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Catering Advice

post #1 of 8
Thread Starter 
Hello, I have about twenty years experience in the restaurant business, in both cooking and management. I own a cajun themed cafe that I've built up over the past year or so, without incurring any debt. It is kinda small but we cover dine in/take out, deliveries, some catering. We also wholesale some of my baked goods to local stores and other restaurants. Anyway, I need some advice. A local charter school is begging me to cater 150 to 300 breakfast, lunch & snack for the coming school year. Sounds great right? Well I have a few logistical problems.
1. My kitchen is 30 min away from the school, but the only way there is plagued by frequent traffic jams. So I'd need to lease space near the school to insure timely delivery.
2. Leasing space would mean also leasing food prep equipment. I can't spare any of the high priced items that my cafe uses.
3. Moving both my cafe and the catering job close to the school would ruin a well established and rapidly growing customer base Where I'm at.
4. Leasing space with close to the right equipment already there is nearly impossible to find.
5. Due to unforeseen problems within the school, they just now began looking for a local caterer. They are all booked up in their institutional divisions. Only three week until school starts.
6. The school wants me to run it no matter who does the actual work. They know and trust me.
7. They want me to give them terms and sign by the end of next week.

I have a new cargo van, and trusted people to do the job. I have a great sysco rep working on a menu plan and food cost for me right now. He has also given me some great advice on pricing & contract details. I want to continue avoiding debt at all cost.

My questions:
Can I sub out the actual kitchen and prep staff to another caterer or restaurant? And my people and I just deliver,serve & cleanup?(the van can be kept there and we could leave very early in the morning, avoiding the traffic or at worst going the other direction to get there. You would not have that option with hot food on board)
Should i ask them to provide their own leased space/equipment?
Should I pad the bid to cover all these extra expenses?
Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
post #2 of 8
There are many options.

Cheapest and easist one is to allow 60 -70 minutes for a delivery. Depending on the menu, food can be placed in hotel pans, and loaded into Cambro units, food will stay hot for over 3 hours this way. Many caterers operate this way. Cold food will stay cold in Cambros for about 3 hours as well. Cambros are great for moist items, but you can forget about crispy, baked, or deepfried items. This is the route I would choose until you actually get some money coming in from the school, and a repetoire established. If things go well, after a few months you can start looking at getting the school to invest in some equipment like commercial fridges, stoves, ovens, etc.

Um, why is a food purveor rep making your menu and calculating your food cost????? You are doomed to use his products, for once they are on the menu you will have no choice but to use them, no matter what the cost, you do not have the luxury of sourcing your own ingredients and negotiating your own prices. Just smile, nod, thank him for his effort, and use your own ideas, it's your business, not his.
...."This whole reality thing is really not what I expected it would be"......
...."This whole reality thing is really not what I expected it would be"......
post #3 of 8

I agree with foodpump on a couple of points. The first is Sysco's control over your menu. I don't trust them much and consider them the Walmart of food service- driving the small guys out of business a lot like the chains are doing to independently owned restaurants. (my apologies to those of you who've had good experiences with them) Aside from my personal feelings about Sysco, I've found that the prices creep up on items that seemed to be such a good deal the first time the salesman quoted them, so to be locked into a menu created by a salesman, would make me leery.

I've had great results with cambros, too. They are wonderful for keeping food hot, but lousy at holding crisp items crisp. They'll be hot, but soggy! Often when we do outside weddings where there is no access to a kitchen, we have to cook the food here and transport it to the site. There it may be held for 2 hours.

I supply a small college with most of the food they sell in their cafe as they don't have a kitchen. Their menu is the following: baked goods, cold sandwiches, soups that they hold in electric soup tureens, and individually packaged entrees that can be microwaved. Is it possible for your charter school to purchase some equipment such as soup tureens? If so, soups and sandwiches would be a lunch option that most kids would like anyway. Other days, you could deal with the logistics of transporting hot food.

I'd give it a couple of months of working out of the existing kitchen-maybe by having an overnight shift to do prep- before committing to renting or subcontracting.
post #4 of 8
Thread Starter 


Thanks for the advice:) I was not exactly clear on sysco's involvement. I'm having him help me plan a one week sample menu. I'm really just mining him for info because he has five accounts with caterers that do schools in the area. I've catered events, parties etc, but never a school. There were a few things that I needed to know. I've dealt with sysco for years, and I know how they like to reel you in. The menu that I serve will not be dependent on any single vendor. (BTW I've had several sysco salespeople drop their price when quoted a competitors price, etc....It can be done. When they won't come down I don't order)
I've thought about it and realized that my cafe is just too small to stage it from. I can't let go of any equipment from the cafe. So not matter how you look at it, I'd have to build or lease another kitchen.(I own the cafe completely, but there is no room to add on) I just can't see tying myself up with a 2 to 3 grand a month payment in equipment and space leases. I could take out a loan or get into my retirement,but uh......no. As I said before I'm debt free and I built my cafe that way. It seems like too much to invest in one contract that may only last one year.
This school is even more desperate than I had thought. I spoke to them on Sat(my wife works there) Every catering outfit in town is booked up for their institutional work.
I'm just going to tell him that I can only contract the labor, van & delivery equipment. They will have to put a kitchen together, or pay me to do it. There is no room on campus, so it will have to be away from the school. It can(and should I think) belong to them.
The bottom line is, I'm not going to do anything that could possibly hurt my cafe or retirement. Anyways, thanks again for the advice. And if you have any advice that I could maybe even pass along to the school, to get these kids fed I'd appreciate it:)
post #5 of 8
In my opinion, you're making a wise choice. I got that queasy feeling when you talked about the traffic, distance, and lack of prep space and equipment.;) It would be fun to do if space wasn't a problem, though, wouldn't it?

Now as for suggestions for the menu- I'd have thought a year ago that I would have the answer, but I recently catered brunches, lunches, and dinners for 120+ pre-college art students at the college I cater to all year. I did my usual- some meat, some vegetarian, and some vegan knowing how the college students are. The admn told me that the high schoolers were even more "alternative" in their diets since they were trying on new personas and were adament in sticking to them...especially during the 2 weeks they were at the college.

The first dinner I did with this group, I made 3 hotel pans of baked ziti with beef, 2 vegetarian , and 2 vegan lasagnas as well as all the accompaniments. I brought home none of the ziti, 2/3rds of a pan of veg, and over a full pan of the vegan. Same thing happened with the breakfasts and lunches; they cleaned me out of bacon and sausage, and would have chewed the leg off a cow had one been available!

So...in answer to your menu question, I'd go with some familiar and yet interesting choices- mac and cheese with pepperoni added, sandwiches made with good bread, healthy salads and soups, homemade granola and yogurt for breakfast, lots of fruit, Mexican specials go well with my account- mild creamy chicken enchiladas, beef, bean, and rice burritoes, green pepper, black olive, and cream cheese burritoes....and peanut butter and jelly.
post #6 of 8
You know, another cool thing that might be fun to do is talk to the school about instituting a school lunch garden with classes like Alice Waters is doing in her program...Then you use the produce to produce lunches. It would lock you in as their go-to person probably even for the district if it succeeds and I would do as you are thinking and get them to fund the kitchen. Good thinking. Never let greed write checks your body and mind can't cash! :D
post #7 of 8
Thread Starter 

The Bid

Hi all,
That seems like a good idea, having cooking classes there and all. They don't have time for that. I met with the guy, but I did not submit a bid. He understood my reasons. He actually offered me a nice little bonus if I can find them an outfit willing to do it. I doubt that I will though, his contract has too many little things that are probably the real reason they can't get anyone. I will help them in that capacity if I can though. They may have to call Domino's
everyday, I dunno. I'm very relieved, now I can put my talents back into my lil shop that I love:)
post #8 of 8
have you thought of doing something like....box lunches? if the school can get a nice commercial pannini machine for you to have there, the sandwiches can be made hot to order..after they pay for them.

also a microwave on premiss would be helpful?

all sorts of things can be put into hand held pies too

Box lunches with loads of things with cold side dishes as salads, slaws, fruits.

desserts like cupcakes, little tarts, hand held fruit pies?

Individual pizzas, vegetable sushis

frozen sliders that you can nuke to order.

just some ideas that would appeal to the kidlets.

oh and fried rice with chicken wings was always a popular cart at the High School food court
Food may bring us together, but a CAKE makes it a PARTY!!
Food may bring us together, but a CAKE makes it a PARTY!!
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