Like thousands of people, Tim and Nina Zagat loved dining out. Unlike thousands of people, the Zagats found a way to turn that passion into a multimillion-dollar business.

As is often the case, the Zagats hit upon their great idea because they couldn’t find something they wanted themselves — a reliable guidebook to restaurants. Because they found selecting a new place to eat was often a hit-or-miss proposition, they got the idea to enlist some of their friends in helping them rate places they had eaten. The Zagats printed up the information and passed it among their friends. Their little restaurant guidebooks were so well-received that they decided to turn their hobby into a business.

Today, the Zagat dining guidebooks are the most popular in the field, covering several cities in the U.S. plus London and Paris. The food-loving couple now enlist the aid of thousands of people to evaluate a wide range of restaurants and give their opinion on everything from ambience to service. They added another profit center by issuing special editions, which corporations use as gifts for their customers and business associates.

Food has always, of course, been a popular basis for building a business. No other commodity is as universal in its market and fortunes have been made at every link of the food chain. One of the most prevalent business fantasies is to open a perfect little restaurant, despite the expense and failure rate of such undertakings.

But if food is your passion, there are numerous ways to turn that pleasure into profit, other than opening a trendy eatery. Let’s consider a few of the ways you could create a tasty business.

Catering. If cooking for a crowd is your forte, catering could be a natural for you. Both businesses and individuals use the services of pros to feed parties, conference-goers and other large gatherings. I recently met a woman who has spent the past 30 years creating luscious wedding feasts. Then there are the youthful caterers here in Minneapolis who specialize in feeding touring rock bands and their crews. Even more challenging are the catering businesses who specialize in cooking for film crews — often in out-of-the-way locations.

A new trend that’s catching on with busy professionals is hiring a personal chef who prepares a week’s worth of meals in advance and freezes them for the time-pressured singles and families who can afford such a service.

And catering is a business that seems to thrive almost everywhere. In small towns, private caterers now assume the role that was once played by the ladies’ aid organizations in churches. One of the advantages to catering, of course, is that it’s easier to control your time as a caterer than is possible with a restaurant where you’re expected to show up every day. Catering also allows you to be as creative as you like. You can specialize in something unique, such as wedding cakes or vegetarian cuisine.

Share cooking information. There are several formats that can be adapted if you love food and have good communication skills. When I visited my sister Margaret in Los Angeles, our drive time on the freeway was often enhanced by listening to the amazing Melinda Lee, a resident food expert who shares her tips and techniques on the radio.

Food is also a popular subject for writers, with an endless stream of cookbooks appearing all the time. This is one market that never seems to get saturated. A friend of mine compiled a cookbook of family recipes that was so treasured by everyone who received a copy, that she saw a new opportunity for starting a business to design and edit family cookbooks for others. And even self-published regional cookbooks find an eager market.

Examples of self-publishing success abound, so if you have an idea that might be conducive to publishing it yourself, by all means consider doing so. You’ll be in good company.

As our interest in fine dining and healthful eating has grown, the number of food magazines has also grown, with all sorts of opportunities for freelance food writers, critics and stylists to share their passion for good eating.

In addition, experienced cooks often teach adult education classes to share their expertise. A woman in Florida devised a class just for single men — and improved her social life at the same time. Classes in everything from low-fat cooking to haute cuisine continue to draw curious students wishing to expand their cooking repertoires.

Market a food product. Actor Paul Newman garnered enormous publicity when he decided to market his homemade salad dressing. Several million dollars in profit later, his company, Newman’s Own, has added other products, including popcorn and spaghetti sauce.

If you have a great recipe that’s deserving of its own place in the market, consider small-scale manufacturing. While this requires a considerable financial investment and, in most places, a rigid conformity to state regulations, the growing specialty food and gift shop market can provide a perfect vehicle for getting your product launched.

Many successful entrepreneurs sell food at special events or out-of-doors. You’d probably be surprised to learn that the annual income of some street vendors in New York surpasses the six-figure mark.

Another idea that has proved successful is specialty sandwich delivery to workers in large office complexes. Many entrepreneurs have carved out a nice little profit center this way.

Sell food via the mail. Thanks to speedy delivery services such as Federal Express, specialty food items are being shipped all over the country. I was flabbergasted when I saw a classified ad in Los Angeles magazine offering burritos for sale via the mail. Who’d ever buy a burrito that way, I wondered. Well, plenty of people, apparently. A few days after the ad caught my eye, I saw a story on television about the success of Burrito Express, which ships its specialty from coast to coast.

Then there’s Coriscana, Texas, home of the biggest purveyor of fruitcakes in the country, a product that is sold primarily through the mail. Gift baskets of local foodstuffs are also popular mail-order items. You can order all the fixings for a pancake breakfast from a company in Vermont, for instance. If you live in an area that’s famous for a food not easily found elsewhere, opportunity could be knocking.

While specializing seems to be the key to a successful food business, it’s equally important to have a desire to share your passion for glorious food. If you’ve got those basic ingredients, there could be a goldmine in your kitchen just waiting for you to discover it.

There’s more where this came from.
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