If you run a catering business, your catering menu will be your main revenue driver. Meanwhile, if you run a restaurant, adding a catering menu can create additional revenue. In this article, we share how to build a catering menu, plus some great catering menu ideas and tips that will help elevate the product you offer to your guests. What you offer in your process of making the food in catering is essential to a great guest experience, and our tips below will help you deliver memorable experiences for any occasion you are providing hospitality for.
How to Build a Catering Menu
Creating a catering menu is a straightforward process. Doing it right and keeping your costs in line requires your attention, and sometimes, some recipe testing. Here are the steps for creating your baseline catering menu.
Step 1: List Your Strong Dishes
Three ways a dish can be strong: it is popular with customers, is low-cost, or is quick and easy to prepare. Strong dishes are often the dishes you are known for. For example, a chef I used to cater to was always known for his take on seafood dishes. He would offer these delicious but simple salmon tartare cones with wasabi mayo, chive, and minced jalapeno. They were always a hit and easy to make, and customers always requested them due to word-of-mouth. Dishes like these are what we are looking for.
If you are adding catering to a restaurant, identifying popular and low-cost dishes is as simple as pulling a few back-office reports. If you are a caterer starting from scratch, test recipes with co-workers or colleagues. Use online reviews also to find dishes that come up time and time again in a positive light. If your most famous dishes are really in-depth, look at ways of breaking them down to their core flavors and reinvent them to be made en mass for your catering operation. This is the best way to include your strongest dishes while keeping the identity of your restaurant.
Step 2: Add Categories
Catering menus need food categories just like restaurant menus do. To allow customers to build menus that fit their events, you should include appetizers, entrees, and desserts. Most catering menus further break down their foods by plated dishes, tray-passed items, and buffet-style items. You could also break down your menu into categories based on cuisine as well. Maybe some guests want an Old-World European menu, while others want a menu based on Japanese cooking. If you have the ability to go even more niche on certain cuisines, there is a lot of opportunity to offer variety to your customers.
Step 3: Include Alternatives
Review your item list and look for dishes that fit common dietary restrictions and food allergies. Popular dietary restrictions to plan for are vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free. Make sure you have some options in all of your catering menu categories. Catering for large amounts of people almost always means someone will have a dietary restriction. Being able to accommodate is important, so always have some alternatives on hand.
Step 4: Consider Logistics
With your menu item list in hand; you need to think about how much storage you will need for your ingredients, how long each dish can be held at room temperature, and how each dish needs to be transported to off-site events. Additionally, you need to take into account the breakdown and setup of your cooking space and the impact this may have on your restaurant if you share staff for both in-house dining and catering.
If any dish’s requirements are more than your space can accommodate, it should come off your menu. If any dishes also will just not taste as good as the dish in your restaurant, consider removing them as well. Your catering dishes should be high-quality bites of food and not lesser versions of your restaurant’s offerings. When you focus your efforts on this, you will find more success and positive guest reactions. This all comes down to your logistics and cooking within your operational means.
Step 5: Price Your Menu
Knowing your food cost is the first major step in pricing your menu. After that, you will need to decide how you charge your customers. Some popular ways include by person, by plate, or by events in total with a total customer cap. How you price is dependent on the type of catering you provide, but at the end of the day, your goal is to make a profit. This comes with accounting for all associated costs and charging a price that is fair to your guest but also keeps you running a profitable business.
Catering Menu Tips
Once your basic catering menu is set, you can further customize your offerings in several ways. Offering more dynamic catering options will increase your market share and help you appeal to more potential clients.
1. Create Packages by Price Point
Once you have finalized your menu items, arrange your offerings at various price points that appeal to customers with varying budgets. Put your low-cost and easiest-to-execute dishes in the lowest price category and charge a premium for your higher-cost or tricky-to-prepare dishes. This allows your catering business to be more approachable to customers with varying budgets and guarantees you more business opportunities.
2. Offer Different Catering Types
One of the first distinctions you need to make when building out a catering menu is the style of service your catering menu will offer. The catering style you decide to take will have an impact on how you prepare your food, how much staff you will need, and other logistical and planning options you may have when building out your offerings. This will also dictate the types of menus you plan out and what dishes or courses may be possible or not possible. Below is a list of some of the different types of catering you can expect to create a menu for.
Maybe one of the most popular in the business, wedding catering is one style of catering that is very popular and guaranteed to make you a profit when done right. The customer can choose from courses or a buffet, and these dishes will often be more in line with highly technical food and fine dining inspiration. Wedding catering is a great way to get into catering, and menu build-out can be relatively simple due to the known headcount and atmosphere you will be cooking and serving in.
Buffet catering can take place for family reunions, birthday parties, or other large events. Buffet catering involves serving food in a buffet service style, with the dishes being stored hot or cold and refilled when depleted. This style of catering removes the need for most waitstaff but does require more planning as you need to anticipate just how much food to have on hand. The beauty of buffet catering is the simple fact that it is not necessary for you to course out any meals. Customers can come pick up food as they’d like, and you just need to ensure that it is the right temperature and there is plenty of it.
Corporate catering is a type of catering that can take many forms. But is essentially providing food, drinks, and hospitality to clients in a corporate setting. This could be as simple as setting up a buffet for an office party, or it can be in-depth, such as a multicourse dinner for a work event being held by your client. Corporate catering can be very lucrative if your work is spread around many different companies, so keep an eye out for these opportunities.
Food Truck Catering
Food truck catering is a niche form of catering that has become more and more popular. You essentially are providing food to a client out of a food truck, giving novelty to the dining experience and shaking up the meal structure most diners are accustomed to. Being able to offer food truck catering allows you to work in a non-structured manner, and it offers you control over the way you serve your food. This means you do not have to worry about waitstaff, as all of your food is served directly from the truck.
Special Event Catering
Finally, one of the most popular types of catering is food provided for a client for a special event. Birthday parties, retirement parties, school reunions, cocktail hours, and all other events such as this often have a need for food. That is where caterers can find many opportunities to gain different clients and have successful events. The range of catering styles and food can vary, but all of these can be great opportunities for those who offer catering services.
3. Offer Seasonal Catering Menus
Cooking seasonally is an important part of many different catering businesses. In building out a menu, it will almost always be more cost-effective and you can offer better-tasting food when you cook with seasonality in mind. Think of a spring wedding, for example. Offering items such as roasted artichokes, spring pea agnolotti, and fava beans or even seared filet with fresh-harvested mushrooms makes so much more sense than a beef stew or other heavy dish. When people have events, they often have the season they are holding the event in as a consideration point when planning. Below are a few examples of some food items and drinks to offer per season.
As you can see, a season can change a menu and the overall offerings you have for your customers. With the use of a season in building a catering menu, you are able to have an anchor for available produce and flavor affinities for that time of the year. Furthermore, your guests will expect you to have expert cooking knowledge within the seasons. Use some of the ideas above to jump-start your menu creation.
4. Cater to Guest Requests
Guest requests are an important aspect of building out your catering menu as well. You should see guest requests as an opportunity to add another layer to your guest’s experience. Of course, the request needs to be reasonable, and you need to actually be able to pull it off. However, allowing guests to request certain menu items is a great way to actually start building a menu tailored to them and their individual wants and tastes.
For example, I once was working for a hotel that offered wedding catering. The bride of the party mentioned to us that they wanted a late-night, after-dessert snack to come out while dancing and mingling with family and friends. We also got the information that her favorite snack was grilled cheese. My chef decided we would do little shooter glasses of warm tomato soup, with small triangles of grilled cheese sandwiches to be passed out as an after-dinner snack. It made the night for those attending the wedding, and it gave a nostalgic nice touch to a memorable night.
Another great way to incorporate guest requests is to have pre-selected options for your events. Breaking down each course and giving a few options for each allows your customers to have some choice; it allows you to control the food you cook, and it keeps the dishes within your team’s skill level. This is a popular tactic that many caterers use, so be sure to do this if a choice of different dishes is what you want to offer.
Creative Catering Menu Ideas
In the world of catering, it is often the memorable experiences you can create that allow you to gain a reputation for the work you do and build a clientele. A huge part of what makes catering so much fun for an operator is that you can play around with different station ideas or ways to present food to your customers. Here are some interesting ways to serve food at a catering event.
If you are catering a breakfast, then a nice touch to add to your breakfast food fare would be an omelet station. You can set these up on portable burners, and have your eggs and other filling ingredients nearby. Then, your customers will simply communicate to the one to two cooks you have on the station what they would like from your omelet, and it is made to order. It is a fun and interactive way to add some flair to your catering event.
If you are serving a buffet to your customers, then a prime rib carving station is a must-have to show elegance and technical skill. The carving station is set up with a cutting board, heat lamp, knife, and serving platters. In order to execute this station, you roast the prime rib and simply carve it for guests as they come up to the station. You can show your meat cooking technique, and it allows guests to get the most flavorful version of a prime rib roast as long as you cook it to the correct doneness.
A hot wok station is one that can really impress customers. Woks do require specific heating, as they are shaped in a particular way to conduct heat. But if you are able to offer a portable wok station, then stir-fried rice, noodles, and other wonderful dishes can be made in order to wow your customers and add a talking point to the guests at any given event. As you can see pictured below, a build-your-own stir-fry dish is one that many customers would be interested in. Wok cookery is just fun to watch, so do know this will be a very popular and sought-after part of your catering offerings.
A dessert bar can be an excellent way to serve sweet snacks once the main course has passed in your catering event. A dessert bar can have cookies, cakes, pastries, chocolates, and all sorts of other desserts. A popular addition to a dessert bar is ice cream flavors with many different toppings. These dessert bars often require very little labor, but can really have an impact on how customers perceive the sweetest part of the meal. Look to even add nostalgic items such as a cotton candy machine to really elevate the experience and leave memories at your gig.
Sample Catering Menus
There are a couple of different ways to format the menu you are offering once you have your dishes picked out. Below are some sample catering menu ideas you could use to help build out your catering menu and how it will appear to customers.
Catering can bring in new business for a restaurant or be the sole focus of a food entrepreneur. The key to a good catering business is the ability to offer memorable experiences to customers on a consistent basis, often in different venues or locations. A creative catering menu should be one that your customers are impressed by and one that compliments the reason they are hiring you in the first place. You often will be a part of some of the most important moments of their lives. Put out good food, execute on what they paid for, and your menu and work will shine through.