How to break into university catering

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Dear Advice Guy,

I am located near a university and do good business a la carte and private parties at our restaurant but almost no catering to the campus. How do I break into that?

– COO, Fine Dining Group


Your question applies to other large institutions such as hospitals and corporate campuses as well.

The first thing you need to figure out is whether catering is even allowed on campus. It may be that your lack of catering business is due to marketing or visibility challenge but it is more likely that outside catering is simply not allowed on campus. Many universities have exclusive catering contracts with a contract foodservice company or their own self-operated foodservice, making it impossible for you to get business no matter how much the university spenders might want to do business with you.

Still other universities allow outside catering or allow exceptions to the university foodservice contract but only to preferred vendors registered with the university purchasing office or another gatekeeper, in some cases along with favorable pricing or set discounts. In those cases, you may need to provide proof of your insurance, permits and so on or even a health inspection score to be kept on file. In those institutions, once you are on the approved list and let people know it, the floodgates can open.

Assuming that neither of the above is the case for you and you are allowed to do catering, the next hurdle is to identify the appropriate decision makers, something that can be somewhat counterintuitive. Outside of an official university procurement office, many universities are fragmented with decisions happening at multiple levels with various department charges and department credit cards. While there is surely an event services department with professional meeting planners for large events like graduations and trustee meetings, many of the smaller events such as Greek life banquets, department meetings, book signing receptions, Athletics booster parties, alumni happy hours and so on are run at the department level. Often a department administrative aide has inordinate power over the spending for events like these because more senior administrators can’t be bothered. One successful strategy is to share menus and information and host a lunch or reception for those decision-makers, often under-appreciated, over-worked and sitting on the catering budget.

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