In the ten years that I've been implementing technology into catering companies, I've seen a clear trend in the way caterers work and grow. What I love most is seeing a passion for creating amazing food that so many of our customers have - however so many caterers run into the same pitfalls when it comes to the operational side of their business.

Delivering great catering is not just about the food - it's about entire customer experience:

Most caterers start off by managing all of these tasks using a combination of email software, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, accounting software & notes scrawled on whatever is within reach of the phone!

Given all of these tools are so readily available, I can see why it's so common - however once you start managing more than a few catering orders a day, you'll start running into some administrative headaches. You become a slave to copying and pasting data from one document to another, which is incredibly time consuming and prone to error. Then, when you throw order amendments from customers into the mix, things can escalate to an admin nightmare.

Of course, there are better ways to manage your catering! At the top-end of the scale, there are dedicated catering management software programs like (shameless plug alert) FoodStorm that are built specifically for the job - however the concepts behind these systems can be applied to any catering process.

1. Eliminate copy typing

If you are typing the same information more than once, then you are wasting time and making mistakes along the way. Computers are powerful and accurate, so get them to do the work instead!

Dedicated catering software systems excel at this task - you can enter a catering order just once and the software will automatically produce run sheets, invoices, production logs and transfer orders directly into your accounting software - slashing hours of admin work every day.

If you're just starting out (with a bit of Microsoft Excel know-how) you could create a spreadsheet for entering all your catering orders, and easily calculate daily production totals using formulas. You may even be able to import your orders spreadsheet directly into your accounting software, meaning you could raise invoices without any copy typing!

These are just some ideas, but the point I'm trying to make is to look at the tasks that you are doing repeatedly, then come up with ways of automating those tasks. It will take a bit of work to set up your automation, but it will pay huge dividends in the long run.

2. Store and share your data from one place

Unless you're working solo, you're going to need to share information about your catering orders with the rest of your team. Given the dynamic nature of catering, you don't want different copies of your orders circulating, as you'll end up delivering the wrong food!

You might have heard of "cloud hosted" software, which is just a fluffy way of saying software that is hosted over the Internet. What's particularly great about cloud software is that your data is stored in a single, central location - and anyone in your team can access it from multiple locations. A side-benefit of this is that your data is automatically backed up in a location external to your office or kitchen, greatly reducing the risk of losing all your valuable data.

There are heaps of software programs relevant to catering that are cloud hosted: our FoodStorm catering system is one, but so is Google Docs (online spreadsheets & word processing), Microsoft Office 365 and also a range of accounting systems Xero and MYOB.

So if you're currently saving all your catering documents on your PC Desktop and emailing them around to everyone, perhaps it's time to step into the cloud and reap the benefits.

Interested in learning more about how FoodStorm can impact your catering business? Contact us today.

3. Provide online ordering

If you're not currently accepting catering orders online, then you should be. There are, of course, the sales and marketing benefits of being online (i.e. more catering sales!) - however, from an operational perspective there are advantages too.

If you're a small team, chances are you don't have a dedicated call centre to take catering orders over the phone. Sometimes you'll be taking orders while on the road which isn't the best experience for your customers. Or, even worse, some customers might not be able to contact you because you're already on the phone or you're simply unavailable.

If you've got an online shopping cart, then your customers can place catering orders 24/7. What's more, they will get a consistent ordering experience every time.

There are dedicated shopping carts available that are built specifically for catering (yes, FoodStorm is one of them!). These shopping carts automatically handle things like cut-off times, minimum order amounts, delivery times & dietary requirements.

However you could get away with using virtually any shopping cart software that's available, with a little bit of customisation.

Also, remember that eliminate copy typing thing I said earlier? Orders placed online by your customers can feed directly into your production reports, invoices and accounting software. This means zero data entry for you! (just ensure you check on the capabilities of your shopping cart software to see if this is possible)

4. Get paid on your own terms

Chasing unpaid invoices is a real drag - it's time consuming and can hurt your cash flow when customers don't pay for one reason or another. If you're dealing with large corporate customers, then sometimes paying on account is the only option available but, for everyone else, consider mandatory credit card payment.

In catering, charging customers upfront can be a double-edged sword - it's great to have funds in the bank, however if a catering order changes (which it almost always does!), then you need to deal with additional payments or refunds later down the line.

There is a nice middle ground, however - collect the credit card details upfront, but don't actually charge the card until the catering is delivered. It's a great solution if you can do it but, remember, you must be very careful about how you collect and store credit card details.

There is something called the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Security Standards. These standards are designed to protect customers, banks and also yourself from credit card theft and fraud. If you take one look at the standards, you may freak out a little.

Luckily, there are systems out there that can handle all this for you in a really easy to use way. For example, the FoodStorm catering system provides a PCI compliant way of collecting, storing and charging credit cards. Card numbers are never displayed, and critical security info such as card security codes (CCV's) are never stored.

FoodStorm also has a fantastic feature called Deferred Payments - where card details are collected upfront when a customer places a catering order - and then the final balance of the order is automatically charged to the card on the day of delivery. This eliminates a huge number of payment headaches.

Other solutions you could look at include Online Payment Gateways that provide a secure and PCI compliant way of storing customer credit cards, and allowing you to charge them whenever you need to. For example, Braintree Payments (which is owned by PayPal) provides a secure online portal for you to store and process credit cards.

5. Don't build your own software!

Whenever we pick up a new customer for our catering software, their current situation is almost always one of the following:

It can be tempting to get someone to build a customised software system for you - you could get a system that does exactly what you want, and you could get it built cheaply through a developer that you know!

To help your decision, here's a bit of insider knowledge about our FoodStorm software: It contains over 10 million lines of code and has been developed and maintained by a team of software engineers for almost 10 years. If I was to put an hourly rate on the time we've spent building our product, it would rack up into millions of dollars.

It's an established fact in the software industry that a piece of software is never finished. When computers are upgraded old software stops working, there are new online security threats on a daily basis, customers and staff always want additional features - the list goes on! You don't want to be managing this yourself (and paying for all the changes), while also running a catering business.

Off-the-shelf catering software like FoodStorm might not always do everything you need it to, but given FoodStorm processes over $100 million in catering orders annually - it's going to be pretty close!

And of course, instead of you having to worry about upgrades, security patches and new features - a dedicated team of experts does all that for you.

In short?

Business technology is no longer just in the hands of mega-sized companies - there are so many simple, powerful software tools that are accessible to even the smallest startups. If your primary passion is creating great food, then I understand it can sometimes be daunting to make sense of all the options available and apply them to your business.

Just look for the problems in your business - things that are taking too much time, or those tasks where you are making too many mistakes - then think about how technology could solve those problems. Don't be afraid to ask for help! There are countless online communities who can help - or why not drop me an email! I'm always happy to help.

- Anthony

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