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Caterer Job Description, Career as a Caterer, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Varies—on-the-job training; technical or trade school; two-year college degree in food service; four-year college degree in family and consumer science or restaurant management

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Some caterers own businesses that prepare and serve food for customers. Other caterers have managerial positions in hotels and casinos. Caterers' responsibilities vary according to the size of the company or the needs of their customers, but preparing quality food is their main concern. Caterers often hire cooks, bartenders, and service personnel as needed.

Small catering firms are typically owned by one or two people. These firms specialize in providing clients with food and service for occasions such as weddings, parties, and banquets. Large catering firms handle the food service operations in such places as schools, employee cafeterias, and sports stadiums and are usually hired on a yearly contract basis. They may employ many catering managers and assistant managers as well as food service workers.

Catering involves much more than delivering and serving food. Caterers have to know how to plan menus and arrange food in an eye-pleasing way. They must establish good working relationships with a variety of customers and know how to market their services. Caterers also need to know how and where to order high-quality ingredients at the lowest possible cost. Some caterers prepare food in their own kitchens and deliver it to their customers. Others prepare food in the clients' kitchens. In either case a caterer must be a good manager, supervising the preparation activities and ensuring prompt and efficient service. Caterers often arrange to clean up after a party or after each meal in a cafeteria.

Artistry and efficiency are both important in the catering business, and sometimes a knowledge of specialty foods or decor is required. For instance, a client may request a tiered wedding cake or a never-been-done kind of wedding cake. Another client might want a circus theme for a child's birthday party. Industrial caterers must provide a pleasant atmosphere in cafeterias by maintaining cleanliness and providing tasty, attractive meals.

Mobile caterers rent or own trucks in which they carry food to sell at busy intersections, on campus sidewalks, or near factory entrances and exits. Many states require caterers to be licensed, and state inspectors visit caterers periodically to check on cleanliness and safe food handling procedures.

Education and Training Requirements

Catering candidates need a thorough knowledge of food service and an understanding of management techniques. There are a number of ways to learn the business. Some people learn on the job, beginning as kitchen helpers, advancing to the position of cook or chef, and then starting their own catering service. Others learn cooking in technical or trade schools. Many two-year colleges offer training in food service. Another way to prepare for a catering career is by earning a family and consumer science degree or a restaurant management degree from a four-year college. Individuals with a college degree in business management or administration can get a job as a manager or assistant manager in a large catering company and learn food service on the job.

Artistry as well as efficiency is important in the catering business. (© Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc./Corbis.)

Getting the Job

Creative people who enjoy working with food are excellent candidates for a career in catering. Interested individuals should be self-starters with a neat, clean appearance. They can start out by working for an established caterer as a cook or catering manager. College graduates may start as assistant managers for large catering firms. Prospective caterers should apply directly to the companies for which they would like to work. Private employment agencies, state employment services, newspaper want ads, and Internet job banks provide listings for positions in this field.

Individuals who plan to open their own catering businesses must have or be able to borrow a significant sum of money to cover start-up costs for new equipment, employees' salaries, and rent. Some caterers begin their businesses on a very small scale by working out of their own kitchens. Cities and states have specific regulations for such operations.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Catering is highly skilled work that represents many years of learning and experience. Caterers who own small companies advance by increasing the size of their operations. There are usually opportunities for advancement in large catering firms as companies grow and employees retire.

With continued growth in the food and services industries throughout the United States, catering firms will be in demand to handle wedding receptions, parties, luncheons, business functions, and other events through 2014.

Working Conditions

Caterers work long hours, often providing food for more than one wedding or banquet in a day. The work can be physically tiring because it involves transporting and setting up equipment, carrying loaded food trays, and standing or serving for many hours at a time. Caterers can expect to work nights, weekends, and holidays. They generally work at least eight hours a day, but the workday becomes much longer during the holiday seasons.

Caterers are under pressure to see that food is prepared properly and served promptly. Some managers of large catering firms may travel from cafeteria to cafeteria to inspect the performance of their employees.

Earnings and Benefits

According to the April 23, 2006 broadcast of Your Reality Checked on the FINE LIVING cable network, earnings for caterers ranged from an annual starting salary of $22,800 to $200,000 for urban caterers with an established reputation. These figures represent the extreme highs and lows on the salary spectrum. A more realistic median salary range is $32,000 to $75,000 per year. For those who own their own catering companies, earnings will depend in large part on their business and marketing skills.

Where to Go for More Information

Catering Magazine
GP Publishing
609 E. Oregon Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85012
(602) 265-7778

P.O. Box 14766
Chicago, IL 60614
(800) 932-3632

Convenience Caterers & Food Manufacturers Association
304 W. Liberty St., Ste. 201
Louisville, KY 40202
(800) 620-6422

National Association of Catering Executives
9881 Broken Land Pkwy., Ste. 101
Columbia, MD 21046
(410) 290-5410

Many large catering firms provide health and life insurance, paid vacations, and retirement plans for their employees. Self-employed caterers must provide their own benefits.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesHospitality and Recreation