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.

Opening a Commercial Kitchen for Rent

Our blog tends to focus on those seeking to rent a commercial kitchen, but here’s a switch:  what if you want to open your own commercial kitchen for rent?

In researching this topic, I found very little clear-cut information. No one has broken this down into, “10 Easy Steps to Opening a Rental Kitchen.”  Using Los Angeles as a test market, I found bits and pieces of information on the County’s environmental health website, but nothing comprehensive. I also found a number of articles that addressed various aspects of the process. Here are a few things to think about if you’re considering this endeavor:

 Licenses and Identification: This is something you can do while you’re working out all the trickier details. Your rental kitchen business will need a business license from the city where you plan to operate and most likely a DBA/ Fictitious Business Name registration from the county. Consult your accountant about tax issues and whether your business needs a federal tax ID number.

Finding a facility: This depends on what’s available in your target area. Think about startup expenses versus long-term expenses. You could find an industrial space and install a new commercial kitchen—the advantage here is that rent in industrial spaces tends to be cheap—but you’ll  have to pay for all of your systems and equipment.  Or you could find an established commercial kitchen, like a vacant restaurant space, and retrofit it as a rental kitchen—the advantage to this plan is that some of the very expensive systems and equipment may already be in place.  By the way: the kitchen in your home cannot be rented out as a commercial kitchen, unless you have a separate kitchen available–one that you don’t use for personal cooking–that you can outfit to meet commercial standards. And even then, zoning laws in your city may permit a commercial operation from your home.

Permits and codes:  Here’s where it gets tricky. Commercial food operations are regulated much more stringently than other businesses. You’ll have building codes, health department codes and fire codes to comply with.  Pay a visit to your city office and tell them what you’re trying to do BEFORE you begin so that you can collect information from all the agencies involved. You’ll have to pass inspections before you can open for business, so it’s critical that you know what’s required before you begin setting up your kitchen.

Equipment and systems for your kitchen: when you plan to outfit your kitchen, consider what is required by commercial codes as well as industry standards and your competition. Some of the standard items include:

  • Ventilation–hoods , fans, etc.
  • Fire safety–sprinklers, extinguishers, evacuation plan
  • Sanitation- dishwashers, waste and grease containment and disposal
  • Food storage: freezer, refrigerated and dry storage
  • Cooking equipment–stoves, ovens, smaller appliances
  • Food prep stations and equipment, like commercial mixers
  • Small equipment, like pots, pans, bowls and cooking tools
  • First aid supplies

Facility/ amenities: what will your clients need while they work? Restrooms and parking requirements will be dictated by your city’s building/planning codes, but consider internet access, seating areas, presentation areas—none of these are mandatory, but a could help differentiate your kitchen as a comfortable or value-added choice.

Administrative concerns: Do you need an office?  How will you coordinate schedules? How will you bill and collect rent? How will you market your kitchen? Where will you store paperwork? Depending on how you conduct your business, you may need additional space or supplies to address administrative concerns.

When your kitchen is ready for business, remember that CookItHere.com can help you find clients and help potential clients find you.

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.