If you’re looking for creative new ways to make money, you may be thinking about getting into the event market — hosting private parties, weddings, grad celebrations, festivals and more. You might wonder how to get started, and what the key success factors are.
I spoke to three restaurateurs to hear about their experiences running events, and to ask their advice for anyone getting started. One owns a small bistro that holds events on Sunday evenings; one organizes events to challenge his chefs and keep it fun; and the third runs events in a very big way.
1. SMALL BUT MIGHTY
Patrick Saurette owns The Marc restaurant in Edmonton, a French bistro with 67 seats. Because of its size and layout, it doesn’t have a private dining area. He chooses not to close the bistro to other diners to run private events, so he hosts them only on Sunday nights. And even so, he doesn’t aggressively book events, since he wants to ensure staff gets time off — typically the restaurant takes private bookings on Sundays of a holiday weekend. They’ve hosted events that include small weddings, wine dinners, charity dinners, and an annual Bastille Day celebration.
He loves the creative aspect it gives kitchen staff. “If you’re primarily an à la carte business, you could offer family-style food on platters, or offer a different kind of cuisine than you usually serve — Indian, for example, in an Italian restaurant.” Saurette says events are his best advertising, since current customers are the likeliest to book them. “You need to continually search for new customers. And who better to bring in new customers than existing ones?”
Finally, don’t overlook the impact on profitability. “In the middle of January, when regular numbers are down, groups can be huge.”
2. MEET THE CHALLENGE
Chris Cornhill, Food and Beverage Manager of Fredericton’s Crowne Plaza, says his establishment’s entry into the event market came from a desire to challenge themselves. “Chefs can get bored with churning out the same food,” he says, “and as foodies we wanted to try some fun stuff, using our local produce.” They organize a series of one-off experiences at Crowne Plaza’s restaurant, The Maverick Room, that involve food, fun, and creativity, including: a dinner that features produce grown on their rooftop garden, where the menu is presented as a riddle; “Offal-ly Good” evenings, where they showcase less popular cuts of the whole animals they buy for the restaurant; and Fire, a dinner from the flames, where five courses are cooked outside over various fires.
Cornhill says the guests love these events. At one of the Offal-ly Good evenings, a group of strangers bonded over food and drinks, “toasting animal parts and cheering … I’m sure a night to remember for those involved!” They host groups of up to 28 people, selling tickets in advance through Eventbrite to ensure a guaranteed minimum of customers.
Cornhill says they’ve achieved what they hoped to: giving his food and beverage team the challenge they were looking for, and giving customers an event to remember and a reason to come back.
3. GO BIG OR GO HOME
André Saint-Jacques, founder of Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, BC, says the restaurant has hosted events since it opened in 1995, starting with holiday parties and charity functions. The events gradually got bigger, and required more attention. The restaurant responded by opening a catering division in 2010 to focus on the event market. They have hosted events in the restaurant, the parking lot, and other venues, including festivals. And their events can be huge: they have served anywhere between 100 and 30,000 guests.
Events have boosted the restaurant’s profitability, but that’s just one of the advantages. They do a lot of fundraising work, so their brand is exposed to supporters of those charities. And on the staffing side, they benefit from a large pool of occasional staff. “These events give us the chance to road-test the occasionals,” he says. “If they’re good, we hire them full-time.”
Bearfoot Bistro started small in the events market and have grown very big — and their brand has grown along with them.
Do you have what it takes to enter the event market?
Here’s some expert advice:
KEEP IT SIMPLE
“You don’t want your regular diners to suffer,” says Saurette. “That might mean limiting yourself to smaller groups.” Think about the extra noise that comes from hosting a large group, and what it means to serve multiple parties from the same kitchen.
Bearfoot Bistro serves huge crowds now, but they’ve had over 20 years to get it right. Saint-Jacques says when you start small, you can use equipment from the restaurant kitchen, which lets you test the event market without making a big up-front investment.
“There’s lots of pre-planning and details, and you’ll need lots of staff,” says Saint-Jacques. And Saurette adds, “It’s important that all the details are written down — you’ve got to get them right. Your reputation depends on you getting those details right.”
REGARDLESS OF THE SCALE OF YOUR EVENTS, HAVE A STEADY POOL OF LABOUR YOU CAN ACCESS
For Saurette, this means scheduling events at times that are convenient for regular staff. For Saint-Jacques, it means having an occasional staff of 140 or more that he can call upon.
“We offer a drinks package on the night,’ Cornhill said. It adds to the customer experience, and increases profitability.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT STORAGE
If you have a small space, consider whether you have the room to store additional equipment and supplies.
USE IT TO HELP YOUR ESTABLISHMENT GROW
“Do it, enjoy it, and carve yourself a niche in the market,” says Cornhill. “It increases the awareness of what we do and creates a buzz on social media. It’s nice to see posts from people who missed the event and want to come to our next one.” Saurette adds,”It’s a chance to reinvigorate your business.” He suggests you work with your local BIA or Chamber of Commerce: “Know who’s coming to town, and work from there.”