So we touch a lot on the design and photography aspect of weddings and events on our blog and Tip-sy Tuesday posts. And seems people always neglect one of the BIGGEST parts to any event when giving out helpful advice to couples -- Catering.
Finding and hiring the perfect caterer is no easy feat, and most couples have no idea how to budget for it, so today we will be touching on ways to find, weed out and hire the perfect caterer for your big day.
Catering is an experience for you and your guests, and to be honest, it's what your guests will remember the most -- if the catering was terrible, they'll remember it. That's not to say a five course meal with a dessert buffet is the only way to go, but if you're going to spend the money, you might as well spend it on the good stuff.
Here are our tips when researching, contacting and hiring your Perfect Caterer:
When To Start Looking
In your wedding planning Timeline, your caterer should be the second if not third vendor to get squared away after your venue is booked and ready to go.
Why? Because most caterers have limited staff and can only accomodate one, maybe two events per day, and they get booked quick! (especially with all the craziness of COVID.) As soon as you put your deposit down on your venue, start researching the styles of catering and food options you think you want.
Keep in mind that more and more venues are leaning towards a required catering list and your options might be limited -- this list is essentially companies the venue knows to do a really good job and makes the experience in the client's best interest, while having that familiarity with the space. It saves them and you the headache of an unfamiliar or underprepared caterer - but it may cost you more.
Before you begin reaching out to any companies, be sure to nail down a realistic budget. On average, your catering costs around 45% of your total wedding budget (scary, I know!) You can bet that an experienced and well-reviewed caterer will not have very many options below $20-25 per guest, and you can expect additional fees for anything under a 100 person guest list. Styles and inclusions like flatware, plate ware, linens and other rentals will play a huge role in their pricing as well.
But don't worry if you don't have your guest count or menu completely nailed down when you first reach out -- caterers (great caterers) know that things can change on a dime during wedding planning and won't expect a solid answer until about 30 days from your event. So in the meantime when reaching out to caterers, have your estimated guest count ready, catering style (buffet or plated -- we'll get into this a little more in a minute,) and the basics of what kind of food you would like to have to get the beginnings of a quote.
Picking Your Style
Determining your Catering Style is huge when it comes to matching your event vision and budget. There are several ways to either display and/or serve your food on your wedding day.
The most popular, and cost effective is the Buffet or Food Station style. This style puts all of your food in one place and your guests, generally, serve themselves. Think of it like bulk meal prepping. Just note that the type of food you want served may or may not work when it comes to buffet style. (Also take note of any COVID restrictions and policies when it comes to who is allowed to serve the food and how at your event to keep everyone safe.) Meal Stations are very similar but rather than your guests serving themselves, they bring their plate to a station that has a particular kind of food, and a staff member serves them. This is a great option to keep buffet lines small and get your guests through quickly. The only downside to Food Stations is that they may take up more space, and require more staffing, which may or may not balance with the savings from picking that style.
The next most popular style is having a Plated meal. This means that your guests remain at their table and staff members bring their chosen meal to them server style. This has a much more luxurious feel of a fine dining experience, but it vastly limits the amount of food your guests will receive -- and say goodbye to seconds! While some would argue that it's quicker having your guests served by staff members, rather than waiting in line at a buffet, you'd have to have at least one staff member per table to make it faster, seeing as they can only carry 2-4 servings at a time. This style will also put a tad more pressure on you to find out your guests preferences, meal choice and sensitivities, seeing as each plate will be catered to them. In our professional opinion, Plated meals are really more about the esthetic than the value. But hey! Doesn't mean your guests won't enjoy it!
Another style is having a Cocktail Reception, which means that instead of a sit down meal, you have appetizers served throughout the night for guests to nibble on. Some caterers have food minimums and won't allow this kind of style (at least without charging you more for it,) but it's always worth the ask. While this route might be on the more budget friendly side, if your guests will be consuming alcohol (particularly an open bar) you'll need to make sure you have plenty of food to keep them from getting sloshed by 6pm. If this matches your event the best, just make sure to communicate with your guests so they can make other food arrangements beforehand (no one likes a hangry Aunt!) Another thing to note is that the smaller the food -- the more people will take and the quicker you will run out. You'll want to work with your caterer to either monitor how many they put out at a time, or stagger your appetizers throughout the night.
What to Ask Potential Caterers
Ask your caterer about “guaranteed numbers.” Find out if the caterer will base their figures on a minimum number of guests. Seeing as you won't have your final guest count for months and months, this important when choosing a caterer. For example, if you "guarantee" 120 guests but only 50 actually RSVP they are attending, and the Caterer requires a minimum of 100, you'll be paying double for those 50 guests to reach that minimum. Often times, this is unavoidable, but nevertheless something to ask about and avoid if you can.
Ask What Else is Included in Their Quote.
Be sure to look into dinnerware and china when hiring your caterer. Some caterers include the dinnerware in their price, but this may mean that it isn’t of the best quality—it could be damaged, scratched, or worn out. Ask to see samples to make sure that the place settings meet your standards and match the rest of your décor. More often than not, items like these and linens are an add-on feature and are not included. With that in mind weigh your options as far as what all is included, the quality and the pricing from caterer to caterer. One pro about having your caterer provide those rentals is that they will be responsible for setting them up and tearing them down (and cleaning them!) so you don't have to worry about it. The only con is it may require more staffing on top of the item rental. If possible, ask for an itemized quote to see exactly what costs what, and ask questions if something doesn't make sense.
Ask About Any Staffing Requirements
Be sure to ask about the ratio of servers to guests.. Obviously, this can vary depending on the type of reception you have (seated dinner versus a buffet). Remember that Plated meals and item rentals that require setup/teardown will likely require one server for every eight to ten guests or essentially one server per table. The Caterer may have a minimum staff requirement, so be sure to ask and be prepared for a large staffing bill.
Ask About Allergy/Sensitivity Options
Most Caterers won't say anything about alternative foods (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, etc.) unless you ask about it. And while most caterers can only accommodate a special meal here or there, there are a rising number of caterers who pride themselves on offering these options as the only option.
Ask about COVID19 Policies & Protocol
We've all been thrown for a loop when it comes to planning an event in a pandemic, but we all have to adapt nevertheless. Before you sign a contract with your caterer, make sure you fully understand their cancellation/rescheduling policies when it comes to COVID19 related instances (well any instance, honestly.) If they aren't willing to work with you when it comes to craziness like that, you probably don't want to work with them.
Now I, as much as anyone, understand that we as vendors have to make a living and do whatever is necessary to keep our business afloat to put food on the table, so I'm not saying to expect a full refund or for them to be at your beck and call should things turn for the worse, but they should at least try to be human and work with you a little.
Also be sure to fully understand what precautions their staff will be taking when working your event -- your ultimate goal (and theirs) should be to keep everyone safe while still providing that great experience, even if it looks a little different.
Bottom line -- ASK ASK ASK. You'll never know unless you ask. And if a caterer is unsure, doesn't have an answer within a timely manner, or simply won't acknowledge your questions, that's not the caterer for you. Keep in mind they receive hundreds of inquiries all the time and they have to stick to their guns about their policies, but the right caterer will do everything they can to help customize your experience.
Also keep in mind that when selecting a caterer, you are hiring them for food, beverage, and service. This includes the service you receive as their client as well as the service your guests will receive at the event. They are providing so much more than a meal - they are providing an experience. As with any vendor, know that their pricing is based on the value of that experience. This is not something you want to skimp on or rely on poor Aunt Gladys the morning of your wedding to prepare for you. Hire a professional who knows what they're doing and will do an outstanding job -- you deserve it.
As always, thank you so much for tuning into our Tip-sy Tuesday Blog post (sorry it's been a while but we all know how busy the holidays get!) If you have more questions about finding/picking your caterer, or any other vendor, be sure to reach out to us and we'll expand in another blog!
Have a marvelous day, and stay hungry my friends.
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