Mmm-mmm Good: Choosing A Caterer

If you’re having a reception, chances are you’re going to want to feed your guests (although I suppose it’s possible you don’t actually like them and this is your subtle way of telling them that).  Some reception sites have an onsite caterer you are required to use, in which case…congratulations!  You’re already done!  Scratch that off the list!  Take the night off and go put your feet up.

For the rest of us, we have yet another choice on our plate (did you see what I did there? I made a punny!).  Finding a caterer can be a bit of a challenge because you have to find someone who fits your budget but has the kind of food you want, and sometimes those don’t mesh.  This part of the wedding budget is one of the easiest to go over on.  Approach it realistically from the beginning.  If you have a budget of $30 a person, you’re not going to be able to serve New York Strip Steak.

When you’re researching caterers, CHECK REVIEWS.  Look for information on food quality, final pricing (are there any references to unexpected fees at the end of the night?), promptness in arrival and serving time, and any other serving snafus.  If you find a significant number of bad reviews (look at it as a percentage of total reviews; sometimes bad things happen that are beyond anyone’s control, but it’s not usually a dominating force), you’re probably better off skipping them.  If the reviews come back clean, go ahead and check out any information they have on their website.  Look at both menus and pricing.  Keep in mind that most caterers will charge a gratuity (usually 20%) and tax (which will vary by state and is calculated on top of the total with the gratuity) on top of the meal pricing listed.  If the gratuity is not expressly listed, keep that in mind when you figure your final food budget.

Certain caterers may only have certain serving styles, so have an idea of what you want and check for that when you first start looking at a vendor.  Generally your choices are:

  • Buffet Style: For anyone who has never experienced a buffet before, this means that the available food is placed on a table, with hot foods in warming trays and cold foods in iced trays, where guests will come up and serve themselves.  Foods in this style are generally not “pretty”, but a good caterer can make them just as delicious as served entrees.  This is the least formal option.
  • Family Style: One large portion of each meal piece is brought to each table.  Guests take the serving size they would like of that particular food and then pass the plate on to the next guest.  This is a good compromise if you would like to actually serve your guests, but it’s not quite in your budget to individual plates.
  • Butlered Service: Here entrees are plated and served individually to the guests.  One can be chosen for everyone, or guests can have made a selection from a predetermined set of meal choices ahead of time and will be served that particular dish.  Some caterers charge extra for the privilege of allowing a meal choice.  This is the most formal option and is generally the most expensive (though there are exceptions).

When considering a caterer, ask about tastings.  Some do it on a request basis and have individual tastings, while some host a tasting event every couple of weeks for prospective clients where they prepare food on a large-scale (as they would for an event) and have a large tasting.  You may not be able to try all of the specific dishes you’re interested in, and they may not be served in the style you are planning on using, you can still get a pretty good idea of what to expect from them.  Often you don’t have to make any final menu selections until a month or two before the event, so you can still play with your exact menu for a while.

Run the numbers on what the cost will be for any option or combination of options you are considering, and try to decide what is the best compromise between what you want and what your budget is.  If you are interested in a caterer, see if they will be willing to sit down for a meeting with you.  This gives you an opportunity to tell them what you’d ideally like to do, and what your budget is.  Any reputable caterer will work within your budget and present you with your different options.  Be sure to ask about any delivery fees or purchase minimums.

Caterers can handle more than one booking a day, but they do still have a limit, so when you decide on someone reserve them as soon as possible.  Be clear on when they require a finalized menu, when a final guest count is due, and when payment is expected.

Now it’s your turn to go put your feet up for the night!

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Posted on November 10, 2011, in Budget, Food, Wedding Planning Isn't For Sissies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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