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CATERING BUSINESSES GEARING UP FOR BUSIEST MONTH OF THE YEAR

Running a restaurant can be daunting enough during the hectic holiday season, but when you're also running a catering business, there are days when you feel that Santa has it relatively easy.

Ask Gail Kendziora, president of Golf Club Restaurant Inc., a 60-seat establishment on Potters Road in West Seneca. Ms. Kendziora is gearing up for the busiest month of the year as her Golf Club Catering prepares for dozens of parties.

"It sort of becomes a blur at this time of the season," said Ms. Kendziora. "You have to have good people working for you."

Many local caterers do 25 percent to 30 percent of their annual business in December.

Carl Guetti run's Rosalind's Catering, a Buffalo company that was founded by his mother 10 years ago. When she died, Guetti continued to build the family business. This month, he expects to cater at least 60 parties and feed up to 10,000 people.

"My busiest day came last year on the Friday before Christmas. I did 17 drop-off parties that day. It was a pretty wild day," he recalled.

But Guetti isn't complaining. In fact, he's thankful that his business goes haywire during the holidays, noting that there are plenty of other caterers that customers can call.

If you have any doubts that catering is fiercely competitive, just look in the local phone book where you'll find at least 150 listings. And that doesn't include at least as many more eating establishments that offer catering services and small mom-and-pop outfits.

"Every Tom, Dick and Harry is into catering these days, including many of the restaurants," said Joanne Marino, who started Catering by Joanne 12 years ago.

Complicating matters, according to Ms. Marino, is that local companies aren't doing as many upscale fully catered holiday events as they were in the past. To save money, many businesses are passing up on ornately decorated, linen-covered tables and other services in favor of drop-off food service.

With the economics the way they are, it helps to have a specialty -- a niche. For example, Catering by Joanne hits hard on the fact that the proprietor is a registered dietitian who can whip up recipes that are lower in calories, sodium, fat and cholesterol.

"Nobody wanted to know about nutrition when I started 12 years ago. Now, a lot of people are weight-conscious even during the holidays," she said.

And calorie-counting doesn't mean confining party buffets totofu dishes and celery sticks. Ms. Marino said much of the magic is in the preparation of standard catering fare -- like using marinades that are low in calories.

Some caterers explored new strategies for drumming up business. Rosalind's Catering has hooked up with ITEX-American Barter Service and has been trading party service for tax consulting, electrical work and van maintenance service. Guetti said four of his holiday bookings came from a barter exchange.

Ms. Kendziora said the typical catered function involves between 50 and 100 people. Her Golf Club Catering offers complete drop-off service and also hosts parties at the Beau Geste Restaurant at 5246 Transit Road in Depew. Some of her larger clients include the management teams at department stores, regional banks and car dealerships.

Thomas Bruss, associate director of the Small Business Development Center at Niagara County Community College, has advised a number of start-up catering companies. He said the first step for any aspiring caterer should be to call the Health Department.

"Many people don't realize it, but caterers usually cannot use their home kitchens to prepare food for their businesses. It could end up costing a lot more money than people realize just to set up the business," he said.

Bruss added that having strong organizational skills and a workable plan are also keys to success. Catering companies that grow too fast and overcommit themselves can lose valuable customers. Ms. Kendziora agreed, noting that word-of-mouth is king in her industry. "All you have to do is blow one party and you could lose a lot of business. I try to think of a party as if I were running it for myself," she said.

Guetti agreed that planning is as critical to a caterer's success as his late mother's coveted recipes. But he also advised customers to think ahead -- especially as they plan holiday parties.

"I had to turn down a client who I've had for eight years because she called too late. It's really important to book parties early during the holidays," Guetti said.

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