What is Catering? Industry, Segments, Types

  • Post last modified:20 April 2023
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What is Catering?

The food service industry (catering industry in British English) encompasses those places, institutions, and companies that provide meals eaten away from home. This industry includes restaurants, schools and hospital cafeterias, catering operations, and many other formats, including ‘on-premises’ and ‘off-premises’ catering.

Catering is a multifaceted segment of the food service industry. There is a niche for all types of catering businesses within the segment of catering. The food service industry is divided into three general classifications: commercial segment, noncommercial segment, and military segment. Catering management may be defined as the task of planning, organizing, controlling, and executing.

Each activity influences the preparation and delivery of food, beverage, and related services at a competitive, yet profitable price. These activities work together to meet and exceed the customer’s perception of value for his money.

Catering Segments

Catering management is executed in many diverse ways within each of the four segments. The first, commercial segment, traditionally considered the profit-generating operation, includes the independent caterer, the restaurant caterer, and the home-based caterer. In addition, hotel/motel and private club catering operations are also found in this category.

Food Service Catering Industry

Military SegmentCommercial SegmentNon-commercial Segment
1. Military Functions
2. Diplomatic Functions
1. Independent Caterers
2. Hotel / Motel Caterers
3. Private Clubs
4. Restaurant / Catering Firms
1. Business / Industry Accounts
2. School Catering
3. Health Care Facilities
4. Transportation Catering (in-flight catering)
5. Recreational Food Service (amusement and theme parks, conference, and sports arenas)
6. College and University Catering
7. Social Organizations (fraternal and social clubs)
Modern Catering Categories

The figure above illustrates how the food service catering industry is segmented. The non-commercial segment, or the ‘not-for-profit’ operations, consists of the following types of catering activities: business/industry accounts, school, college, and university catering, health care facilities, recreational food service catering, social organizations, and transportation food service catering. The military segment encompasses all catering activities involved in association with the armed forces and/or diplomatic events.

Types of Catering

There are two main types of catering on-premises and off-premises catering that may be a concern to large and small caterers. On-premise catering for any function – banquet, reception, or event – that is held on the physical premises of the establishment or facility that is organizing/sponsoring the function.

On-premise catering differs from off-premise catering, whereby the function takes place in a remote location, such as a client’s home, a park, an art gallery, or even a parking lot, and the staff, food, and decor must be transported to that location. Off-premise catering often involves producing food at a central kitchen, with delivery to and service provided at the client’s location. Part or all of the production of food may be executed or finished at the location of the event.

Catering can also be classified as social catering and corporate (or business) catering. Social catering includes such events as weddings, bar and mitzvahs, high school reunions, birthday parties, and charity events. Business catering includes such events as association conventions and meetings, civic meetings, corporate sales or stockholder meetings, recognition banquets, product launches, educational training sessions, seller-buyer meets, service awards banquets, and entertainment in hospitality suites.

On-Premise Catering

All of the required functions and services that the caterers execute are done exclusively at their facility. For instance, a caterer within a hotel or banquet hall will prepare and cater to all of the requirements without taking any service or food outside the facility. Many restaurants have specialized rooms on-premise to cater to the private-party niche. A restaurant may have a layout strategically designed with three separate dining rooms attached to a centralized commercial food production kitchen.

These separate dining rooms are available at the same time to support the restaurant’s operation and for reservation and overflow seating. In addition, any of the three dining rooms may be contracted out for private-event celebrations and may require their own specialized service and menu options. Other examples of on-premise catering include hospital catering, school, and University/ college catering.

Off-Premise Catering

Off-premise catering is serving food at a location away from the caterer’s food production facility. One example of a food production facility is a freestanding commissary, which is a kitchen facility used exclusively for the preparation of foods to be served at other locations. Other examples of production facilities include but are not limited to, hotel, restaurant, and club kitchens. In most cases, there is no existing kitchen facility at the location where the food is served. Caterers provide single-event food service, but not all caterers are created equal. They generally fall into one of three categories:

  • Party Food Caterers: Party food caterers supply only the food for an event. They drop off cold foods and leave any last-minute preparation, plus service and cleanup, to others.

  • Hot Buffet Caterers: Hot buffet caterers provide hot foods that are delivered from their commissaries in insulated containers. They sometimes provide serving personnel at an additional charge.

  • Full-Service Caterers: Full-service caterers not only provide food but frequently cook it to order on-site. They also provide service personnel at the event, plus all the necessary food-related equipment— china, glassware, flatware, cutleries, tables and chairs, tents, and so forth. They can arrange for other services, like décor and music, as well. In short, a full-service caterer can plan and execute an entire event, not just the food for it.

Types of Catering Establishments

Various catering establishments are categorized by the nature of the demands they meet. The following are some of the catering establishments.


A restaurant is an establishment that serves customers prepared food and beverages to order, to be consumed on the premises. The term covers a multiplicity of venues and a diversity of styles of cuisine. Restaurants are sometimes also a feature of a larger complex, typically a hotel, where the dining amenities are provided for the convenience of the residents and for the hotel to maximize its potential revenue. Such restaurants are often open to non-residents also.

Transport Catering

The provision of food and beverages to passengers, before, during, and after a journey on trains, aircraft, and ships and in buses or private vehicles is termed transport catering. These services may also be utilized by the general public, who are in the vicinity of a transport catering unit. The major forms of modern-day transport catering are airline catering, railways catering, ship catering, and surface catering in coaches or buses which operate on long-distance routes.

Airline Catering

Catering to airline passengers on board the aircraft, as well as at restaurants situated at airport terminals is termed airline catering. Modern airports have a variety of food and beverage outlets to cater to the increasing number of air passengers. Catering to passengers en route is normally contracted out to a flight catering unit of a reputed hotel or a catering contractor or to the catering unit operated by the airline itself as an independent entity.

Railway Catering

Catering to railway passengers both during the journey as well as during halts at different railway stations is called railway catering. Traveling by train for long distances can be very tiring; hence a constant supply of a variety of refreshment choices helps to make the journey less tedious. On-board meal services are also provided on long-distance trains.

Ship Catering

Ship catering is catering to cargo crew and passenger ship passengers. Ships have kitchens and restaurants on board. The quality of service and facilities offered depends on the class of the ship and the price the passengers are willing to pay. There are cruises to suit every pocket. They range from room service and cocktail bars to specialty dining restaurants.

Surface Catering

Catering to passengers traveling by surface transport such as buses and private vehicles is called surface catering. These eating establishments are normally located around a bus terminus or on highways. They may be either government-run restaurants or privately owned establishments. Of late there has been a growing popularity of Punjabi-style eateries called dhabas on the highways.

Outdoor Catering

This catering includes the provision of food and drinks away from home base and suppliers. The venue is left to the people’s choice. Hotels, restaurants, and catering contractors meet this growing demand. The type of food and setup depends entirely on the price agreed upon. Outdoor catering includes catering for functions such as marriages, parties, and conventions.

Retail Store Caterin

Some retail stores, apart from carrying on their primary activity of retailing their wares, provide catering as an additional facility. This type of catering evolved when large departmental stores wished to provide food and beverages to their customers as a part of their retailing concept. It is inconvenient and time-consuming for customers to take a break from shopping, to have some refreshments at a different location. This arouses the need for some sort of a dining facility in the retail store itself. This style of catering is becoming more popular and varied nowadays.

Club Catering

Club catering refers to the provision of food and beverages to a restricted member clientele. Some examples of clubs for people with similar interests are turf clubs, golf clubs, cricket clubs, etc. The service and food in these clubs tend to be of a fairly good standard and are economically priced.

Night clubs are usually situated in large cities that have an affluent urban population. They entertain with good food and expensive drinks.

Welfare Catering

The provision of food and beverages to people to fulfill a social obligation, determined by a recognized authority, is known as welfare catering. This grew out of the welfare state concept, prevalent in Western countries. It includes catering to hospitals, schools, colleges, the armed forces, and prisons.

Industrial Catering

The provision of food and beverages to ‘people at work,’ in industries and factories at highly subsidized rates is called industrial catering. It is based on the assumption that better-fed employees at concessional rates are happy and more productive. Catering for a large workforce may be undertaken by the management itself or may be contracted out to professional caterers. Depending on the choice of the menu suggested by the management, catering contractors undertake to feed the workforce for a fixed period at a predetermined price.

Leisure-Linked Catering

This type of catering refers to the provision of food and beverages to people engaged in ‘rest and recreation’ activities. This includes the sale of food and beverages through different stalls and kiosks at exhibitions, theme parks, galleries, and theatres. The increase in the availability of leisure time and a large disposable income for leisure activities has made it a very profitable form of catering.

Relationship Between Catering Industry and All Other Industries

Food is the sustainer of life regardless of whether they belong to the animal kingdom or plant kingdom. All living beings consume food as they come into nature. Subsequently, they may convert the raw natural food into a usable form on their own. This transformation never involves the art and science of cooking, which is a specialty of human beings alone.

The importance of food for human beings is amply, accurately, and appropriately stated in the following age-old sayings: “A hungry man is an angry man” and “even the army marches on the stomach” where stomach implies food Employment of the largest number of people in the world in general terms (at home) and in commercial terms (catering) is in food preparation and servicing. Roughly half the world population (women) is actively engaged in the art and science of food production and then alone comes reproduction.

Food production, simply stated, is the transformation of raw food material into palatable, appetizing, and easily palatable tasty food. Unlike all other living organisms, man has to “buy” food by paying money. Where does the money come from? It comes only from industries. Any industry in the world has the primary objective of making money.

Money so generated by industrial activity is shared between the employer and the employee, however disproportionate it may be. Money so shared is used to take care of the three important objectives: food, clothing, and residence. Whatever is left after meeting these primary objectives may go towards acquiring wealth.

As clearly stated above, food is the very basis of existence or survival. To buy food, man needs money. The money comes or must come from industries, all of which have the primary objective of making money and share with those who help generate it. Since raw food needs to be transformed into palatable food fit for consumption which is achieved, as already stated, through general cooking (household) or commercial cooking (catering).

Therefore, no industry in the world is not directly or indirectly, one way or the other, related to the food (catering) industry. The commercial food industry or the catering industry is the only industry that provides food, at a price, away from home. Various types of catering services available would include general or specialty services such as transport catering, welfare catering, industrial catering, etc.

Article Reference
  • Dennis R. Lillicrap, John A Cousins (1991), Food and Beverage Service, Elbs.

  • Vijay Dhawan (2000), Food and Beverage Service, Frank Bros. & Co.

  • S. Medlik (1972), Profile of the Hotel and Catering Industry, Heinemann.

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