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Catering has been on trend in the restaurant space for the past few years, experiencing at least 5 percent growth across all categories, according to Technomic.
Ice cream catering is also on the rise, despite a "bit of an image issue that needs to be cleaned up," according to George Dunlap, a consultant and sales and marketing development rep with CNelson Mfg.
"We are not a truck driving through the neighborhood. And we're not going after the route industry with this," he said.
So, what is ice cream catering?
"The key word is 'event,'" Dunlap said.
Dunlap joined Eric Gerber of Eric's All-American Ice Cream, to speak during the North American Pizza & Ice Cream Show this week about how to get involved in the ice cream catering business.
Gerber began catering events in 2009. He started with a modest budget and a cooler, and has since grown the operation to include two ice cream companies, ice cream carts, a pending retail partnership with the Ohio Department of Agriculture and a catering roster that includes corporate events, weddings, graduation parties and more. Gerber also recently purchased a 1989 Chevy step van for $13,000 and is repurposing that into a 25-foot ice cream shop.
"All of this started because one day I realized I can get ice cream in the park," Gerber said.
To get started, Dunlap said it's sensible to start with the bare essentials.
"It's hard to know what you need until you get into it. You can start with a cooler and some dry ice and eventually grow it for your second or third event" he said.
For pricing, he suggests a $400 to $500 minimum for a sundae bar (two scoops and toppings) for events that include at least 50 people, and $5 to $7 more per head if there are more than 50 people.
Gerber has a tiered pricing system for his events. Customers can choose four flavors to include at their event and pricing includes:
"I charge a base fee of $3 a scoop and $10 an hour for tier one. For a sundae bar that goes up to $20 an hour because there is more work involved. If they want it cheaper, there's a Walmart on the corner," Gerber said. "Otherwise, you can have Eric's and we show up and take care of everything. We're not afraid to charge because we don't work for free."
Promoting the business
Once you have a business and pricing strategy down, it's important to promote the offering. Dunlap touts the benefits of social media.
"The average Facebook user has 245 friends; 245 times 245 is 60,000 people. That's a lot of people who you could potentially be promoting your business to just on Facebook," he said.
He also suggested mass mailing, getting involved in the local chambers of commerce and meeting business people in the community. Gerber even has agreements with the local schools that include the sale of his ice cream at sporting events and more.
"Ice cream is still the best value for employee appreciation Fridays. Word of mouth is also very effective," Dunlap said. "Catering isn't trying to duplicate your store at an event, but about expanding promotion of the brand."
The presenters both suggested focusing on bigger, high-volume events. Gerber said to secure a mobile license and to mind any insurance obligations (mostly for public property events) and discrepancies in requirements from county to county.
"One county may require sinks and one may not," he said. He also suggested mixing flavors up for different events, and gauging what's selling and what's not. And, if you can, add a credit card-compatible POS at your off-site catering operation.
"We started taking credit cards in 2010, and now 35 to 40 percent of our business is through credit cards, and our cash income didn't go down," Gerber said.
Dunlap's final piece of advice for someone thinking about jumping into the ice cream catering space is simple: "The imperfections you see in the business are not what the customers see. They see ice cream," he said. "That allows you to be patient with it and let it grow."
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