Ingredients of a Successful Caterer

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Q: I'm interested in starting a business doing dinners or cocktail parties in private homes for no more than 25 people. I have a culinary background and the personality to pull this off, but how can I get started? --Laura Pampu, L.A.

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A: Do some thorough test marketing and research before you think about obtaining a business name, license and insurance, all of which you will need.

It's difficult to limit a catering business to events like small dinners because of the intensive labor needs and the small profit margins. You need to demonstrate that there's a demand for this kind of service and that you'd be able to get bookings without an existing showcase for your cooking, such as a restaurant or other retail venue.

Money in catering is typically made with volume. It takes almost as much work to do a dinner for 25 as for 100. Unless this is a labor of love or a side business that doesn't have to generate much profit at first, it may be difficult to pull off. If you start with preparing hors d'oeuvres for larger cocktail parties, have a production kitchen and a way to transport your product, and perhaps an agreement with a bartending service, you could book several parties a night and your economy of scale might be better.

Think about your personnel needs and your role. If you've got the culinary knowledge and the personality, you may want to devote most of your time to selling and meeting with potential clients. Don't spread yourself too thin on the operations side. If you're doing all the cooking yourself, presumably you'd only be able to handle one event a night, which won't generate much income. Design some leeway for yourself, so the business can be parceled out among key people.

You will come up against competition from established caterers and restaurants, so make sure you plan how much you can charge per person and how many events it will take you per month to make a profit.

A few other things: If you cook at your clients' homes, are you prepared to deal with the variations in equipment you will encounter? Do you have supplemental equipment you can bring in and a way to transport it as well as your ingredients? Can you supply things like folding tables, linens, plates and silverware and offer your clients a full package? Can you make an arrangement with a party rental company to get a commission on rentals of such items? And, finally, can you build up enough start-up capital to survive the slow build-up that a business of this kind will probably need?

--Robert Wemischner, certified

executive chef and co-author,

"Gourmet to Go"

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Q: I have an idea for a new kind of paper auto air freshener and am looking for a manufacturer. Would they let me tour their facilities and share information on production processes?--Michael Shoyoye, L.A.

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A: Even if you've got the best idea in the world, you cannot just go to a manufacturer and ask to walk through the plant. Before you approach any manufacturer, have some detailed drawings of exactly what you want to do with your product. Make sure that you have a finished model that will look exactly like your production model.

Break down the various elements of your design in the drawings, then identify the production steps you need and find manufacturers who specialize in those individual processes. You'll need a chemical fragrance compound, for instance, which will probably be manufactured by a cosmetics company. You'll also need a housing and a mounting or hanging component.

Look at the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers (http://www.thomasregister.com) to identify some potential producers of your various components and then approach these companies with your specifications. Most will be glad to give you a quote if you appear professional and can identify exactly what you need. For instance, you'll need to know what fragrance or fragrances you'll be using, how long you want the fragrance to last, and how much your can spend.

Once you've chosen the manufacturers, you'll need to hire an assembler or arrange to assemble the finished product yourself. If you want to market and sell the product yourself, you should have a product description sheet printed up with the specifications of the product and pricing details, and possibly a fragrance strip similar to those used for perfume ads.

--Henry Keck, founder, Keck-

Craig Inc. product engineering

firm, Pasadena

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Q: I am an independent manufacturer's representative supplying plastic sheeting directly to manufacturers of many products, including signs, refrigerators and automotive parts. Is the Internet for me? Where would I find the search engines that find plastic supplies and suppliers? How do I get listed as a supplier so the companies could contact me directly?--Jim Armor, L.A.

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A: In today's market, in which huge revenue-grossing sites exist in niches such as scrap metal, in which companies move thousands of tons of raw material through the Internet, there is no reason you shouldn't be there too.

As the Web's appeal has broadened, it has embraced the entire spectrum of industry, from raw materials distribution through manufacturing and even to recycling and disposal. And because the Web is a niche-driven medium, people know that they can use it to search for a product such as plastic sheeting and find it quicker and get it sooner than was possible before.

As far as finding places to get your business listed, I'd recommend three starting points: First, do the broadest possible keyword searches on the largest of the Web's approximately 200 search engines. If you go to a meta-search engine such as Dogpile.com, you can search major directories simultaneously. Use the keywords that are generic to your industry, trying to act as you think your customers would in trying to find you. Follow the trail you uncover so you can tell what your competitors are doing and how they are listed.

Second, check out trade associations connected with your industry. If they don't have lists of suppliers, they will probably have links to sites that do.

Third, go to some of the extremely good U.S. and state government sites, such as the U.S. Department of Commerce site at http://www.doc.gov. Many government sites have helpful online tools and business directories. Most of these places will list your business for free. Those that charge will only charge for an enhancement in your listing, such as bold type or a graphical banner.

Getting on a search engine and getting a good ranking has become a complicated, labor-intensive specialty called "search engine optimization." If you want to get this done correctly, you should hire a professional to do it for you. If you don't, then at least review what you've done yourself to make sure your site has the proper keywords and "meta-tags" embedded in it.

Off-the-shelf software that claims to do SEO sells for $99, but people serious about keeping their sites listed and ranked high will probably pay up to $4,000 initially and $1,000 monthly to have an SEO consultant maintain their rankings. You can automate the process to a certain extent, but there really is no substitute for having a human being doing it for you regularly.

--Rob Frankel, online branding

expert, robfrankel.com, Encino

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If you have a question about how to start or operate a small business, mail it to Karen E. Klein, Los Angeles Times, 1333 S. Mayflower Ave., Suite 100, Monrovia, CA 91016, or e-mail it to kklein6349@aol.com. Include your name, address and telephone number. This column is designed to answer questions of general interest. It should not be construed as legal advice.

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