If you’ve always had a love of good food and, just as importantly, an eye for detail, then starting your own catering company may be just the career for you.

If you’ve always had a love of good food and, just as importantly, an eye for detail, then starting your own catering company may be just the career for you. Paul Pearce Couch looks at what's required for a career in the food hospitality business.

While weddings and corporate events are a huge part of the customer base for catering businesses, they’re not the only outlet for the talents of the ambitious caterer. Fine dining for dinner parties, local authority (“meals on wheels”), mobile van catering, and even the office lunchtime sandwich round are all important extra revenue streams.

Getting started

Of course one of your first jobs will be learning to cook. For the sake of brevity, this guide assumes that you either have a cooking qualification or you are a skilled, self-taught chef. Your first job will be to create a business plan. With this, you’ll not only impress investors, but also give yourself a frame of reference for moving your business forward.

Premises

While it might be possible for someone with a sandwich round, for example, to work from their kitchen at home, even this scenario is fraught with hygiene issues that the Food Standards Agency and your local authority will need to have satisfied. The best option by far is to secure dedicated premises from which to work. However, whether working from home or from a commercial kitchen, the following rules issued by the Food Standards Agency apply to any room where food is prepared commercially:
  • Floors and walls
Floors and walls must be maintained in a ‘sound condition.' They must be easy to clean and, where necessary, to disinfect. In practice, this means that floors and walls should be smooth, hard-wearing, washable and in a good state of repair.
  • Ceilings
Ceilings must be constructed and finished in a way that prevents dirt from building up and reduces condensation, mould and shedding of particles. In practice, this means that ceilings should be in good condition, smooth and easy to clean, with no flaking paint or plaster.
  • Windows
Windows and any other openings must be constructed in a way that prevents dirt building up. Windows and any other openings (such as doors) that can be opened to the outside must be fitted, where necessary, with insect-proof screens that can be removed easily for cleaning.
  • Doors
Doors must be easy to clean and, where necessary, to disinfect.
  • Surface
Surfaces (including surfaces of equipment) in areas where food is handled, particularly those that are touched by food, must be maintained in a sound condition and be easy to clean and, where necessary, to disinfect.
  • Equipment
All items, fittings and equipment that food touches must be: kept in good order, repair and condition in a way that enables them to be kept clean and, where necessary, disinfected frequently enough to avoid any risk of contamination.
  • Facilities for cleaning equipment
Your premises must have adequate faclities, where necessary, for cleaning, disinfecting and storing utensils and equipment. The facilities must have an adequate supply of hot and cold water.
  • Facilities for washing food
You must have adequate facilities, where necessary, for washing food. Every sink (or other facilities) for washing food must have an adequate supply of hot and/or cold water. The water must be drinking quality. These facilities must be kept clean and, where necessary, disinfected.

Local authority

You will need to check with your local council that the premises you use are legal for the purpose you intend, especially if you’re planning to work from your own home.

Check with your local council that you are able to trade in your chosen business and from the premises you have purchased. If you intend to work from home you have to be sure that your landlord or mortgage lender approves of you starting a business from your home and that you are not trading dangerous substances that would be hazardous to your locality.

Every food operation must either be registered or approved by the local authority in whose area it operates. Mobile food businesses need to register with the local authority within whose area the vehicle is normally kept.

Food premises registration is free and cannot be refused. In addition, certain food business activities require licensing. This means that minimum structural standards, hygiene standards and processes have to be achieved in order for a licence to be granted.

Licences

You will need a licence if you want to do the following things:
  • Sell or supply alcohol
  • Sell hot food between 11pm and 5am
  • Provide entertainment, such as theatre, cinema or live music
  • Sell food from a stall or van on the street

Corporate events

Even big businesses don’t have a lot of cash to spend on hospitality these days and so it’s important to stand out from the crowd if you’re planning on catering for large – or small – corporate events. This could mean anything from sandwich platters for top-level meetings to full-scale banqueting for awards ceremonies, etc.

If you’re in this line of business, it will be likely that you will have a small selection of core clients. Word spreads fast in corporate hospitality and someone offering quality catering with a competitive price-tag and great customer service will be kept close by those who organise such events.

Private events and weddings

The same rules apply for wedding catering, although demands by brides who want their day to go perfectly will be high. Similarly for Christenings, engagement parties, and even funeral receptions, everything will have to be organised down to the last detail. Further business will very much depend on word of mouth and, in this social media-oriented world, your reputation can be demolished overnight if things go wrong on the day.

Domestic

We all live increasingly hectic lives and there has been a trend of late, even in the most modest of private households, to have dinner parties catered. Nobody wants the host or hostess to be exhausted by the time their guests arrive and so the temptation to have someone else do the hot and sweaty work is great. In such circumstances, you might well use the client’s own kitchen if appropriate but, quite often the food will be prepared at your own premises and delivered piping hot or part-prepared to the client to be finished off.

Elderly Care & Local authority

The Meals on Wheels has been a lifeline for vulnerable people since the end of the Second World War when volunteers delivered hot food to people who had been bombed out during the Blitz. In these cash-strapped times, attitudes have changed and this is no longer a free service provided by volunteers. Therefore, local authorities have turned to private catering companies to provide either hot or frozen meals to qualifying clients.

Of course, the dietary requirements of elderly and recuperating hospital patients will need to be taken into consideration when offering this kind of service. Contact your local authority to see if they have any openings.

Insurance

You will need to be heavily insured, everything from Public Liability Insurance (non-employees claims for injury/physical damage caused by actions of you or your employees), to Employers Liability (legal requirement if you have employees, covers injury and property damage to your employees while working for you), and Property (damage to property but also including business interruption, ie freezer failure, etc).


Tax Office

Inform the Inland Revenue that you have formed a business and, if this is your first time as a self employed person, you must register your intentions as well. Arrange to pay your National Insurance payments by direct debit at the same time. If you feel that you will be earning a small wage when first starting a business it is possible to defer payment of your national insurance contributions.