The secret to success in the catering industry? Smart strategies to source new markets
Anyone in business knows the trick to real success is staying fresh. In the catering industry, that means keeping up the quality food and service, but also evolving and constantly looking out for ways to land new business. Networking and strategic thinking are essential elements in an industry that’s ever-changing and highly competitive. Keeping up with consumer trends and creating a point of difference to stand out from competitors are among the tools being used by many successful Australian caterers. Some smart caterers are even using social media, like Facebook, to spread the word about their business to new and existing clients.
“You can’t rest on your laurels and rely on just, say, the wedding market,” says Robert Clifford, Victorian state manager at Epicure. “We use a well-planned approach, a diverse strategy to target multiple markets.”
What’s important is keeping up with the shifting nature of the catering industry and adapting where needed.
“In the last five years, a lot more restaurateurs are getting into catering, seeing it as a way of diversifying their business,” says Brian Trippas of the Trippas White Group. “It’s creating different forms of competition.”
Big-picture planning is crucial to growing a catering business, and considering how a particular new market could benefit the business over the longer term.
For the Trippas White Group, securing a contract to cater to boarders at Sydney school Scots College opened up an entirely new market, but one with broader benefits. The contract, started earlier this year, involves cooking more than 6000 meals a week at the prestigious private school, from a custom-designed menu featuring dishes like kingfish with mushroom ragout and warm Thai beef salad. Brian Trippas had heard of something similar being done in a school in a different market and realised the same could work in Australia. Along with fresh, quality food, the contract would offer revolutionary educational benefits to the students, improving their understanding and appreciation of food. Students are involved in meal preparation and growing organic product at the school’s garden.
“Traditionally, school catering is worked out on a cost-per-meal basis, but this isn’t about that,” Trippas says. “This is providing kids, parents, and the school with a service they appreciate. We try and educate the idea of good food—we’re indoctrinating the decision-makers of the future.”
But for the Trippas White Group, there are valuable, long-term, strategic benefits. The school contact also connects the company with the students, as future clients, and their families.
“We’re a venue caterer, but doing the boarding school catering exposes us as a business to the future bookers of high-profile events,” says Brian Trippas. “It diversifies our business to different markets. Ultimately it gets our name out to parents, who are decision-makers in different areas too.”
The school contract also had practical staffing benefits for the company.
“We’re very busy in peak times, which happen to be in school holidays, so we thought we could use our peak staff during the school term, which made sense,” says Trippas. “It benefits staff who were saying they only wanted to work during the school term.”
Trippas hopes the school contract might lead to other, similar work for his company, but advises such moves into new markets will only work if the caterer has the expertise to deliver.
“I don’t know that every catering company could do it,” he says. “You need to have some experience, but you do need to think laterally too.”
Another key strategy used by successful caterers to
source new markets is networking and nurturing
existing relationships. Maintaining good relationships with current and potential clients underpins every business success.
“We really rely on word of mouth to get new business,” says Melissa Harkins of Perth-based Beaumonde Catering. “We don’t do any advertising and rarely go in publications.”
It’s also important to be aware that existing clients can open up new markets in the future.
“Client follow-up is really important too and helps get repeat business. Occasionally you get the odd complaint, and we go all out to handle that positively. We catered a wedding for some clients and kept in touch and later on gained work through them at a mining company. Building on those relationships is important.”
Point of difference
In a competitive industry like catering, new business is often won by creating a point of difference, to help a business stand out from its competitors. For example, Epicure has worked to differentiate itself from competitors by focusing on the quality and sustainability of its food. Keeping up with food trends and consumer expectations around environmental and health concerns has helped the company build a particular reputation they can rely on to attract new markets.
“This is part of our brand marketing strategy,” says Epicure’s Robert Clifford. “It sits around the modern-day expectation of us respecting where food comes from and we’re walking the talk. We have a definitive, clear food philosophy that values, where possible, local ingredients and also takes a learned approach. We don’t use tinned tuna at the moment because it’s not a sustainable resource. We only use prawns from the Spencer Gulf and use only barn-raised eggs.”
It’s important also to stay ahead of that consumer awareness and food trends.
“What was right three years ago may not be right now,” says Robert Clifford. “Three years ago it was all about calculating food miles and how far a food has travelled before being served. Now it’s more about the amount of carbon used to grow it. We have to keep up with that.” Epicure has also harnessed new technology like social media to spread the word about their food culture and quality.
“We promote that message, and have strategies to pull business into our venues,” says Clifford. “We have a Facebook site, and we’ll put up recipes, or a story about a local cheese we’ve used, food stories that are relevant to our service.”
Perth caterers Beaumonde rely on their expertise at staging major, outdoor events to stand out from competitors and secure new business. They’ve regularly staged events like open-air concerts put on by the WA Symphony Orchestra, and recently landed a major contract to cater for the International Sailing Championships to be held in Perth later this year. That involves setting up a huge cliff-top marquee for the duration of the event, which includes competitors from 80 countries.
“The event is too big to hold at a sailing club, so we’re setting up the marquee to be like a clubhouse,” says Melissa Harkins of Beaumonde. The company has a proven track record with events in isolated locations.
“But we’ve got plenty of experience dealing in difficult situations,” says Harkins. “We have a very big preparation kitchen, vans to transport things and we’re used to setting up in the middle of nowhere. We’ve got a checklist and dedicated person on staff to handle the logistics. That’s a huge thing.”