Jessica Goin didn’t just jump into the catering business, she dove head first. The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles asked Lucques — the successful restaurant founded by her sister Suzanne Goin, and where Jessica was the General Manager — to cater a gala dinner for 500, and the rest is history.
Jessica tells us: “Suzanne said — somewhat famously in my world — you can do that, but if every bite is not as good as Lucques at its best, I’m going to shut you down.”
The key to success for a restaurant considering a catering operation is to first set up an infrastructure and then grow into it. Here are a few elements to keep in mind, plus Jessica’s top tips for each.
The Lucques team learned quickly that catering requires a different skill set than a traditional restaurant business. Just because a person excels in a restaurant does not mean he or she will be equally adept in the catering world.
“I got really lucky that the Chef de Cuisine at Lucques turned out to be really amazing at catering,” says Jessica. “You can’t just send your restaurant staff out to the world and expect it to translate to catering.”
Look at your team and ask yourself: Who loves a challenge? Who’s very nimble? “Who can you put in a field with a stove and pans and will figure out how to do it?” Jessica laughs. “Personality is paramount.”
Look for people who can think on their feet and are easily bored by routine. No catering event is ever the same, and there will always be an unexpected challenge. The right person to run a catering option may not be your go-to GM; it might be a younger manager who is more flexible, less settled, and interested in taking on something new.
“So many chefs and restaurants just think, I’m going to do what I do in a different place,” says Jessica. “It’s not the same thing. You’re building a new world from the ground up at every event.”
Her advice: find a guru who can help you start a checklist you can build on for each individual event. Jessica worked with a party rental partner at Lucques who helped her out in the early days of the catering business, going down the list of all of the vendors she needed in her repertoire and what they could do.
“I didn’t know what a charger was when we started catering!” says Jessica. “Learning the events world was like learning a new language.”
Jessica recommends visiting the rental company to look at the equipment available and think about how to build a kitchen offsite. Ask yourself every question you possibly can: Where are guests going to get water? Where will you wash your hands? Do you have power? Think about all of the logistics and surround yourself with teammates who can think on their feet and solve problems.
Jessica has arrived at event locations to discover they are still under construction. “Have people around who see it as a puzzle to be solved rather than a nightmare,” she says.
Here’s another tip: take care of as many people on site as you can — especially other vendors. Feed them, help them out and answer questions. You never know when the guy in charge of the lighting will be asked to recommend a catering company for his next event.
“Word of mouth is really big in this business, and we always make sure to meet the valets and feed the lighting guys,” says Jessica. “Plus, it’s nice.”
Especially when you’re new to catering, it’s a good idea to visit the venue and meet your clients before an event. Look at the dining room and the kitchen, so you’ll be prepared if a burner doesn’t work or when you realize it’s a completely open kitchen. Check out the space and communicate details to your kitchen team to avoid added stress.
“It is a really different dynamic to go into somebody’s home rather than having them come to you,” says Jessica. “It’s much more personal and intimate — you’re taking over these people’s kitchen.”
After arriving at a venue, Jessica always starts by introducing customers to her kitchen staff by name, noting their individual roles. She’s trained the staff to be extremely cognizant of being a stranger in another person’s home, always asking before moving items and treating everything with care.
Once, the team was working with a very formal client who came into the kitchen as the chef was cooking sea bass and started watching. Concerned, Jessica asked if there was anything she could do for him, but it turned out he was curious about the chef’s technique. The chef — Rodolfo Aguado, Chef de Cuisine at Lucques — encouraged him to come over and observe for an impromptu cooking lesson. Jessica and her team still cater for the client today.
“It’s all about looking for those cues and ways to form a connection with clients,” she says.
The intimacy of catering events can be motivating for staff, too. While in restaurants the kitchen is usually set off from the dining room, at a catering event, the team watches as the food hits the table and everyone falls silent. “It’s a great feeling for chefs to watch people really love the food they just made.”
Above all, it’s important to stay true to yourself and the vision of your restaurant. “Suzanne can write on the back of a matchbook the definition of each of her restaurants, what makes them their own,” says Jessica. “A lot of success comes from staying true to that soul. People don’t think of that with catering. We’re Lucques.”
It’s critical that every catering event you do is going to result in more positive feedback for the restaurant. Ask yourself: Am I bringing in more people? Jessica says the catering business has been an enormously useful tool for bringing customers into the restaurant.
“People in large parties will say, we haven’t been to Lucques in so long! We’re reminding them that the food is still great if they haven’t been in a while. And with A.O.C., people say, I can never get in. I’m the queen of handing out my business card so they feel like they have a connection.”
Jessica Goin Photo Credit: William Norton
Now that 2015 is here, resolve to make this the best year yet for your restaurant business. Every day this month we’ll be featuring a new tip from restaurateurs, chefs, and other industry leaders to shape up your marketing, operations, hospitality, and more. Check back daily for expert advice and successful strategies to start your year off right, and see them all here.