can go wrong at an event and attention to detail, planning and troubleshooting skills are essential.  Your reputation takes years to build and moments to destroy.  Word of mouth is a powerful way to gain or lose potential clients.

Catering costs can vary widely depending on the type of service, food, logistics and equipment required for the event and can be quite overwhelming for a person that has never catered before or dealt with your company.  At Culinary Capers we are very transparent with our charges.  We have separate line items for every component of the event and the cost.  If anything changes before the event day a revised quote is immediately sent to the client.  There are no “gotcha” surprises when you receive your invoice.  Being transparent, honest and clear builds trust and wins repeat business.

As the company and staff levels grew, the management group determined that we needed to define our core values.  What were the values that we expected our employees to uphold and use as a guide when they were interacting with customers, colleagues and suppliers?  At a management retreat the team worked together to define our shared values.  These values empower our employees with clear expectations, form the foundation for our new hire interviews and staff evaluations, and have created a culture of team players who love to work together.

Off-premise catering allowed us to grow our revenue without the restriction of a restaurant that has a maximum capacity and we were able to cater all sizes of events in Vancouver or in other parts of the world.  To spur business growth, I was always challenging my team to do bigger events.  One of the boldest moves we made was going after the six-week contract to cater at BC Canada Place in Torino for the 2006 Winter Olympics.  We were the successful bidder and had an amazing experience!  In 2008, we were the successful bidder for a five-month catering contract at BC Canada Pavilion in Beijing for the Summer Olympics.  Yes, we were a little scared but also confident that we could be successful with enough planning and the right team.  All of the planning, experience and connections we made helped us to win an incredible amount of business at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.  It also resulted in us starting a permanent catering division of the company in Beijing, China.

Our catering team has been recognized by our peers with many awards and accolades.  Many of our employees have been with us for 10 to 20 years and one employee Lori, has been with us for 25 years!  One day I said to Lori:  “Wow you’ve been working with us for 25 years, how did that happen?”  Her response was: ”That’s easy…great company and leadership. It rarely felt like work!”   To be really good at catering you have to have a team that supports, respects and values each other and Lori is a perfect example.  You will hear her say “how can I help” never “that’s not my job”.

As a creative, easily distracted and impatient entrepreneur, I had a hard time getting onto the systems and processes bandwagon.  Fortunately my executive chef and director of operations love systems and focused time and attention on creating systems and production processes that make us efficient and give our clients a consistent product.  During 18 days of the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, we catered 578 events, served 59,279 guests and had a daily average of 500 service, kitchen and operations staff.  There is no way we could have done that successfully without a lot of well established, effective systems.

We have always been customer focused.  Culinary Capers started primarily offering corporate catering and was the only company in our market doing last minute, same-day lunch delivery.  Executive assistants looked like miracle workers when they could get a beautiful lunch delivered for 10 guests with an hour’s notice.  Last-minute orders incur extra cost, but we pull out all the stops and get it done.  There are days when the accountant, managing partner and event planners jump in their cars to get a last minute order to a client.

Creating a brand requires marketing.  When I first started in business I had no marketing budget or plan.  Fortunately my husband came to the rescue and took on the marketing role for no pay.  He revamped the logo, created a corporate catering brochure and went door to door introducing the company to corporate clients.  That was year four, and by year five business had doubled –  if only I had done it earlier!  Marketing became a key component of creating our brand.  Since developing a website in 1998, we have added blogging, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.

Credit:   See article in the May/June 2014 issue of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News
Link to PDF of Article
Photo:  imps.ca

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