Michelin-starred chef Conrad Gallagher of Orange County says selecting and pricing a catering menu means being sensitive to the time of year, tastes, and being flexible with seasonal items. He spoke with me about juggling the variables to generate a profit and create a memorable experience.
His company, Vanity Catering and Events, looks for sustainable seafood and locally-sourced produce, and natural and organic meats.
"For the bride-to-be or corporate event, I have a bible of about 20 to 30 dishes I do and will propose those first. If it's a wedding in June, we'll choose what's beautiful that month and select summer foods like berries, beans, and peas."
"Someone may ask, 'we want a six-course meal so what can you do?' I may reverse it and ask, 'How much money do you have to spend?'
"And then we go and design a menu. I may not be able to do caviar for some but calamari. It depends on the ingredients."
Conrad says he approaches his catering business like he's serving diners in a fine-dining establishment and that means negotiating with suppliers.
"For a five-course meal with dishes like goat cheese salad and tuna tartare, what I'll do is cost it out and call up my suppliers. I'll let them know there will be about 200 people and we'll estimate how many pounds of meat and I'll cost it out with my percentages in mind."
The Irish-born chef says he looks for a 10 to 12 percent profit margin with enough to cover his overhead.
"I try to live with 30 percent cost of goods and have enough for 30 percent payroll so the staff feels they are part of something special.
"I know other catering companies may work with a 20 percent cost of goods and 20 percent payroll. If someone asks how I got the pricing, I can hand them objective numbers and ensure that we will go out of our way to buy the best quality ingredients at the best price."
There are some items that can change. "There's no guarantee if someone tells you lobster is $20 per pound that by next June that the price will not have changed. We may have to take that on the chin and say we need to be more clever next time."
Conrad says good food doesn't have to be expensive or out-of-reach and the chef shouldn't be out of touch, either. Catering for as few as 10 people and offering cooking classes to show how to create signature dishes keeps him close to his customer's tastes.
Click on his website for sample dishes.