How to Run a Food Truck 25: Set Up a Catering Business

In the last “How to Run a Food Truck” lesson, we explored the potential opportunities open to FoodTruckrs who are interested in expanding their businesses to include events. Today, we’ll tackle a similar topic as we look at the best ways to get into catering services. Catering and events are both incredibly effective ways for food truck owners to sustain their businesses—particularly in the off-season and during slow months on the streets.

The catering industry can be a competitive place, so it’s important to think carefully about where your truck can fit into the market. You also need to make sure your services are set up in a professional manner before you begin trying to attract clients. In this lesson, we’ll discuss the basics you need to know before getting started, how to choose the best events for your truck, and the most effective ways to advertise your services.

Let’s dig right in!

Prep Steps: What to Do Before You Begin Catering

Before you start telling fans that you can cater their kids’ birthday parties, you need to do some prep work. Catering is a natural extension of your business, but it’s still an entirely different ballgame than running a food truck through street service alone—which means that you’re going to need to do some extra business planning, obtain additional licenses and permits, and train your employees in new procedures.

Read on to learn about the five key prep steps you need to take before taking your catering business on the road.

1. Educate Yourself

Just as you researched your city’s laws before you first opened your food truck, you’re also going to need to spend time learning about the rules and requirements for catering businesses in your area. In some cities, you won’t need to do much differently than what you’re already doing for your truck—but in many places, there will be a number of different permits and licenses to obtain.

We recommend taking a similar approach to the research you did back then by starting out with local government offices like your city’s Small Business Administration, Health Department, and Chamber of Commerce. You should also contact your local food truck associations, as many of these organizations will also provide information on catering services for food truck owners (or will have experienced members who can help you along the way). You can also see if your city has a local chapter of caterers who may be able to provide you with resources on getting started or recommend some business options for you to consider.

In addition to researching catering laws and options in your own city, we also recommend checking out larger groups like NACE—the National Association for Catering and Events and The International Caterers Association. Catering can be a lot more complex than it appears on the surface, and these two organizations offer tons of valuable resources for catering professionals at all stages of their businesses. Visit their websites to learn more about their membership benefits, networking potential, and the educational opportunities they offer.

2. Choose the Right Catering Opportunities

Once you’ve gotten a better handle on what it’s really going to take to set up a catering business in your city, you should spend time thinking about what kinds of catering opportunities you’re most interested in pursuing. Many food truck owners will serve all types of events so they can get as many clients as possible—while others prefer to focus specifically on one type of client, such as weddings or corporate events, so that they can offer very streamlined and tailored services. Either approach can be a great strategy for your business, but you need to carefully consider which option you’ll enjoy most and which option has the most income potential for your truck before you begin.

Here are some of the most common events you should consider catering:

  • Weddings
  • Rehearsal Dinners
  • Bridal Showers
  • Office Parties
  • Birthday Parties
  • Retirement Parties
  • Corporate Events
  • Fundraisers
  • Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs
  • Quinceañeras
  • Baby Showers
  • Graduations
  • Reunions
  • Academic Meetings
  • School Events
  • Block Parties
  • Awards Banquets
  • Holiday Parties
  • Anniversary Parties
  • and, anything else you can imagine!
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3. Figure Out What You Want to Offer

After identifying what types of events you want to serve, it’s time to begin considering what you’ll offer and how much you want to change or keep the same from your current menu. Catering opens up a lot of new options that aren’t logistically viable for FoodTruckrs doing street service and events, but it can also present a world of new challenges. There are three main concerns you’ll need to balance: your responsibility to your clients, what people want, and the pace of catered events.

First and foremost, it’s important to note that as soon as someone signs a catering contract with you, that person is no longer just one of your truck’s customers—he or she is your client, and that means you have a much greater responsibility to maintain your commitments and meet the client’s expectations. Don’t offer anything to your catering clients that you aren’t absolutely positive you can deliver—and always have a backup in place. You might be able to easily skip your downtown lunch stop if you come down with the flu (and deal with the income loss later), but your catering client will still have an event full of hungry attendees that need to be served, and you can’t just cancel on him or her. Figure out your backup plans in advance.

Before you develop your catering plans, you also need to consider what your potential clients and their guests will most likely want from your truck. You probably won’t be scratching any fan-favorite items from the menu, but what will you do if you choose not to offer an often-ignored side dish for your catering services and a client requests it in particular? Will you make exceptions or allow clients to customize their own catering packages? Or will you have hard-and-fast catering options in place that all of your clients must choose from?

Finally, it’s also essential to consider the pace of catered events before developing your catering menus and plans. The tricky part here is that the pace can vary wildly depending on the size of the client’s guest list and on the type of event they’re putting on. A fundraiser with 500+ attendees where you’re serving all night long may be similar to the downtown lunch rush or to a festival, where you need to have plenty of streamlined processes in place to deliver orders as quickly as you can. On the other hand, a kid’s backyard barbecue-style birthday party with 25 guests who will meander over and order snacks from time to time will be a lot more flexible and low-key.

As we mentioned above, any path you choose to take is totally valid and can be a fantastic growth opportunity for your truck—but you do need to think carefully about how much you’ll enjoy the level of service and planning required from each option, as well as what the potential profits look like in each scenario before moving on.

4. Set Up Packages, Prices, and Contracts

Starting to get some more clarity on what types of events you want to cater and what the best menu options will be for your clients? If so, you’re ready to move on to our next preparation step!

Even if you’re still a long ways off from actually obtaining the licenses and permits you’ll need to get your catering business off the ground, it’s still a great idea to start working on potential packages, prices, and contracts now. Having some solid ideas about what these elements will entail will help you determine what legal requirements you actually need to meet and whether or not you’ll need any funding to get started. You’ll also have plenty of time to make sure your service offerings are as good as they can be.

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Let’s look at a brief overview of what you’ll need to consider as you create these materials:

Catering Packages: Many caterers offer pre-designed catering packages to their clients. This approach makes your work a lot easier and also simplifies the client’s decision-making process so that he or she isn’t overwhelmed by having too many choices. To create effective catering packages, you should think about what your clients are most likely to need for different types of events and also create packages at different price points so that the client can choose the option that best suits his or her budget. It’s also a great idea to have some bonus add-on options available that allow the client to get even more bang for his or her buck—and that allow you to lock in some additional sales!

Prices: Setting catering prices can be fairly challenging if you’ve never served an event before, so we recommend looking at prices from other restaurants, caterers, and food trucks in your area to see how their catering prices compare to their regular menu prices. Typically, you’ll want to lower the price of the food itself since the client is effectively buying in bulk, but then you also need to add in some additional charges to cover the cost of your time and efforts (including factors like the extra overhead costs you’ll incur as a caterer, loss of income if you would have made more selling on the streets that day, insurance costs, and all of the time you’ll spend planning and meeting with the client before the event).

Contracts: You probably don’t need to outline an actual contract until you’re a little further along in the process of starting your catering business, but you should be thinking about what types of considerations you’ll need to make and writing up (or asking your lawyer to write up) a draft. You’ll need to consider factors such as:

  • How much of a deposit the client is required to make to reserve your truck for an event
  • How long you’ll hold dates for a client without having a deposit in place
  • What percentage (if any) of the deposit or additional fees paid are refundable if the client cancels the event
  • What types of liability you and the client may take on as you serve his or her event
  • What happens if you are unable to make it to the client’s event (because of illness or an extreme emergency)
  • Any additional services or perks you may provide to the client
  • Your policy on tips for you and your employees
  • Who is responsible for cleaning up after the event
  • What type of equipment you’ll be using
  • How you’ll work with facility organizers at the place where the client is holding the event

5. Consider How You’ll Promote Your Catering Services

Finally, before you decide to launch a catering business, you should also spend some time considering how you’ll promote the services you offer. There are tons of ways to advertise everything you can offer as a caterer, but the strategies you take will be a little different from the tactics you typically use to promote your truck’s regular street stops.

Here are a few of the most effective ways to market your catering services:

Professionally Printed Materials: Without a doubt, professionally printed materials are one of the most important elements every caterer should be able to provide to his or her potential clients. We’re talking about pamphlets, brochures, or even folders with all of your different packages, prices, and contracts enclosed inside. Having physical materials you can hand to your clients shows them that you’re really serious about your catering business—and it also puts you on the same level as your competitors who will definitely be distributing their own materials to your fans.

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Connecting with Event Organizers: Another great way to market your catering services is to connect with event organizers and facility owners in your area. Meeting with local hotels, event spaces, and festival organizers and asking to be put on their preferred vendor lists can help you bring in tons of new potential clients who might not otherwise be aware of what you have to offer. Check out this article and this article from the FoodTruckr archives for more information and tips.

Advertise to Your Current Fans: Let your current fans know that you’re now offering catering services through social media posts, an update to your Yelp page, and inserts in your to-go bags! Many of your fans may be looking for someone to cater their next big event, and they’ll happily consider you once they know that you offer services that fit their needs.

Word of Mouth: Word of mouth advertising is one of the best ways to market your food truck business, and it’s also one of the most effective ways to market your brand new catering offerings. People tend to trust recommendations from people they know more than any other form of advertising—so it’s essential to make a great first impression on your earliest catering clients in particular (and all your future clients down the line) so that they’ll be happy to tell their friends and family members how much they enjoyed working with you.

We know that going through these steps may seem like a lot of work, particularly if your primary catering plans involve taking your truck to the client’s location and cooking up whatever their guests request. However, taking the time now to make sure you’re ready, equipped, and licensed to cater will save you from a lot of headaches down the line—and, most importantly, will also ensure that you’re truly ready to satisfy your clients’ expectations before you begin advertising your services.

Food Truck Success: The Final Frontier

Setting up a catering service alongside your truck’s regular offerings is one of the most viable and rewarding ways to grow your business. Catering can keep your business going when there aren’t many street sales, and it enables you to expand your audience and reach more new potential customers than ever before. If you’re ready to take your truck to the next level, you should definitely consider expanding to catering.

Coming Up Next: Can we get a drumroll, please? Next week, we’ll explore what many FoodTruckrs consider to be the final frontier of food truck success! We’ll wrap up the “How to Run a Food Truck” series by looking at one of the most exciting ways to expand your business—by opening another truck or a brick and mortar location! Stay tuned for this fun final chapter.

Until then, we want to know all about your experiences with catering! Have you ever attended an event catered by a food truck? Have any of your clients expressed interest in having you cater one of their events? Do you have a killer marketing tip for food trucks who want to tap the catering market? Share your stories with us in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter!

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About the Author

FoodTruckr is the #1 online destination for current and aspiring food truck owners looking to succeed in the mobile food industry. Self described “food truck devotees,” the FoodTruckr team enjoys reading about successful entrepreneurs, salivating over photos of burritos on Twitter, and long walks through food truck parks. Chat with FoodTruckr on Facebook or check out the FoodTruckr School podcast for more awesome tips to level up your business.

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