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Niches are caterers' low-hanging fruit

I recently started cataloging all of my recipes with an iPhone App called Recipe Box. This allows me always to have my recipes in my back pocket, and I can email any recipe with a touch of a button.

Whenever I experience a dish worth making at home, I ask the server to get me the recipe. Most of the time, the chef will just share an overview of the recipe. I then go home and try to make it myself.

There’s this great locally owned restaurant that serves a cold kale salad. They take the raw leaves, sans stems, and pulse them in the food processor. The kale ends up being the consistency of sawdust. Then they mix it with toasted slivered almonds, currants and Parmesan cheese and dress it with lemon juice and olive oil. It is fantastic. I usually order mine with a piece of grilled salmon.

Here’s a photo of my reverse-engineered recipe. It was incredible, and the leftovers were just as good.

How can you use reverse engineering to build your catering sales?

Years ago, when I was starting out, I realized that success leaves clues. Niche marketing is the ultimate reverse-engineering tactic.

I think I had the epiphany in 1993. I remember getting a large drop-off catering job on Black Friday from a large retailer at the mall. I had no idea what Black Friday was. I called the contact at the retailer and received an education.

This is what goes through my mind and the formula you should use to reverse engineer catering sales:

1. I just catered a ________ type of event for _____________. (Black Friday for a major retailer).
2. Are there other ___________ with similar needs? (retailers)
3. If so, who do I target and when?
4. Create a marketing letter/strategy to get more catered events from this niche.
I figured out that other retailers catered in meals for their hard-working associates on Black Friday. I knew I could drive around to each major mall/shopping center in Nashville and build my own list to target. This was pre-Internet.

I surmised the decision maker was either the HR director of the store (department stores) or the store manager. That first year I sent letters to 45 major retailers. I mailed them about a month before Black Friday, and then called each store to follow up. Sometimes I had to make multiple calls and was asked to follow up. Other times I was sent to an assistant manager or key admin.

I saw a large opportunity that took about $45 in postage and some time on the phone…in the afternoon during my down time. Unless you run a one-person hot dog cart, you have an hour each afternoon to unplug and market.

The bottom line was $6,000 in drop-off catering sales for that Black Friday.

I used reverse engineering to get a ton of pharmaceutical reps’ business. Playing detective led me to discover there was a Middle Tennessee Pharmaceutical Representatives Association. I sponsored their calendar. It had a listing of all the members. I sponsored a meeting and fed them all and gave them beer to drink. They, in turn, indirectly contributed to my kids’ college fund.

Niches are everywhere. They are the low-hanging fruit of building catering sales. Does capitalizing on them take work? Yes, but it beats the alternative: sitting, waiting for customers to grace your dining room with their presence.

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