Planning A Catered Event? Read This First
Selecting an event caterer and understanding the role catering plays at an event are both critical components of the event planning process. Since the topic of event catering and selecting an event caterer can be overwhelming for those planning events, we put together this event catering guide to help guide you through the process. In this article, learn the important catering facts to know, questions to ask, and additional tips to consider when planning an event with catering.
7 Facts To Know Before Hiring A Caterer
Meryl Snow assisted in helping us to understand the seven facts to know before hiring a caterer.
1. Fresh doesn’t always mean fresh
Couples today are food savvy. They dine out regularly at chic bistros and BYOBs rather than settling for the local chain restaurant. Fresh food, creative menus, and plate presentation are important to them. And these high standards get even higher on their wedding day.
The thought that their wedding food might be frozen would send them running. Most caterers realize this, which is why few will admit to using frozen products. Instead, when asked, they say their food is fresh and yes, at some point it was fresh. Right before it was frozen.
Is there any way to tell if you’re getting a straight answer? One way is to consider the bottom line. Most caterers in an area use the same vendors and purveyors, so in general, the cost of purchasing the raw products is the same. Ask the caterers you are considering to bid on identical menus and give you the price of the menu alone (without rentals, linens, etc.) If there is a big difference in cost for the same menu it should raise a flag.
How can caterer A charge $65.00 a person when caterer B charges $80.00? If nothing else has been factored in then it has to be in the food itself. Is caterer A buying cheaper cuts of meat, old produce, or seafood that is a day away from being bait?
Scary, but possible. It’s much more likely that the $15.00 represents the difference between paying trained chefs to actually prepare your meal from scratch with fresh ingredients rather than having a body tearing open boxes. It may seem on the surface that you’re really getting a deal but in reality, you are getting what you paid for – frozen food.
Your meal should be prepared from scratch by chefs, just for your event. Your hors d’oeuvre is made by hand, not a machine.
2. Served fresh means cooked on-site, not cooked elsewhere and carried in hotboxes
This is the difference between green beans that are bright green and snappy and green beans that are dull olive and mushy. Some caterers don’t have the trained kitchen personnel to actually cook the meal at the reception. Instead, your food is thawed and cooked at the caterer’s kitchen early in the day, put into hot boxes, and then brought to the reception.
The cooked food sits trapped in its own steam for hours before it’s ever served. We’ve all had food from a steam table. Once in a while, you have to. But at your wedding? The fresh ingredients for your meal should be prepped at the caterer’s commissary. They should make the stock, clean the fresh vegetables, and trim the fresh seafood. They should do everything but cook it because we know that the finest food goes from stove to plate not from hotbox to plate. If you want the food served fresh this is how it has to be done.
3. Service is a matter of math – the ratio of staff to guests is critical
You’ve taken the time, allotted the budget, and selected a wonderful menu so now you need to ask how many staff your caterer will provide to serve it. Nothing is more frustrating than having to hunt for hors d’oeuvre or wait in line for a drink.
Service can make or break your reception. Lack of adequate staff is very obvious to the guests and will undo all your careful planning. Be wary if a caterer plans to send 5 staff to attend to 200 guests! Call me crazy but I don’t want to have to look for waiters in order to eat. I want them to look for me. This brings me to staff quality. It’s important that staff is well-trained. Ask the caterer about their training sessions and manuals. Your staff should be service-oriented, pleasant, and attentive because your guests should never feel as if their needs are imposition.
4. Style is significant
The visual impact of your menu really does have an impact on your guests and the success of the reception. But the best thing any caterer can bring to your table is the sheer enthusiasm and will to create a day for you unlike any other. With the right caterer, your sense of style will show in your menu and its presentation, as well as in the surroundings and décor.
5. Menu design does not involve picking your food from columns
Some couples come to a caterer with definite menu ideas but far more come wanting the planner to take the reins. And justifiably so. Your caterer’s event planners should be well versed in menu design but if you want to be more prepared for the menu meeting think about some of the following. What kind of crowd is it? Are they younger and more receptive to many cuisines? Is it more the parents set who prefer familiar but at the same time fine dining?
“Meat and potatoes” is used to describe guests who prefer plain. Keep in mind that the hors d’oeuvres also contribute to the scope of the menu so if your budget doesn’t allow for a raw bar it probably does allow for butlered shrimp during the cocktail hour. When you have finally chosen the menu have the executive chef review it. Often he or she will be able to make welcome suggestions – a seasonal vegetable, a more complimentary sauce, a striking garnish.
6. Customer service counts
How long did you wait for your information after you made your initial phone call? Was it the information you asked for? Are your calls and emails answered in a timely manner? Do you feel important? In a time when you pump your own gas, find it for yourself in the store and wait in line or on hold daily, service seems a thing of the past. In terms of customer service, the good old days really were better and it’s this old-fashioned customer service that you want from your caterer.
Planning a wedding is a big job and you should have your catering planner’s attention when you need it. In addition to your planner’s attention, you should also have the attention of their whole office team so if your planner is out of the office another planner can field your questions.
And while you most likely will work closely with just one person, your planner should have a support system behind them. The unexpected can happen – a planner can leave, have an emergency, etc. If this happens what happens to you and your wedding? If your caterer has a team approach the show will go on without a hitch.
7. Word of mouth is still the best advertising
What is your caterer’s reputation? Look at the list of caterers for the venues you are considering. If you see the same names at many up-market locations chances are those caterers are doing something right. An exclusive facility has its own reputation to uphold so the caliber of the caterers on its list has to be high. Don’t hesitate to question the facility directors. They have a real sense of the caterers’ abilities so their input can be very valuable. They have seen it all – multiple times.
With just a little guidance from you, the director can often hone right in on the caterers that will make a fit with you. Between work, school, and everything else on your plate who has the time or inclination to interview eight caterers? It’s much better to eliminate the 5 or 6 that aren’t likely to be what you want, right from the start. Most places have shortlists so the weeding out has already been done for you. But some facilities that have ties to local townships have to have an open-door policy. Their directors are also required to “be fair.” With them, you might have to probe a little longer. “Who do you use for your own events?” is a good question.
With access to so many caterers, they themselves use is probably at the top of the list. Industry pros also have a good sense of who’s who and who’s doing what in the wedding world. Speak with the bands, florists, and photographers you are considering. They are at events from start to finish. They see the service, eat the food, interact with the staff and won’t hesitate to share their thoughts.
Remember though, that perfection doesn’t exist in the real world. Servers do drop plates sometimes, musicians hit sour notes, photographers take blurry pictures, and limousines get flats.
Look for a caterer who gets high marks time after time, year after year. In the end, this consistent commitment to quality will give you a great catering experience.
Top 12 Questions To Ask A Caterer
Once the list of caterers for the event is narrowed down, there are 12 key questions to ask a caterer before making a final decision.
1. What is the pricing structure and what does it include?
Most event caterers will provide you with a list of catering packages available at various price points.
Be sure to ask what each package includes and if something is not clear, ask for clarification! The best event caterers will be happy to answer these questions.
2. Can you list the various types of foodservice options?
You will likely have a choice in how the food is served to your guests. Each food service style typically comes with a different price point which is worth noting so that you can make the best decision for your event budget.
3. Do you offer tastings and how far before the wedding do they take place?
Many of the best event caterers will offer you a tasting option so that you can experience the food in advance of selecting the menu for your affair. If you wish to try the various foods on your menu, ask your caterer how and when you can come in to do so.
4. Is the cake included in my price?
Some caterers include the wedding cake in their catering package, some do not. Some caterers allow you to bring in an outside wedding cake and some do not. This is a topic to cover early on so that you are aware of how the wedding cake is procured.
5. What is your role on the day of my wedding? Are you involved? Who is my go-to person that day?
You may meet with the head caterer/owner of the company but who will be the contact during the planning process and on the day of the event? This is an important question to ask so that you know who you will be working with during the process and the day of.
If there are a few people involved in your event, you may want to schedule a time to speak with them directly while also getting all contact information in advance of your event.
6. Do you have a Liquor License Liability/Certificate of Insurance?
If you are looking to serve alcohol at your event, this is a very important question to ask before hiring your caterer.
7. Planning process: how many meetings will I have, is it unlimited?
Some caterers allow for unlimited meetings and some do not – it’s best to find out how the caterer operates and plans to work with you.
8. What is the payment schedule? How do I handle tipping? How do you like to receive payments?
It’s best to knock out the payment schedule and structure early on in your process so that you are financially prepared for the day of your event. Planning and organizing in advance will reduce stress and scrambling later on!
9. How will my wedding be staffed? What is the staffing ratio?
It is important to ask your caterer how many servers and staff will be on hand to work your affair. You want to ensure that there is enough coverage to attend to your guests. Questions about servers, valet parking staff, coat check assistants should be asked as well.
10. COVID Safety Protocols for Catering – What measures do you have in place?
It’s important to ask the caterer what safety measures they have in place for guests and staff for events. Inquire about food service, sanitation procedures, and any additional protocols that may be in place relative to local guidelines.
11. Do you have a backup plan?
Catering an event is all about planning. Accidents and unexpected scenarios will happen at any event. When interviewing caterers for a wedding or event, you want to check to see if they will have a back up plan for your event. What if staff forgets napkins or a guest breaks a dish? Will they have a portion of staff on call in case of emergencies, extra utensils and serving equipment? These are great questions to ask an event caterer.
12. Are there any hidden costs? Like for things such as furniture rentals, linens, anything else?
Sometimes we do not think about, know about, or count the secondary details but they can add up! Be sure to outline all details with your caterer early on in your planning process.
Asking the right questions will help you to select the best event caterers for your events.
Catering and The Event Layout
From an outside perspective, organizing a food setup and an event layout seem like two totally different things that wouldn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. However, from an industry standpoint, we know that a caterer setting up for an event (including the types of food served) should also coordinate with how an event is organized in terms of layout. There are a number of variables that factor into pulling off a seamless, well-orchestrated event.
How the overall event layout affects catering
The setup and logistics of your event should be well thought out and carefully planned, keeping in mind that your space not only needs to accommodate guests but vendors as well. In any given space, you want to make sure that you prioritize the needs of your caterer and other vendors, otherwise, the vibe of the entire event will be thrown off. It is important to know the flow of the room and what else will be going on during the event. For example, will there be a band, dance floor, presentation, etc.?
Keep in mind that each element impacts where and how you will set up the serving of food. Access to the back of the house or kitchen area must also always be considered. You’ll want to make the transportation of menu items from one station to the next as effortless and stress-free as possible.
Using Allseated to collaborate with your vendor teams on the floorplan layout and design will prove invaluable to your process. Not only will details be organized and every team’s needs addressed in the layout, but you will also be operating on the same page with everyone updated in real-time.
Ideal serving styles regardless of venue
Depending on the venue or space, some event layouts will naturally be trickier than others. When table setup comes into play as well as the foot traffic of the event, it’s crucial that menu items are compatible with the atmosphere.
More often than not, passed and buffet-style service is the easiest option due to the limitations on prep area, especially for plating a dinner. Additionally, you wouldn’t want guests to have to juggle large plates of food if there isn’t enough proper seating to accommodate everyone. That being said, the client may dictate your service style but it’s your call on planning and execution. Strategize by serving food in bowls with smaller portions.
Navigating outdoor event logistics
So, what about planning for an outdoor event? First off, an initial site visit is critical to event day success. Think about site access for vendors, how to bring in outside equipment, where the vehicles will be staged, and what utilities (if any) are available. Is there any shelter, and what does the terrain look like?
The type of surface for prepping and serving is also a major factor to think about, as it goes into planning your timeline and execution. Check the weather ahead of the event and determine how where the rainwater will run (you don’t want to be set up in a mud bog). Always be ready for a backup plan! Run every possible scenario through your mind and make checklists, because it’s much better to be over-prepared than caught scrambling on the big day.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask questions and express your needs or concerns. No one likes surprises before an event so it is important to make sure everything has been covered and accounted for. Organizing catering setup hand-in-hand with the event layout is a recipe for a flawless itinerary and an unforgettable guest experience!
By arming yourself with as much catering and planning knowledge as possible, you will feel more confident in selecting the best event caterers while having a much better understanding of the process.