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Out in the field

Over the last few years there has been a huge expansion in the UK events market. Every weekend, tens of thousands of Britons head out to a mind-bogglingly diverse range of events from music festivals to boutique weekenders, fine food celebrations and everything in between. Are you missing a trick by not being there in a catering capacity, or is it best to stick to what you know and steer well clear? EC investigates this burgeoning phenomenon

Event catering, like many other aspects of catering in the UK, has changed significantly in recent years as people’s tastes have diversified and become more sophisticated. Twenty years ago, most festival and show food comprised cheap burgers, fish & chips and maybe a pasty unit. These days the burgers remain but are more likely to be high-quality ‘gourmet burgers’ sitting cheek by jowl with, for example, seafood paellas, American smokers, burritos, churros, ciabatta, falafel, granola, hog roast, salt beef, jellied eels, wood fired pizza, sushi and all manner of international stands from African and Asian to North American Indian.

ChurrosPreviously unheard of in the UK, today churros are an integral part of event catering

Similarly, the days of the visually unappealing greasy white or cream vending units are also gone, having been replaced by either dazzling trailers in vinyl wrapping with stage props or pop up market stalls more commonly used at artisan food markets.

So why the change and why – in spite of the unpredictability of the British weather – the ever-increasing number of events popping up throughout the year? “I believe that these events have been springing up because people have been looking for alternative forms of entertainment,” comments Bob Fox, director, The Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS). “When the rave scene died, the festivals took over. Then the plethora of TV chefs made food popular, so all these local food festivals have sprung up. Thirty years ago Ludlow hosted the first food festival – now they are everywhere.”

Caution required

Festival cateringBefore you invest in the wherewithal that will enable you to jump on the event catering bandwagon, you need to be absolutely certain that this is a good route for you to follow.

First, are you and your team really prepared to get up while it is still dark, go to a lock-up to pick up your trailer and supplies, then head off to your chosen event and trade for hours on end while being at the mercy of the British weather? If you honestly believe that you can rise to the challenge, come rain, come shine, then event catering could well be a profitable investment.

“Event catering can be a high-risk business, but with high risk comes the potential for great rewards,” observes Bob. “At busy shows, experienced caterers can take five figure sums in only a few days. However, for caterers starting out, knowing which shows to work at or, more importantly, which shows you can make money at, is vital as people’s ability and willingness to spend has been affected by the economic downturn. That said, there is definitely still money in event catering for businesses with the right product, marketing and hard work.”

SushiOffering something a little different can be a good idea, but only if your careful research tells you so

Event selection

“For people starting out, I would recommend staying away from the large events until they have experience at catering successfully at smaller events,” advises Bob. “Only then will they know that their system works, their staff are fully trained and their operation is tight. Investing in equipment and pitch charges for larger events costs many thousands of pounds – caterers should only go there when they are certain that the event will leave them not only suffering complete exhaustion, but also with a smile on their face as the investment has paid off.”

As with everything, there are good events and not-so-good events. Before committing to any event, caterers need to ensure that the organiser knows what they are doing, that the event is well marketed and that the occasion is going to be a success. After all, the best stall in the world will make no money if there is nobody there to buy the product.

Benefits of NCASS

NCASS - Nationwide Caterers Association“Event catering is a good market and there is great potential to make a lot of money, particularly for those offering something different from the run-of-the-mill burgers, chips and bacon butties,” advises Bob. “However, equally people should not go into it blind; they should plan carefully and take advice. That is where NCASS comes in. We are here to advise and our website has a good selection of ‘how to’ guides that are free to download.”

For further information visit

Profitable Mobile Catering

Bob’s seven steps to success

  1. Know yourself – before you start you must take a long, hard look at the extra hours your new business will demand and the impact it will have on you and your family
  2. Know your business – you might be a great cook, but you will require additional skills out in the field when your biggest challenge could be the great British weather. Catering at events is very different from catering in a kitchen. At an event you could be doing 200 covers an hour. Where do you store your food? Do you have a system in place to ensure you can get more of anything that runs out
  3. Know your concept – bear in mind that people’s tastes are becoming more sophisticated and that there are already hundreds of established burger and fish & chip vans out there. Make sure that whatever you do, you can cook and serve it quickly
  4. Know your equipment – ensure that you have the right tools for the job. It isn’t always a case of simply transferring your ‘inside’ equipment to the field. Are you aware of the additional gas & electricity requirements as well as the health & safety issues
  5. Know your customers – different events attract different people. Will people want to make a beeline for you or will they opt for one of the many other caterers doing business on the day
  6. Know your situation – once you have decided to take the plunge, not only must you know exactly where, how and what you will be trading, but you must also let potential customers know you will be there. Don’t just rely on passing trade on the day, market yourself loudly at any opportunity
  7. Know your way out – of course the bottom line is to make money. Thinking ahead, do you have an exit strategy if you decide that life on the road is not for you?

Profitable Mobile CateringFor further invaluable information, the 2011/2012 edition of Profitable Mobile Catering details everything you need to think about in order to start and run a profitable mobile or outside catering business. Topics covered include choosing a business, practical requirements, health & hygiene, tendering for events, profitability and how to avoid pitfalls. £25 including VAT & delivery

Events 2012Events 2012

Details of over 1750 events listed chronologically and by category; from established giants such as Glastonbury to agricultural shows and boutique festivals celebrating anything from food to local music, literature, steam engines, marbles and even hot air ballooning. £49 including VAT and delivery

Both titles are available at

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