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 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