The 2021 wedding season is projected to be among the busiest in a decade with an estimated 2.77 million weddings, which is over half a million more than usual.
This is great news for catering companies, whose income evaporated during 2020, and it can be great news for your wallet if you explore this lucrative yet under-appreciated side hustle.
I first discovered catering in graduate school, when a friend who worked for a catering staffing company offered me a job. I had an hour-long training from the staffing company. On my first shift, a wedding at a historic estate with ocean views, I dropped a tray of champagne flutes.
Despite my non-illustrious start, I stuck with catering. The money is consistent and the perks, if you work for the right caterer, add up. As I write this, I’ve been eating catering leftovers all week.
Find out how to get started in catering, how much money you can make catering, plus what skills caterers need right now.
How to Find Local Catering Jobs
Event caterers are everywhere: big cities, college towns, and rural areas cashing in on the rustic wedding trend. Wherever you go, you’ll find a local catering company. If you find yourself in between jobs, catering income can give you a buffer until you land something else.
Plus, the jobs are often on Friday nights or weekends anytime, a bonus for a Monday-through-Friday worker looking to bring in more money.
Given the part-time, seasonal nature of the industry, workers tend to come and go. As a result, catering companies are often hiring. Many caterers love working with college students who are home for the summer or teachers looking for extra money on their summers off.
During the wedding season, the best catering companies will have two to three weddings on the same day and you’ll be able to work every weekend if you want.
In many markets, the catering season extends beyond summer weddings. University towns have receptions, graduations, and college reunions. Individuals have private parties for milestone events.
Companies host holiday parties, summer picnics, and other employee engagement events, although Jackie Spigener, who owns Silver Sycamore Events Resort, a wedding and event venue in Pasadena, Texas, says corporate events haven’t yet returned fully.
There will always be more opportunities if you live in a bigger city, simply because catering will serve multiple markets, but even in my part of upstate New York, I could get a shift every single weekend from May to October if I wanted.
Jobs in Catering
Catering jobs include bartender, server, and cook. Bartender and cook jobs tend to go to people with previous experience in that role.
A typical catering shift lasts anywhere from 7 to 10 hours and you may need to travel to the location (I’ve gone as far as two hours, but been paid for travel time). The work is physical, the hours are long, and you’ll be on your feet the entire time.
There are perks. You’ll be a fly on the wall at events held in beautiful locations. If you’re the sort who gets bored easily, you’ll appreciate having different work environments, since many caterers travel to several event venues in the region.
“Catering is an extremely fun job as every event is different, and you can see a lot of really cool venues and be a part of some amazing events,” says Daniel Wolfe, owner of Wolfe and Wine Catering in Houston.
Eating on the Job
You’ll be fed on your shift; this might be the same food guests are eating or a separate, simple meal. Food that was not served to the guests and would otherwise be wasted is typically up for grabs at the end of the night. I’ve also taken home wedding decor, bouquets, and opened bottles of wine.
While it helps if you have previous experience, this is absolutely not necessary.
“All of the catering/food serving skills can be trained if the work ethic and personality for customer/guest service is there,” says Spigener.
Catering Side Gig Jobs
Depending on how big the event is, the caterer could need dozens of people. Some will need high-level culinary skills but that’s not what you will probably be doing. Think of your as the muscle and if you’re dealing with guests, a server with a good attitude.
There are positions for people of all skill levels. For example:
Jobs for New Hires
- Refill water glasses
- Clean up during cocktail hour
- Clean up after event
Jobs for Experienced Workers
- Pass appetizers
- Tend the bar
- Serve people sitting at head table
While I started with a catering staffing company, I wouldn’t recommend doing this. I was basically a temp sent to bolster catering agency staff, who earned more than I did.
The agency agreement prohibited temps from being hired on by any caterer we’d temped for, which kept us corralled in lower-wage, disposable work.
Approaching companies directly is the better option. While catering companies are typically looking to hire in spring, this year’s labor shortage means that many are understaffed. You can find local caterers who are looking to hire on Craigslist or by searching for event venues and catering companies in your market and reaching out directly.
If you know someone who works for a restaurant or hotel that has a banquet facility, they may be able to refer you.
How Much Money Can You Make Catering?
Restaurant workers in most American markets receive a well-below-minimum-wage shift payment and make most of their money in tips. Catering workers tend to be paid competitive hourly wages, plus tips.
Thanks to the hospitality industry labor shortage, it’s a worker’s market. Employers all need to staff up at the same time, so companies have to compete on wages. Reach out to several companies at the same time, then take your pick of one or more that pay the most.
The Hourly Wage
Wolfe currently pays $12-$15 per hour for servers and $15 per hour for cooks. Bartenders earn $10 per hour with a tip jar visible or $25 per hour with no tip jar. Wolfe says he pays based on the cost of living and would probably pay 20 to 30 percent more if he were located in a market like California or New York.
Private party shifts tend to be shorter — a skeleton crew will be working in (or outside) someone’s home for a dinner service or cocktail party — but the odds of a direct cash tip at the end of the night increase significantly.
Spigener says she currently starts catering staff at $10 per hour.
LaSonya Holmes-Boulware, who owns My Girls Catering and Food Truck in Greensboro, North Carolina, starts catering servers at $10 per hour and cooks at $15 per hour. Experienced workers can be paid more for working elite events.
What the Bosses are looking For
When hiring, Spigener looks for personality (“courteous and mannered well”) and a willingness to pitch in. Wolfe values punctuality (because “an upset client is a lost client”) and flexibility, since it’s difficult to predict when shifts will end.
Attention to detail, a good work ethic, and a positive attitude are his top desired skills. Holmes-Boulware seeks out people who are willing to work flexible schedules, like Wolfe, and prefers those who have prior experience with events.
I’ve worked in restaurants and for caterers. Catering has always paid me more per hour, in every market I’ve worked. The seasonal nature of the job makes it an ideal side gig. If you can get in with a top-notch caterer now, when the need is high, you can secure a lucrative side hustle for as long as you need or want one.
Codetic contributor Lindsey Danis is a Hudson Valley-based writer who specializes in food, freelancing advice, and personal finance. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, NextAdvisor, Greatist, and more.