Dear Jon Letters




A series for clients and colleagues who are seeking support, asking for advice, and hoping to reignite their passion for hospitality.

Dear Jon: We are likely to have our busiest summer to date. What problems should I lookout for? - D.R., Myrtle Beach

Dear D.R.:

This is an important question. It feels fantastic when business is booming, when there’s hustle and bustle in the kitchen and high energy in the offices. And it doesn’t hurt that client checks arrive in droves. However, problems can arise:

·         It’s easy to develop false sense of security during a hectic season. It’s easy to believe that business shortfalls have simply vanished. In fact, your shortfalls can actually worsen because they are being untended.

·         Sales teams tend to focus so heavily on managing events that proactive sales efforts come to a standstill. This will result in slow times ahead.

·         With heavy activity in the kitchen, there’s risk that Inventories are not properly taken, waste sheets aren’t posted, and incoming deliveries aren’t being inspected for quality and accuracy. Product and alcohol are left unprotected, labor and overtime are not being factored, etc.

·         All in all, money can be lost!


Solutions are many, so start with these:

·         Take a lesson from the airlines and price at a premium during busy dates.  This is no time to discount, extend signing bonuses, or add onto orders without charging

·         Be vigilant in managing expenses.  Be exacting at every turn. No guessing!

·         Maintain aggressive sales activity quotas and chart these daily

·         Never utter the phrase ‘We’re just too busy right now…’

·         Do whatever it takes to exceed client expectations

·         Keep clients and collaborators engaged following events. This is a sure way to win repeat business & referrals.

·         Celebrate your achievements!


Good luck, D.R. Keep us posted on your success throughout the season!!!

Do you have a question for Jon? Send us an email.

We may answer your letter next!

Dear Jon,

I’ve seen you recommend that sales people need to track their activities and I want to start doing this with my employees. I know they are going to resist the change. Can you please give me some reasons to help convince them this is a good idea?    –J.G., Des Moines, IA


Dear J.G.

Good for you! Implementing an activity tracking system is a great way to start improving your sales. I’m a firm believer in the old adage “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”


Unfortunately, I also know that sales teams who have “self-managed” for a long time can be quite resistant to a new tracking system. It will be important for you to present this change in a way that reassures them that you aren’t attacking or critiquing their work. As their manager, it is your goal to supervise them, but you should avoid micro-management. This is about accountability and setting up reliable systems, not uncovering your weakest employee through some kind of Hunger Games competition. That’s why you need to stress your role as a support for your team.


I suggest you emphasize the way activity tracking will help your company standardize how you do things. Developing client relationships and moving them through your sales pipeline is key to sustained success. Once you have a protocol for tracking how your company does this, you’ll see more reliable sales growth. As your company grows, it will be easier to train new sales people in your system. And in the unfortunate event that one of your existing sales people is called away unexpectedly (e.g., because of an illness or family emergency), you or someone else on your sales team will be able to step in and cover for them. Even the most contrary of sales people should recognize that these are all positive benefits for the team!


Having a sales activity tracking system will also help you help your employees. If someone on your team isn’t delivering the results your company wants, you need to be able to review where he needs support. Is he losing business to competitors because of his slow response-time? Does he not follow-up after sending proposals? Does he reach out to enough new contacts? Identifying his areas of weakness gives you both the opportunity to target specific skills that need strengthening. If you make this an opportunity for learning and development, your team won’t feel threatened. In fact, they may come to recognize the tracking system as the career-enhancing tool it can be!


Good luck, J.G.! Let us know how your team responds.

Dear Jon,

When my company sends proposals, we include a total price for all our equipment rentals. Recently a potential client demanded to see the itemized list of all the equipment. I decided not to send this and she ended up not hiring us. Should I have given her the list as she asked?  –S.M., Chicago


Dear S.M.

I often remind caterers that although you plan parties every day, most of your clients will only plan a few big events in their entire lives. Even those clients who host events regularly (corporate event planners, social butterflies, the frequently re-married) don’t have the same level of experience you do. I point this out because I want you to consider the nerves and anxiety your clients may feel when they are hiring a caterer. It’s understandable that a host would want to feel confident that every detail is being properly managed.


That said, I think you did the right thing. Sending a potential client an itemized list enumerating every teaspoon and hors d’oeuvre tray would be a mistake. There would be nothing to stop that client from giving your list to a competitor or using the list herself. It has taken you years of experience to learn exactly how many forks to order and you shouldn’t be bullied into handing over your intellectual property. Had this been a confirmed client, you might have agreed to share your rental list, but, without any contract between you, you were correct to protect yourself and your company’s interests.


In order to prevent this from happening again, make sure that your proposals include a thorough outline of the items factored into your rental price. Depending on the scope of your services, you might consider using general language to explain that you will arrange for the rental of “all dining tables and chairs; all china, flatware, glassware, and table appointments; and all necessary kitchen equipment.” This will help to reassure your clients that you have thought of every last salt-and-pepper shaker but will also protect you from revealing your trade secrets.


Keep up the good work, S.M., and let me know how this strategy works for your company!

Dear Jon,

We get so many requests for donations. How can I balance my charitable instincts with the realities of running my business?  - L.S., Chicago


Dear L.S.:

I commend your instinct for generosity. Sharing the wealth produced by your company is one of the proudest moments a business owner can experience, and helping support vital charities is a noble and necessary activity. Sadly, the needs are so great that many in the hospitality industry receive dozens if not hundreds of donation requests per year. Even the wealthiest and most generous caterers could not afford to accommodate every request.


My first recommendation is that you remember that you run a for-profit business that must be sustainable. You have obligations to your staff, your investors, and yourself. Your generosity will not benefit anyone in the long run if you give away so much that you can’t stay in business. Therefore, you will need to be selective when deciding who to support. Consider limiting your donations to a small handful of organizations whose missions best complement your company’s core values. By limiting the number of charities you support, you will be able to make a more generous and meaningful contribution to each.


Next, consider each opportunity on a case-by-case basis pending your personal relationship with the institution and individuals involved. Create an annual donation budget that is affordable and earmarked for your Best Fit Clients (those who use your services often, spend generously, and whose parties generate the highest return). Once you have determined which organizations to support, make sure that your contribution will generate sufficient benefit for your company. Many organizations are large foundations with significant resources for entertaining. It is entirely appropriate for you to expect recognition and even cross-promotion. If you are donating significantly, you should at least have an opportunity to present your services to the charity’s Board of Directors and leading donors. In the best case scenario, the not-for-profit will contract you as their exclusive provider, giving you the opportunity to work with them on a regular basis for a modest profit. These are all details to consider during your negotiation with the organization.


For those requests you decide to decline, I always recommend writing a brief note along the lines of "Thank you for considering Smith Catering to be involved in your October 14, 2014 Education Society fundraising event. Our company is proud of our long and consistent history of philanthropy and volunteer work. As you can imagine, though, we receive requests for donations almost daily..." Then, continue with any of the following:

  • Unfortunately, we cannot afford donations at this time.
  • In lieu of a donation of monetary value, I’d be happy to volunteer an afternoon of my time as our busy event schedule permits.  [This could be a great team-building outing for your company to do together!]
  • We have designed a gift certificate for a wonderful donated event. Your organization may purchase this event from us for a greatly discounted price which will cover our costs and allow you to auction the prize at a mark-up.
  • Our donation budget has already been established for the current year. I encourage you to contact us again in January to be considered for next year’s charitable budget.

End your letter with a warm “Yours is a valuable organization and I appreciate your efforts. Thank you for this opportunity and know that Smith Catering looks forward to contributing to your entertaining success.”


Regardless of your decision, always be direct and warm with the person making the request. Whether you donate or decline the opportunity, if you stick to these general guidelines, you will balance your professional and charitable instincts in a satisfying way.


Dear Jon:

My Sales Manager tells us to "up-sell" but I feel pushy when I do. Do you have any suggestions?  –L.P., Atlanta


Dear L.P.:

I understand the reluctance you’re feeling. “Up-selling” is, indeed, an unsettling term and nobody appreciates being pushed to buy extra things. Let me try to reframe how you think about the sales process.


As a catering salesperson, it is your business responsibility to create revenue for your company. In order to meet your sales goals, you need to maximize revenue per guest whenever appropriate. The good news is that there are creative ways to do this that won’t feel like your focus is only on increasing check averages. I suggest you think about ways to give clients the best possible event. What will “WOW!” their guests? Is it a specialty cocktail the color of their corporate logo? Is it a late-night snack as guests are leaving? Is it a customized dessert inspired by the bride and groom’s favorite vacation destination? Whatever you suggest, you should collaborate with clients on ways to enhance their guests’ experience.


Try to start suggesting special items or additional services as early as possible in the planning stage. Long before the contract is on the table or the proposal has been sent, you’re setting a tone that says you and your company want to create the best possible event. By working with the client on incorporating these enhancements into their plans, you’ll avoid suddenly pitching add-ons. You’ll feel less like a sleazy, “up-selling,” shark but you’ll still be maximizing revenue and creating unforgettable experiences for your clients. 


Good luck and please let us know how this perspective works for you!


Dear Jon:

What can I do about the constant fighting between my Chef and the front of the house staff? -K.C., Boston


Dear K.C.:

This can be a tricky problem because you may be tempted to “take sides” in the arguments between your staff. Remember to address interpersonal problems as business challenges. This distinction will help you focus on your professional objectives.


Infighting can be hugely detrimental to a restaurant or catering company. While your Chef and FOH staff are bickering and placing blame, who’s taking care of the customers?! As a hospitality company, everyone’s goal should be to satisfy your clients and guests. You can make sure your team is on the same page by clarifying your company expectations. Take time at every training session, production meeting, and pre-shift dinner to remind all staff that their attention needs to be focused on the guests.


Because we all come from different backgrounds and had different training, your Chef and FOH staff probably have different levels of experience and communication styles. Some hands-on training will give each member of your team a greater understanding of what their colleagues do. Assign your Chef to join a salesperson on a day of challenging sales calls, tight deadlines surrounding their load of admin work, and conversations with demanding and unyielding clients. In turn, instruct the salesperson to work alongside the Chef during a particularly long and grueling day to experience a hot kitchen, scalding pots and pans, loading and unloading trucks, and last minute changes to menus and guest counts. Your Chef and salesperson may not end up best buddies, but at the very least they’ll have a new appreciation for the challenges their colleagues face.


Good luck and let us know how things turn out!


Dear Jon:

How should I handle clients who continually ignore our guest count deadline? The last-minute additions (and subtractions!) are driving me crazy!  -C.H., Chicago


Dear C.H.:

A caterer’s policy on receiving an accurate guest count is one of the most important sections of your Terms & Conditions. A correct guest count affects every aspect of your deliverables and finances. As you have probably discovered, last minute changes can result in a hectic kitchen, a scramble for additional staff and equipment, wasted product, and out-of-pocket expenses. It can also lead to client dissatisfaction. That’s never good for your business!


The solution to your problem starts long before the event. First, engage your attorney to review your contract template. Your guest count policy must be clear and should use language your clients can easily understand. Each contract should specify the exact day and date the event’s guest count is due. It should also indicate what price increases clients should expect as a result of any last minute changes. Then, when the client confirms the event, verbally remind them of the deadline. By directing the client’s attention to the deadline well in advance, you’re emphasizing how important this information is to you. This will almost always hedge against any problems and will allow all to focus on and enjoy a great experience on event day.


Good luck and keep us posted on your progress!