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New here, looking to cater


Joined Jun 24, 2019
Hello All,

I'm a bit of a transplant from another forum that has kind of dried up. I have some very basic questions about possible catering...

I am thinking about selling some BBQ. I don't know that I would say I am considering "catering" just yet, so much as finding a good spot to set up shop in a parking lot every other weekend or so. If I end up growing to other gigs, well so be it, but this way I can start on my own terms with measured risk. Believe it or not, the business side does not scare me much. I run plenty of the business end where I work, both my parents are separately self-employed, and my wife and I came up in the restaurant business. I am very aware of the long hours, sacrifice and "little" details (insurance, fees, regulatory expectations, etc.). I can work my way through health inspection, food handling, etc. It's the other stuff I can't figure out, such as:

1) How much margin to shoot for? I'm sure a little market research will resolve this, but still...

2) I'm in the market for a stick burner, but I'm not sure how big to go. Should I buy a bigger smoker right now? I probably can't justify a trailer model, even a simple one, until I can say that I'll use it enough to pay for itself and storage at a unit around town. I don't have the space at my house.

3) How many people do you need to serve to make any kind of money? Not "making a living at it" money, but more than $100 in profit or something. I'd like to make enough to make it a profitable side-venture. Not one that makes me wealthy, but one that funds some new BBQ toys and gets me cooking more often. I'm currently looking at a 24x48 model with two shelves.

4) How big of a smoker does the answer to number 3 mean?

5) Here's a winner of a question, try not to laugh: how do the logistics of smoking for an event work? What I mean is, do drag my smoker everywhere and set it up for 12 hours while the stuff is cooking or do I cook it at home then cambro it and take it out to the site to serve? I always see the big rigs sitting around at events...or at least I think I do. Do they cook everything the night before then just drag the smoker out for show? I could see that helping to draw a crowd or pull in business. Some things I can see cooking on site, like quicker things; chicken, turkey, etc. I just can't wrap my head around how to pull that off...

In case it helps, I'm looking at keeping it very simple. These are the things that I know I can knock out of the park and would serve:

- Ribs (probably back ribs)
- Pulled Pork
- Brisket

Other possibilities that I know I can nail and may be popular
- WI style brats
- Beer can chicken
- Smoked and grilled chicken wings
- Smoked turkey
- Smoked sausage

That's all I would serve for main dishes. I might pick three main things, then put a fourth on rotation, depending on how it goes. Obviously that can be dialed in by demand.

For sides, I may either do Mac and Cheese, beans, and slaw, and maybe a corn or beans.

These are the big things gnawing at me. If you can spare a thought or two, I certainly appreciate it.




Smoking Fanatic
Joined Mar 23, 2009
What you're really talking about is more being a vendor rather than a caterer, if I read everything correctly.

1) Well the old rule of thumb is your price should be 1/3 of your food costs. With BBQ you can kind of make this work with cheaper cuts like pork butt and chicken, but with brisket and ribs you start to approach the 50/50 in my experience. You can however migrate costs from brisket to say pork butt. So if you can sell a pulled pork sandwich for $5 and make 2/3 profit, but a brisket sandwich would have to sell at $8 to work. You can always up you pork to $6 and drop brisket to $7. This looks more appealing to customers, but keep in mind you still have to sell those pulled pork sandwich's to make the difference. If you don't then you're losing money.

2) That's a tricky one. The larger your cooker the less times you're gonna have to fire it up to complete an event. Less times going means less fuel used, which means lower costs. I'm not justifying the way I did things, but I went with a large smoker and dove in head first. I can cook 200+lbs of pork butt in one go, and the smoker fits in a space no bigger than a 5'x4' area. The price tag hurt, but it's an investment and it works well for how I cook.

3) Okay, so I was going to do majority of vendor events for a couple years, and then really dig into catering gigs. I've done 4 vendor events and have only made money worth having on one of them. The problem with vendor events is that you can't rely on the two most important factors. The weather, and the people. I was told about a month ago by a fellow BBQ vendor that however many people an event is expecting, that only 10% will actually eat food. And then from that you have to figure in how many other vendors will be there as well. So this margin can be very small. Factor in the volatility that is the weather, which can take a vendor event from decent to non-existent, and then you're left with a lot of product, a large bill, and no good way to get out of the hole. The above is the reason that I'm now pushing to do more catering gigs. Don't get me wrong, I love vendor events. I get immediate feedback, and I'm a natural born bullshitter so I enjoy talking with customers. But I have to make money at this, and at least with a catering gig I have money in pocket, up front and I know all my costs are covered. My product might be shitty, and I might not be in business long, but at least I know I'm not losing my ass on that particular gig.

4) Again, there is no one right answer for this question. You have to figure out what point you're okay with only making(or losing) X amount of dollars. For vendor events we have to try and find that line between having enough product to sell and not run out early vs having too much product and cutting into our profits. This is very dependent on your area and events.

5) Okay, for me I bought a large gravity fed smoker, and a PID with fan to attach to it. This allows me to load up my smoker before my 9 to 5, monitor it all from my phone and adjust the temps if needed. I have a helper who will go throw wood in as needed, and will wrap things when I text them. Another BBQ guy who does catering occasionally gave me some advice which I follow. I pre cook everything but sides well ahead of time, and then vacpac and freeze it. I'd love to be able to cook day of, but with BBQ not being my full time job, that's just not an option. And the other issue with cooking day of is if, for example, you have a cook that's not cooperating. Maybe you're temps get messed up and this throws you timings off. You could be way behind or way ahead of your service time, which is could be another costly mistake. I applaud the guys that can manage to cook day of and make it work. And maybe one of these days if/when BBQ is my full time job I will be able cook day of, but until then being prepared ahead of time is paying stuff for me and I haven't heard any complaints. Granted, I haven't done any events when I have "better fresh" items like ribs/chicken. But those are super short cooks, so it's easier/safer to manage times on those day of.

Best of luck going forward.


Joined Jun 24, 2019
Hey KRJ,

Thank you so very much for that insight, that really is helpful! I didn't even distinguish between the two things to tell you the truth, vending and catering. Now that you mention it about catering, that really makes sense. Definitely something to think about. I, too, am a born bullshitter (I'm in sales), so I totally get the desire for instant feedback and the chat factor.

Regarding the smoker, I have had the same kind of thoughts. I know that if I get a good cabinet smoker I can store a ton and monitor it from work, just like you are doing. I guess I need to ask myself what my goals are there, because I sure as hell can't manage a stick burner from home.

Again, awesome information. I really appreciate it!


Smoking Fanatic
★ Lifetime Premier ★
Joined Mar 10, 2014
whatever size smoker you think you need go 2 sizes bigger lol they fill up fast


Joined Jan 17, 2020
I am in a similar situation as the OP and krj. I have a 9-5 job but want to do some vending and catering on the side, grow my business and reputation before going all in with a brick and mortar or food truck. I have the smokers covered. Just purchased a pair of used J & R little red smokers. I still have lots to do before selling my first BBQ but for those of you doing this would love to hear more about how you got started, advise to people that want to get into this and your profit margins.
Thanks lets keep this thread going

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