Ten things to know before hiring a catering company

1. Venue – You should always have your venue selected before hiring a caterer. The venue not only determines your guest count (some venues hold more than others), but the type of kitchen/accommodations for the caterer. Also some venues do not allow outside caterers. If they only allow you to choose from their list, you can still use this guide, but just realize some aspects are different.

If your venue does allow you to use outside caterers, sky is the limit. If you can only choose from their list, then you have to stick to those caterers as well as the prices they charge. Always let your caterer know the venue and if there is a kitchen. When there is no kitchen equipment, the caterer is required to bring additional equipment and usually there is a charge for this. Also, know if your venue does clean-up or if the caterer needs to bring additional staff. Often times caterers will charge you an additional 5% if they need to bus tables.

2. Guest Count – You need to know a guest count when meeting with the caterer. How do you determine guest count? Well, first you add up the total amount of invitations you are sending out. Deduct any guests that are out of town or that you know for a fact will not show. With the number you are left I usually say add 20%. Why 20%? Well, though you may have 100 invitations out there with people that will come, remember that people do not typically show to a wedding alone. Therefore for each invitation you send out, you are possibly getting two to even three people (especially those going to families) showing. Do not rely on RSVP’s. I have noticed that many people do not send them in. If you are doing a formal sit-down dinner, then RSVP is important and you should require it on all invitations.

All catering menus are priced per person. Many charge different prices for different guest count brackets. So having an accurate amount of guests when you meet will get you accurate pricing. Also, remember that if you only order for 100 guests, but 200 shows, the caterer is only bringing enough for the amount you ordered. If you are on a tight budget, but want to serve a full dinner, you can always invite less people.

3. Type of Service – When it comes to catering you can have a formal sit-down service, buffet service, or even just passed hors d’oeuvres. It all depends on the setting, guest count, and your budget. Sit-down dinners cost considerably more than a buffet. Many caterers will charge to do tray passed hors d’oeuvres. Tray passed simply means that servers go around with trays to offer to your guests. It is very similar to a cocktail party. Buffets tend to be easier on your pocket book, but also your sanity. You do not have to worry about guests sending in the RSVP’s with what dishes they want, because you just order the array and they eat what they want. Buffets, however, are only as good as the guest count you provide. They can run out very quickly if the caterer is not given the right guest count.

4. Selecting Your Menu Items – When it comes to selecting menu items, I typically tell my brides to realize that there are others eating this menu. Do not select or pass over items that only cater to your personal tastes. Honestly, the Bride and Groom RARELY even get to eat at their own wedding. You are feeding the majority. So if you do not like fruit or cheese platters, realize that others may. If you order 200 servings of spicy kabobs, realize that not everyone likes spicy. Also, always try to have at least one vegetarian item. Even if it’s just a vegetable tray.catering pictures

When selecting your menu, many caterers already have packages that include your choice of entrée, sides, trays, etc. If your budget allows, try to get at least two different entrees, two different sides, one or two salads, and platters of fruits, crackers, cheeses, and vegetables. If you cannot afford two entrees, then select one that you know a vast majority will eat. Not sure? Ask the caterer. They do this stuff for a living. They should be able to tell you what people will and will not eat.

Also realize that if you order an entire catering package (i.e. appetizers, entrees, sides, and platters) do know that you do not actually get 100 servings of each. If you order 100 servings of a catering package, the caterer will split up the servings to how they see/know fit. If you have three different appetizers, there will not be 100 servings of each one. There may be 100 of the most popular, 70 of another, 50 of another, or they may just split it evenly three ways. Many do not realize this and must tell their caterer if they want a certain amount of servings of an item.

Base your menu around your style of wedding. If you are doing a casual, fun wedding, serve appetizers. Why do a full meal when most people are going to be up and dancing? It will save you money and still feed your guests. Or do a dessert bar! It’s the new fad. Cupcakes, candy bars, chocolate dipped strawberries, etc. If you are doing an elegant reception, then select more elegant and sophisticated menu items. Remember, food sets the tone just as much as décor.

5. Catering Yourself or Having a Friend Cater – Just don’t do it. Catering is a lot of work. The last thing you should do as a bride or groom is have yourself or even immediate family cater your wedding. It’s best to leave it to the professionals. They do this daily. I, myself, am a caterer and I would not cater my own wedding (if that helps put it in perspective). You have so much going on, that it’s impossible to focus on cooking food for people as well. Having friends cater can be stressful. Unless your friend is a professional caterer, I would still leave it to the pros.

6. Wedding Cakes – Many caterers will offer wedding cakes with their catering packages. Be careful. Majority of the time you are not getting a deal and majority of caterers do not have in-house pastry chefs. They actually outsource and purchase your wedding cake from a vendor. Meaning, they do not even make the cake you just paid them for. If they are paying someone else to make it, and you are paying the caterer, they need to profit. Therefore they charge you more than the person who made the cake for them. Ask your caterer if they actually make the cakes in-house or if they purchase them. If the caterer makes the cake, ask if they have an actual pastry chef making the cake. Sometimes it is just a service member using a boxed mix. Sometimes it is better to get your cake from a professional. There are companies that do both perfectly. My catering company makes our own cakes (from scratch) as well as the actual meal. It’s always important to ask.

7. Drinks and Bartending – Before hiring a bartender, be sure your venue allows alcohol to be served within their venue. Many do not. There are some that will allow bartending, but only with their bartenders or a fee for outside vendors. If you are having a bar service from a separate company, do not pay your caterer to also provide beverages. Usually you can reduce your catering bill. Or just have your caterer supply the water.

8. Shopping Around – Do not hire the first caterer you meet. Many will try to reel you in during your consultation, but be sure to shop around. Get price comparisons and most importantly battle between your caterers. No local caterer wants to be beat by another. Usually they will beat a competitors pricing. Go to the local Bridal Shows and Expos. Usually there are many caterers there who actually showcase their work. Many offer discounts at the Expos. If you can only use a list of preferred vendors at your venue, then still shop around between those vendors. Many vendors offer discounts for mid-week weddings and off-season weddings (November – February).

9. References, Tastings, and Reviews – Always make sure your caterer has references. If they are a first-time caterer it doesn’t mean they will be awful. Everyone has to start somewhere, but perhaps you should not use someone who is just starting out on your wedding. Order tastings! Many people do not order tastings from their caterers, and then do not like spices, combinations, etc that are in their menu items. If you do not taste it, you do not know what you are getting.

10. The Bottom Line and Fees – Know the fees. Many caterers will post pricing on their websites, but that is not the final cost. There is a sales tax, but also Service Fees. This will range anywhere from 10% – 35% on top of the total bill. Some caterers will charge additional fees for having to bus tables, china service, linens, additional equipment required, bookings over three hours, etc. Know all the fees before you sign. Some caterers will add the fees at the end and some can increase your bill by $500.00+. Ask for all fees and ask for an estimate including any fee they can/will be charging you. Upfront pricing without even having to ask is a sign of a good caterer. Be sure your caterer does not charge you to cut the cake. Many charge a fee of $50.00 to just cut and serve the wedding cake.

Every caterer has their own style and menu options. Many caterers can add custom menu items if it is not on their current menu. Shop around, know what to look for, but more so go in there with the knowledge of catering and the ability to work the price to what you can and want to pay. Just remember that the wedding is just one day. The food is just the event. Don’t break the bank feeding 200 people, but also realize that your budget may limit you, but does not mean you have to get bad quality either.

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