Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Epic Fail

Starting a small business is confusing and not as easy as some make it out to be. As a graduate of a leading culinary institute I had some of the education and tools needed to develop my own restaurant. But I soon found out after a few epic fails that the catering world and the restaurant business are very different. Sure both prepare food and serve it-but the atmosphere, location and variables are very different. Here I has this brilliant idea and no clue as to where to start. I was super excited to finally be able to create my own menus, be the boss for once, use my endless creativity and make my own schedule. The last being very important to my family and I. I knew the summers would be the busy season, living in a state where the winters are super harsh and cold- we tend to hibernate come winter. Catering would fit my life perfectly!! Living in a small community,  (by small I mean- we have two churches, two bars, a grocery store, cafe, post office and a Cenex that provides gas & chemical for the farmers, no pizza at this one) that is filled with farmers and ranchers I knew it may be a very slow start.

First big event, I made John Deere cookie favors and a big meal.

My first obstacle to hurdle was the need for a certified kitchen!! Most states require a commercial kitchen to sell retail or cater out of, it cannot be your home kitchen. That was fine with me since I'm sure my trailer house kitchen wouldn't fit all my stuff. But I did discover I could start out at a personal chef, no commercial kitchen needed, since you would be preparing all the meals in the clients house. As along as I didn't advertise myself as a caterer I was kosher. Over the period of two years I started picking up more and more business, events started getting bigger and trying to find kitchens to rent was becoming very hard (they usually consisted of Church kitchens). One night while talking to my hubby, he mentioned the kitchen that was located in the old Tolna High School.( OMG WHY DIDN"T I THINK OF THAT!! I'm married to a genius !!)  After making a few calls I finally landed myself a commercial kitchen and I could finally start my catering business. So of course typical Esther style I jumped in with both feet.  After 2  epic fails (the clients were happy), but after the events I would mentally beat myself up, did I even cover my costs, why did I forget that pan again, it could have been better, presentation could be better, my business could be better!!! I finally sat down and decided I'm going to make this business a success and it will grow, I can do this. Time to put that brain of yours to use Chester!! 

 After a lot of research online..after many Google searches,after a quick search on amazon for books on starting a catering business, I came to the conclusion that anyone even thinking of starting any business, let alone a catering one is out of their minds! well what the heck no one ever accused me of being sane!

So here are a few lessons I learned the hard way, hopefully they will come in handy for the next crazy person. 

 {Have a Business Plan}

I had no business plan to speak of other than an idea of what I thought my business would be. I later sat down and developed one. Not only does it help if you need to borrow  finances to get started but it also helps you keep track of your goals. You can contact you local Small Business Administration(www.sba.gov), they will help you start one. But if you don't have the time for that, here are a few details you should include in your business plan.
1) you need to know what kind of business you will be starting, sole proprietor or partnership etc.

2) Starting with your name, location write a overview of your business...kinda like a resume, what qualifies you for this kind of business?, market you will be reaching or targeting?, how you will deal with your competition?. also include a very descriptive idea of your plans for the future.

3) Also include the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead of your business. You will do this by researching your competitors! Make list of what they offer, prices ranges, years in business, and how you think they should improve. (Keep this for reference, it comes in handy when advertising or improving on your business) In your business plan include what you offer that your competitors don't, audience your targeting (old rich people),) demographics of your local area(average age, income level, ethnicity)  (In my area we have lots of Norwegians) How the local economy is doing, define the niche you're planning on filling? Also how your catering business is needed and will become a valuable addition to the local community.

4) If you have staff you will need to include a staff sheet, that labels their names and responsibilities. I didn't include this since I usually hire part-time and I never seem to know who will be my next servers or cook.

5) Include a sheet describing the management of your business and operation. Include in this...your personnel (important workers! like yourself, attach a up-to-date resume, special talents etc.) Get a detailed description of your kitchen plans (I never did this because I never had to borrow money and I was renting)

6) List your capital investments..such as anything you've purchased for your business...also list whether they have been paid for or not.

7)  A detailed list of your first year operating agenda, such as:  January - Attend local food show to get new inspiration and check out food vendors. February-  Cater wedding for 450 at the Convention Center in Devils Lake. This should take up a page .

8) Write a review of your marketing strategy, how you will create a image for the business, attracting new customers and keeping them. Think long term strategy! Provide a estimated cost of advertising....bankers always want to know about cost. Also include if you will be marketing something different from competitors, such as cooking with only fresh and local ingredients, this will help you stand out in the marketing industry.

9) Create a menu, best tool you have! Be creative and descriptive, you want to have people drooling. Make sure to include a signature item and a profit margin.

10) Create a financial statement, if you need help go to an accountant. You want to be very accurate on this.  Here are a few things that should be included on this page. assets & liabilities, you will get your equity by subtracting liabilities from assets.  You will also need to include a profit and loss statements. The first one you will make is a monthly analysis using actual sales and expenses. The next should project your income and expenses over the next year.... this part is a little confusing to describe, it takes into account bad weather, holidays, popular months etc. You will have to be current on trends in the catering industry. Here is a site you can locate that kind of info from. http://www.nace.net/ (National Association of Catering Executives)
Include cash flow statements! such as bills paid and money coming in.

11) Include a closing statement. sorta like your summary. Sum up the challenges you are sure you will face and the growth you expect to have with your business.

Creating a business plan is just one of the many things to do when starting your business. It is also one of the more important ones. It helps center you and focus you as you begin a very hard and adventurous journey. Hopefully the next time I post it will be a more fun blog post!!

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