There are two types of catering disasters. One is the type that blindsides you – just comes out of nowhere. The other is experience based – as long as you’ve experienced it once, you need never go through it again as long as you learn your lesson the first time around.

Patrick Cuccaro conducts Catering Boot Camp at Affairs to Remember Caterers to train restaurateurs to start or manage their catering businesses. Patrick reminds his trainees that there are dozens of disasters just waiting to surprise every caterer and provides some tips and scenarios to help you avoid a catering crisis. Here are his tips:

The stealth disaster

The unpredictable, stealth disaster sends chills down the spine of every great caterer I’ve known. It sneaks up on us. We can never predict where or when it will hit. One thing we can count on, though – it will indeed hit.

So when a catastrophe hits without notice, how do we respond? We bring out our biggest guns, of course!

Our crash kit is our co-pilot. It accompanies us without fail on every event. And just as no great wedding planner would show up without needle, thread and patience, the crash kit contains items that are designed to save the moment.

Think about the situations that trip you up in the field. What do they have in common?

  • Do you sometimes run short on disposable guestware? Then make sure that your crash kit always contains extra.
  • Do you use chafers? Ever forget the fuel? If so, all your crash kit needs is some extra fuel, and your problems are solved.
  • How about salt and pepper? Mustard? Mayonnaise? Ever run out? Packing a little extra of each condiment can help tremendously in a crunch.
  • Duct tape, scissors, sewing kit, first aid kit, plastic wrap. With these items alone, you could maneuver your way out of some of the worst potential stealth disasters!

Use your crash kit to solve your recurring catering headaches. First, identify what those headaches tend to be, and then ask yourself what you need in order to avert them. You’ll be surprised what a well-stocked crash kit can accomplish.

The most important thing to remember about your crash kit is to make sure that you restock it after every event. Keep a packing list visible inside it, and assign that task to the same person every time. Consistency is your friend.

The preventable disaster

Every caterer must eventually deal with the unthinkable – the self-inflicted, full-blown catering disaster. That inevitable catering catastrophe can take us on a quick descent – threatening our money, our reputation and our client’s cherished dream.

How can we avoid these stomach-churning situations?  

With proper preplanning and solid operational systems, most of these potential catastrophes are avoidable. Here are my top five catering scenarios:

1. Have you been to an event that just sparkled with candles? Beautiful, isn’t it? Votives everywhere – on the registration tables, on window ledges, on the guest tables and even on the buffet. Beware of open flames on the buffet. How many tablecloths, centerpieces, ball gowns with loose sleeves, etc. must we flambé before we ban this practice?

Lesson learned: No open flames on buffets. Safety first.

2. Your new customer is perfect – great budget, easy to work with, trusting. Only problem? He likes to do business with a handshake, and he avoids written contracts. What do you do? Well, first you take his cue and shake hands on it, and then you ask for the signed contract. Things rarely go wrong, but if they do, your contract could be the one thing standing between you and a difficult situation.

Lesson learned: Always provide a written contract, no matter how great your restaurant customer is.

3. You recently sold a super upscale served dinner for 100 guests. You’ve rented the perfect china pattern – and, wow, is that rental expensive! To contain costs, you decide to cut it close and rent only 105 settings. One of your staff drops 10 plates.

Lesson learned: Don’t skimp on the rentals. As a general rule, order 15-20 percent higher than your estimated needs. Consider taking out rental insurance if it’s available.

4. Your favorite restaurant customer wants you to deliver your delicious cut fruit for an afternoon business break.  You’ve painstakingly chopped the very freshest fruit you can find into perfect bite-sized pieces, placed them lovingly into a disposable box and snapped the lid on tight. Your delivery person drops the box, the lid pops open and now your fruit has become sidewalk garnish.

Lesson learned:  An overwrapped tray would have contained this disaster. Double-wrap everything. Your driver could have adjusted contents at the destination to save the day.

5. It’s the end of a very successful off-premise night. Your staff is packed up and ready to travel back to your restaurant and put all the “stuff” away. They’re tired. One of them overloads a bus tub with dirty dishes and puts it on the top of a speed rack, which is now top-heavy. He pulls the speed rack backward, one of the wheels catches on a pebble, the speed rack tips and falls on him.

Lesson learned: Train your staff to load speed racks bottom heavy, not top-heavy to avoid injuries.

Many stealth disasters can be overcome by creating and stocking a great crash kit that is uniquely designed to serve your catering business. For the predictable disaster, arm yourself with good advance planning and strong operational systems. A thoughtful ground plan can prepare you for almost anything.