Bootstrapping, the new business word of the year [well, last year, but still], and basically the one which applies to almost all new startup owners in the food industry. Especially those tied to BBQ. By now you’re probably already wondering what the heck I mean/am talking about.
Well let’s start out, for those not yet aware, by explaining what bootstrapping is. Technically speaking, it’s “Financing your company’s startup [or continued existence] by using the input or support of others.” And yeah, I hate this definition; it’s extremely broad, and basically sounds like how ANY business is run. But what it basically boils down to meaning, or at least has COME to mean by most people’s standards, is exactly what the name sounds like it is. Done right, it’s the ability to make the same amount of money, or a higher profit margin, on much less money than normal operation; at the very least, being able to SUSTAIN the business while barely spending money or time. This being done without having to rely on loans, investors, and other large financing options; not until the operation has grown in needs and opportunity.
When it comes to anyone trying to start their own BBQ business during/after something else, which often seems to involve catering at one point or another, this usually means ‘bootstrapping down’ with catering or food truck gigs on the weekends between that full-time job one is hoping to be able to leave. So basically the point where you’re simply ‘making extra money’ on the side to help fund the BIG launching adventure down the line, while also taking advantage of the chance to spread your name and develop a starting customer base. But still not a point where one can waste masses of money on expensive space rental, equipment, marketing, etc.
Equipment can be a HUGE cost for any food business with all you need to buy. Though one could easily get by if their party sizes were on the smaller side of under 50 attendants; I myself have been able to cater quite a few with just my oven, stove, home fridge, family grill, and a bunch of those cheap re-usable giant aluminum pans [very handy, though every once in a while one gets a hole and has to buy more or just use it for purely dry items]. That said, sooner or later you’ll be at the point where you NEED some proper equipment and don’t have the kind of loan money to go on a shopping spree. At this point you’ll want to Negotiate with a Supplier to set up a Credit Contract. This basically allows you to get the equipment you need NOW and pay it back later [there are a couple ways to do this, read the bootstrapping link at the bottom to find out more]. Also consider the idea of Renting; it adds up over and over, but when doing events that need big tables, chafing dishes, etc, and you’re not exactly sure if you’ll be able to set up enough consistent ‘orders’ for the following months, it’s a good way to acquire equipment at a reasonable price for one or two instances.
Speaking of negotiation, Bartering isn’t always the worst option if you ever hit a non-subversive wall. For ideally we’d like to sneak around local regulations for ‘official’ businesses and just work out of our own home, or be able to buy small amounts of ingredients from local stores vs dealing with suppliers for bulk, or again the equipment issue. All of which have easy bootstrapping fixes, but some situations require going that extra length which requires an extra burst of funds.
In which case… see what else you can offer them. The whole ‘trading services for goods’ is a rather solid concept in the bootstrapping service; in fact, I know a couple friends who’ve made various crafts in exchange for business cards, websites, and other advertising-based services. Doing enough work or getting big enough that you probably need to officially find a commissary kitchen? Offer to cater a special event for the owner. Want to find a good deal on a giant stack of ribs? Tell them you’ll cook off a few racks just for the dealer and see what you can get. I can’t say every instance will or will not work, in fact you may likely need to research various businesses and persons to see who’s open to bartering options, but at the end of the day one can find situations that will save much actual money at the moment. It’ll simply be your personal time that gets sacrificed.
Now, clearly you can’t really buy ad space in anything without going over budget, but you need to get yourself out there. Luckily for us there’s Social Media; get yourself on a facebook, twitter, instagram, and any other account possible and, this is KEY, update and post on it as often as possible. The only chance of succeeding nowadays is to make sure you are out there and in people’s faces [speaking of which, remember to get as many current hashtags on twitter posts]. You’ll still want SOME sort of physical thing to give to customers however, so one may have to sacrifice a bit to get business cards, but just order one of the smallest sets possible at the time. Or just save more money and take some time to print out a bunch of personal flyers that can be handed out to customers at events, family and friends to give to contacts, tacked to cork boards in local stores/meeting areas, etc. It’ll take up some of your personal time to cut them out [don’t do a single flyer per paper, make at least 4 copies on each], but it CAN save initial money in the early days. Long term though, business cards will end up saving money WHEN you’re working enough to use them all up easily.
It’s also safe to say that Hiring any permanent employees is just not on the table. Not only does any steady, even part-time employee create a constant additional cost that can’t really go away, but this situation isn’t even conducive to anything steady and consistent for them. It’s a bad environment for both you and them, so don’t even try. If you do NEED extra hands, of course always look to friends and family first [there’s the whole ‘using the support of others’ thing coming into play], paid back for their troubles of course. OR, if say one only needs 1-2 extra hands every other weekend or more and the family doesn’t have anyone to spare, one could always consider the various 1-time fees of independent contractors and outsourcing to other restaurant/catering worker suppliers. Seeing your local options and comparing costs will be key, but one can save money in the short term if the needs are minimal like so. You’ll just have to work hard in the free time to do as much of the food and catering as possible to reduce the needs of anyone else coming on.
And always, ALWAYS, remember to Focus on Relationships, especially at this stage of the game. Do everything in your power to give customers the most memorable experience possible to ensure they want to hire or find you AGAIN in the future. These will also be the people who excitedly tell others about the amazing new BBQ person/place they just found out. When you’re only able to make a ‘sale’ once or twice a week, at most, making sure to grab a hold of every single one possible is certainly key.
There are practically hundreds of ways to cut corners in a BBQ catering business depending on one’s exact situation, we can barely scratch the surface here but duly hope some of these tips can help on your way to a proper bootstrapping strategy. The important thing throughout, no matter what decisions one makes, is to ensure that you always keep two things. First, Quality; never sacrifice the height of who you and your business is just to save a few bucks. It’s not a proper representation and it can only get you less success than could be potentially made. Secondly, Safety: whether it’s the safety of the food, the customers, or your own safety with local regulations. Though one can find great ways to produce fantastic products at lower prices, there are many a dangerous corner that can be cut that can lead to a single situation which will shut down any and all future chance of you actually succeeding within this business. ALWAYS double and triple check each strategy that you put into place to make sure that A: it’s not going strictly against any local laws [or that you’re not operating in a big enough fashion for it to affect your personal catering gig] or B: it’s able to be performed in a way that keeps yourself and customers fully safe from injury or sickness.
But all the ramblings and random ideas aside, after setting yourself down and following these ideas, you’ll be just about ready to start the first in many weekends of building funds to take your BBQ catering hobby to a full-on licensed business and beyond. We wish you the best of luck, let that delicious BBQ goodness soar to new heights!
Oh, one last tip! Want to get the most bang for your buck on food costs? Stop buying just racks upon racks of ribs and pork butt; get a WHOLE pig and break it down. It’s what most good BBQ places do now anyways, so you’ll have to learn how to do it sooner or later [if you haven’t already], thus it makes good practice. Not to mention you’re paying notably less for all the product you’re getting as opposed to if you bought it all separate and pre-done. Whether you use all of it immediately for giant piles of pulled pork or freeze it for future use, going whole-hog is never a bad idea.
Also Take a Look at:
How to Start a BBQ Concession Business – our insight into the beginnings of any BBQ empire from the beginning stages
How to Bootstrap Your Business From the Ground Up – along with quite a few OTHER helpful bootstrapping links