Catering without a commercial kitchen

Canapes by Dino De LucaMy friends all tell me how great my dinners are, so I decided I’d start a catering company.”

Typical inspiration for starting a catering company. Now what?

Maybe the most important question that would-be caterers don’t think through completely before starting a catering company is, “Where will I prepare my food?” Seems like an obvious question, doesn’t it? In truth, all start up caterers probably do ask themselves this question, but all too often their answer is to prepare food in their own kitchen and transport it to the site. “What’s wrong with that,” you say?

According to the health department in most states (all that I’m aware of, but I admittedly have not researched it), it is not safe to sell food prepared in a kitchen that has not been inspected and licensed by your health department. At least, it’s not legal. Health departments require restaurants and caterers to operate kitchens that are equipped with NSF approved equipment, meet certain electrical and plumbing requirements, and all food safety codes concerning everything from shelf heights to cooler temperatures. Simply put, a standard home kitchen won’t do.

Many start up caterers seem to have no qualms about breaking the law, or at least are ignorant of it, so what does a conscientious citizen who wants to abide by the law do if they want to start up a catering company but don’t have the funds to lease a commercial kitchen right off the bat?

In the past, caterers looking to abide by health department rules needed to borrow/rent a kitchen from a restaurant or church to prepare their food in. Churches are great partners for this, as their kitchens are rarely used and often pretty big. Restaurants with space to rent are a little harder to come by. They have to work around their own business to let someone else come in and prepare food. Sometimes you can find a breakfast and lunch spot that will allow you to use the space at night, or occasionally you can find a restaurant with such a large kitchen they just have space to spare.

If you are asking this same question for yourself because you are wanting to start a catering company, then today is your lucky day. Just today, I happened upon a growing movement that I was previously unaware of. Small business conscious communities are finding facilities to offer something called “incubator kitchens” or “culinary incubators” to small business owners who need kitchen space to prepare food for parties, or produce and package food for retail sales (this usually requires additional licensing). Some even have space availabe to rent for parties and events, making them essentially “banquet halls” with open food policies.

These culinary incubators charge low hourly rates to business owners to rent space to prepare food in a safe, compliant, licensed kitchen. One such kitchen in my own city only charges $15 per hour to rent. Many of these kitchens are located inside non-profit business development centers that are not looking to make money, but rather to foster small business growth.

While it’s still a great option for a caterer to borrow a church kitchen in exchange for a percentage contribution from the sale of their food, these new incubator kitchens sound like an incredible idea that could help a lot of new caterers get their business started with very little cash outlay. To help you try and locate one, here is a map of incubator kitchens all over the country from culinaryincubator.com. If you don’t find one on here near you, don’t give up, Google “culinary incubator” and “incubator kitchen” in your area to see if there is one near you.

Brandon O’Dell
O’Dell Restaurant Consulting

www.bodellconsulting.com
blog.bodellconsulting.com

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About friendthatcooks

Food service consultant and owner/operator of an in-home weekly meal prep service in Kansas City, Chicago, St. Louis, Omaha, Des Moines, Denver, Milwaukee and Wichita

Posted on February 24, 2012, in Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Love your blog! Ran across it searching for food costing methods for our Valentine’s dinner event.

    Are you the son (who has exact same name) of our long time friends, Rolland & Diane O’Dell of Portland, Oregon?

    I’ll be in touch for more info soon. Your Excel spreadsheets look superb and extremely useful for our food operation at our winery just southeast of Tulsa. It’s getting so busy we can hardly keep up, especially since launching a Groupon and a LivingSocial special coupon this January, coupled with extraordinarily good weather this winter!– both a blessing AND a curse since it brought regular customers out during months we usually don’t see them! We’re all getting our butts kicked…and how!!!!!

    Sandy

  2. Thank you sooo much for the info! I am trying to figure out how to get my catering business started but funds are extremely tight. I’ve been in the restuarant business for almost 20 years so I knew the health dept rules here in my state of MD. Your site gave me a direct link to finding a kitchen to rent, whereas before I was limited to craigslist which is always a crap shoot… LOL
    So thanks again for posting the info!!

  3. Praise The Lord Jesus,

    Thank you so much. I learned alot from this article and it will be a great help to me as a new caterer in the start of phase of my business. I was able to contact one of the incubator kitchens you listed for Baltimore and they replied to my request for additional information immediately. I look forward to reading many of your other articles and obtaining great knowedge from your expertise.

    Your help is truly appreciated and may Heaven shine upon you.

    Thanks Again,

  4. Great article, reading this from the UK. We’re catering equipment suppliers and we’re seeing more people starting their own catering businesses. Here in the UK we are going through a phase of ‘pop-up’ caterers as cookery programmes are extremely popular.

    I like the idea of ‘borrowing’ premises for business such as churches as like you’ve mentioned these go long periods without use. I will almost certainly use the ideas you’ve mentioned in your article to pass on to our customers.

    Thanks again for the article and keep up the good work!

  5. Stebina Stevenson

    This was very helpful for the start of my new catering business.

    Thanks for the information!

  6. I’ve actually used this site and contacted one of the kitchens listed but did not receive a reply from them. Would you recommend any other locations such as community colleges, cooking schools? I have a product I am eager to produce and get to the public and this is the only obstacle right now. I am in western Maryland.

    • Do a local search for “culinary incubator” and “incubator kitchens”. Search also for local colleges and tech schools with culinary programs. They often have incubator programs.

      If you contact your local health department, they may have information about these type of facilities. They should always be the first stop for anyone looking to produce a consumable product.

  7. I am preparing for a even this coming up in septemberand need to use a commercial kitchen

  8. This is awesome, thank you for sharing! Just sent it over to a friend who is thinking about starting up, but doesn’t have the resources like I do to a restaurant’s kitchen.

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