What I learned about business from tea sandwiches

When I launched my catering business in 1997, I was starved for work. While I had a clear mission of the kind of events I wanted to do, I also needed to pay the bills.  So when a prospective client called asking for tea sandwiches for 60 people, I said, “Sure!” He had called the Four Seasons Hotel who quoted him $12/person; and asked me if I could do it for $6.  “No problem,” I said.

Tea sandwiches aren’t difficult, per se, but you need to get the bread right. The bread provides not only the structure for the sandwich; it also creates the aesthetic. It needs to be sliced thin and even so the sandwiches are dainty and elegant. For further refinement, the crusts are trimmed off.  If you want round sandwiches, to create a little diversity, then you have even more trim and waste.

At $6/person, it wasn’t worthwhile to invest in any special equipment to get my bread sliced perfectly. I couldn’t even afford to make round tea sandwiches with all the waste. I just had a regular ole serrated knife. My slices were fine, but certainly not refined.  My fillings were delicious, but they didn’t have enough butter and cream to seal the sandwiches together.

I knew my sandwiches weren’t perfect, but they tasted good and good for $6/person. I even added some homemade mozzarella to the order as a thank you for the business.

Two days later, I received a letter from the client: “The sandwiches looked like a 12-year-old made them. If you consider yourself a professional chef, you should be run out of town in a roasting pan.” He even criticized the mozzarella.

Defensive Julia thought this guy was a jerk.  Entrepreneur Julia considered his comments and what I could learn from this experience. (In hindsight – he was a jerk, but also right).

Lesson #1: Know what you do and do it well.

“Catering” is a broad term, and when people heard that’s what I did, they called with all sorts of requests: brunches, corporate drop-off lunches, weekly meal delivery, bat mitzvahs and weddings… you name it!

But I had a very specialized niche – preparing gourmet meals for 6 – 20 people in private homes. That is what I did, and it’s what I did well.  None of these other events are hard, but you need systems in place to do it well, efficiently and cost effectively.  If I catered a bar mitzvah, for example, I would spend an inordinate amount of time finding venues and staff and equipment rentals. I would not do it as well as a caterer that specializes in large events, I also wouldn’t do it in a cost-effective way. It’s just not what I did, and I wouldn’t do it as well. Better to leave it for a someone who can do it well, earn a profit and provide good value for the client.

My hunger for work hindered my business in three ways:

  1. I had an unsatisfied customer.
  2. This unsatisfied customer now wouldn’t even call me for an event that I would do well.
  3. While I was busy catering an event I was ill-suited to, I wasn’t working to build my core business.

All business owners face this at some point. As a new or financially struggling business, it can be tempting to take work that doesn’t perfectly fit your niche.  Often, it’s not as disastrous as my story.  But before taking on work or a client that isn’t in your wheel-house, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Can I earn a profit and still offer the product/service at a competitive price?

Even though I hung up my apron 8 years ago, I still get calls for catering.  At this point, I’m so slow and inefficient in my systems, it would take me 3 days to prepare for an event that I used to do in one.  I could do it well, but it wouldn’t be profitable at a competitive price. And it wouldn’t be fair to a client to charge what I would need to be profitable.


  • Is this the kind of work I may want to do in the future?

Sometimes, we get requests for work that don’t fit with our current offerings, but it’s an area we want to explore.  In my consulting practice, I’ve received requests to valuate businesses for sale. I haven’t done it before, but I’d be interested in offering this service in the future. The fact that I received calls, suggests there’s demand. There’s only one way to get experience doing something, and that’s by doing it.

If you decide to offer a product/service you haven’t before, then be prepared to take a financial loss. It’s great to learn with real clients, but they shouldn’t have to pay for your learning curve.  It may take you longer initially to complete a project; as such, you may need to discount the cost of your time.


  • If I don’t do it well, what can I do to preserve my relationship with the client/customer so that it doesn’t hurt future business?

“Bad news take the express train, good news takes the local bus.”  If a client has a bad experience with you, the news will travel far quicker than if they had a good experience. For my unsatisfied, tea sandwich client, I’m not sure there was anything I could have done to appease him. He would never be a client. But. I also don’t want the news of his dissatisfaction to spread.  What can I do to manage the impact?

Taking work outside of your area of expertise can be an exciting way to push yourself into new areas. Just make sure it doesn’t hurt your core business or reputation.

I held onto that letter for over 10 years, as a reminder to myself, “Know what you do, and do it well.”


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