Is There an App for That?

The New Year is right around the corner, and with it, a chance to start fresh with your business. Are you looking to make some positive changes? Maybe you want to get better at promoting your services. Maybe you want to update your recipes. Maybe you want to revamp your pricing, make better use of your time, or be more organized.

Chances are, whatever your intention, there’s an app for that: a software application that will help you in your endeavor. Many culinary professionals are so kitchen-focused that they forget that the right technology can be as critical as any kitchen tool, saving you time, money and stress in your food business.

There is a tremendous amount of technology designed for chefs, caterers and food business operators. From maintaining a pantry inventory to planning an event, you’ll find all kinds of applications to make your job easier. Here is a just a sample of the tools available for you.

Cook’n Recipe Organizer: For home cooks or pros, this app allows you to capture recipes you see online and save them to a searchable database of your own. It offers recipe scaling and nutrition analysis, too. Another popular recipe organizer is Living Cookbook. If you’re a recipe hoarder, and if you pull your recipes from all different sources, imagine the time you could save by having them organized and categorized in one library!

If you’re struggling with pricing your retail food product, you may be able to find free calculators online. For a $49 download fee, this calculator from SmallFoodBiz.com is an Excel worksheet that helps you factor in costs including production time, overhead and markups. It’s a good starting point for beginners who can’t invest in a whole business software package.

The American Personal & Private Chef Association sells a software package called Personal Chef Office. It’s an all-in-one suite specifically for personal chefs, and it covers everything from recipe and menu planning to invoicing and financial forms. You can manage your schedule and client information. It has a nutrition analysis tool that will update nutrition information in a recipe based on your modifications.

For caterers, commercial catering software like Caterease can help with everything from event planning and customer relationship management to menu planning and managing your employees. It gets into nitty gritty, like ingredient sourcing and job costing, and logistics like diagramming the floorplan of your event. It even has an ecommerce module so you can offer online ordering to your clients. Caterease appears to be the industry standard, but it’s pricey and could be cost-prohibitive for smaller business owners. For a more affordable option of with some of the same functions, try Total Party Planner.

Catering for Kids

Kid-centered catering is a hot market that’s grown with the children’s party craze. Ordering pizza and playing Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey just won’t do anymore, as Pinterest and mommy-bloggers set the bar ever higher for clever, themed kids’ parties complete with matching menus.

Plenty of busy parents will pay for help keeping up with this trend. With a little creativity and awareness, you can tap into this market and provide a valuable service for moms and dads who have more cash than kitchen skills.

Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re preparing food for kids:

Safety: Make sure the food is age appropriate. If you’ll have toddlers in attendance, consider offering a plate or a portion of your buffet specifically for this age group, and use care to avoid foods that present choking hazards, like hot dogs.

Allergies are another serious concern when serving children. Discuss allergy concerns with your client before designing your menu. Are there any known food allergies in the group? Will parents be in attendance to help kids choose according to their allergies?

Flavor: kids like simple, familiar flavors. Simple dishes prepared with few ingredients give picky kids less reason to balk. Obviously, limit spices and strong flavors when designing children’s menus.

Presentation: the simplest foods become appealing to kids when presented in a fun way: sandwiches cut into shapes, fruit plates arranged into faces, basically anything served on a stick. And theme is king at children’s parties—how can you incorporate the party theme into your dishes?

Interactivity: kids like to play with their food, so give them something to do. Serve finger foods with dips—even kids who don’t usually eat vegetables can be persuaded if they get to dip them. Offer a cup of diced fruit, veggies or mild cheese and provide picks to spear them with (not too sharp!). For older kids, offer a build-it-yourself pizza or sandwich station. Kids who get involved with their food are more likely to eat it.

Portions: remember that at parties, kids tend to be distracted and eat less. Plan on serving food in smaller portions, and talk to your host about timing. Should you serve as guests arrive, before they become engaged in party activities? Or later in the event when the initial excitement has died down a bit and kids are better able to focus on food?

Nutrition: discuss nutritional expectations with your client. Today’s parents are hyper-aware of nutritional issues and may have very different opinions about what constitutes a nutritious meal. Some parents may be less concerned about the nutritional value of party food, but some may expect your fare to be as healthy as it is tasty and fun.

Cooking for the Gluten-Free Crowd

Seems like it’s everywhere now—the gluten-free movement has reached the Betty Crocker aisle of every grocery store. Just a few years ago, most of us would not have recognized the word “gluten” at all, but now gluten-free products are commonplace, and gluten-free options can be found on menus everywhere.

What’s the big deal about gluten? Well, for people with celiac disease, it’s a very big deal. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by a specific gluten protein (found in wheat). Celiac sufferers experience serious gastrointestinal symptoms such as severe pain and diarrhea. The disease has also been linked to other serious problems, like recurring miscarriages and, in young children, failure to thrive.

Over the last few years, a growing awareness of food allergies has shed light on gluten-sensitivity, which is not the same as celiac disease, but has been cited as a cause for everything from hyperactivity to headaches.

Some say that gluten-free diets are just a trend. This article from Time magazine describes it as another dietary scapegoat. “Avoiding certain ingredients goes in cycles: Back in the 70s, it was sugar. Then it was fat, then saturated fat. Then fat was in but carbs were out. Gluten is the pariah ingredient du jour, and there are a lot of healthy people shelling out big bucks for gluten-free food they probably don’t need.”

As a chef, whether you agree with the wheat-eaters or the gluten-free types doesn’t really matter. What matters is which side your client is on.

If you’re cooking for a client who requests gluten-free fare, your first order of business is to determine his understanding of the term. For people who avoid gluten as a dietary preference, skipping bread, pasta and other goods containing wheat flour is often enough.

However, if your client takes the gluten restriction very seriously, you’ll need to be more careful. Many common ingredients– like soy sauce and beer, for example– may not be obvious offenders, but they contain some form of wheat protein and must be avoided. Watch for tricky items like corn tortillas, which seem like a great option for an alternate starch—but not all are free of wheat ingredients.

To be on the safe side, choose ingredients that are certified gluten free. You can read about gluten-free certifications here.

Cooking for clients with celiac disease requires special food preparation and handling to avoid cross-contamination with wheat ingredients. If your client is diagnosed with the disease, or has a wheat allergy serious enough to warrant such precautions, they’ll most likely know that and seek out chefs or caterers that are trained in gluten-free foodservice.

As always, communicating with your clients is critical—in this case, for their safety as well as their satisfaction.

Do You Have a Culinary Resume?

If you’re working a day job and trying to build your culinary empire on the side, you’ve probably got a decent resume geared for the 9-5—but is your chef resume polished and ready to go?
You never know when opportunity will knock, so having a professional-looking, current resume is critical.

If you need to brush up your resume, here are some suggestions to get you going.

  1. Get your facts in order. Make a list of all applicable experience and education. If you’re just starting out, this may require some creativity. Have you helped a friend cater a party? Volunteered in a soup kitchen? Jot down the dates of each project and the skills you used to complete it. Think about culinary skills but also general skills, like customer service, time management, budgeting, purchasing, etc.
  2. Before you write, determine your objective. Are you looking for full-time employment as a chef, or are you looking for gigs? Do you want catering or personal chef assignments? You don’t need to state your objective on the resume (that’s passé and can take up valuable space on your page), just remember to gear your resume towards the appropriate audience. A family looking to hire a personal chef wants different information than a restaurant hiring a sous-chef. And yes…if you have more than one objective, you may need more than one resume.
  3.  Ask yourself, “What is the single most compelling reason someone would hire me, as opposed to someone else?” The answer to this question is your differentiator—what makes you stand out. Your differentiator should be featured on your resume. Maybe you don’t have a lot of experience but you graduated from a well-known culinary school. Maybe you don’t have the chef’s credential, but you’re known for creative cooking on a budget, great presentation, or some specialty, like wood-fire grilling or gluten free desserts. You can use your differentiator in a summary statement about yourself, or you can build your resume around it. See #4.
  4. Find a template online. (It’s easy—Google “chef resume templates” or similar- you’ll find many free template sources.)  The appearance of your resume—font, page setup, organization—is really important. It gives an overall impression and helps the reader process the information contained in your resume. Unless you’re very good at word processing and/or desktop publishing, use a template to make sure your resume looks professional. Choose the template based on your education, experience and differentiator—you want a template that allows you to place the most impressive information at the top of the document.
  5. Get a proofreader. Ask a friend or colleague to proofread for you. Even if your spelling and grammar are impeccable, another set of eyes will find things you missed. If possible, get a recruiter (or someone who hires for whatever position you’re seeking) to give you some feedback, too.

Remember, a resume is always evolving, because it represents you—and you’re always gaining skills and experience. Update your resume regularly so you’re always ready to impress.

Vendor Beware: Festivals, Fairs and Boutiques

If you operate a fledging food business, you’re looking for a way to get your name and your product out in the community. This time of year, holiday boutiques and festivals are recruiting vendors.  Community events can be a great opportunity to sell your signature creampuffs or sample your soon-to-be-world-famous barbecue sauce.  Unfortunately, they can also be unprofitable or even wind up costing you.

Here are some questions to ask before you sign up to sell or sample food at a community event:

Is the event permitted?  Most cities and counties require permits for boutiques, fairs and festivals  depending on the size, nature and duration of the event.  To obtain a permit, the organizer must have a plan that adheres to city/county guidelines—so unpermitted events could be poorly planned or lack critical components like adequate restrooms or accessibility.

How’s the traffic? How many people attend the event? Don’t just ask the event organizers; ask vendors who’ve sold there before. Sometimes plenty of people attend the event, but sales are still slow. Repeat vendors have the best insight for you, so ask the organizer for a vendor reference.

Are the fees worth it? Consider your costs to prepare, present and sell your product. If you pay $200 for a booth, you need to NET $200 to break even. Don’t forget to factor in your time.  How many plates/items must you sell to net that amount?  To make a profit?  Sometimes it’s not about instant profit, but about advertising and lead generating—just be sure that whatever your goal is, the event attendance supports that goal.

Will there be competing vendors? How many food vendors will there be, and what exactly are they selling? Quality events limit competition between vendors by making sure that products are diverse.  If the event organizer is worth his salt, he’ll require a product list from each vendor.

What permits do I need? Don’t take anyone’s word for it: do your homework. If the event organizer says you don’t need a permit, think twice about signing up. Local health departments do inspect community events and will shut down unpermitted  “TFFs” (Temporary Food Facilities—that’s what they call food booths.)  Check with the city AND the county of the event to find out what permits are required for the type of food you’ll be selling or sampling. Even free samples require permits, especially if you’re portioning or plating samples on site.  A quick search yielded information pages for each of the county health departments in Southern California. Here are some examples:

Festivals, fairs and boutiques can be a great way to launch or promote your business; just be sure to do your due diligence before committing to an event.