Top 10 Tips for Selecting a Caterer
Few are as important as the food you serve at your wedding. This is one of those things that can make or break your event. It is important that you consider everything from the quality, flavor and appearance of the food and beverages you serve. A great deal is riding on the decision of which caterer to hire, and if you think this decision really isn’t that important, look at it this way ...an amazing catering can rescue an event that’s on the rocks, but bad catering will almost always send guests to the doors or, in the worst case scenario, to the restrooms.
Catering is often the first or second highest cost item for most events. Since the caterer you choose is a significant budgetary decision it can influence how much money you have left over to spend on other areas like florals and cake, depending on food costs and quantities. You also need to take into consideration the fact that caterers can vary dramatically in their pricing and the types of meals and services they offer. The process of selecting a caterer can make you feel like you are comparing apples to oranges in some cases.
Here are our top 10 things to consider when hiring a caterer.
1. Responsiveness and Personal Interest in Your Needs
How responsive and interested a caterer is during your initial conversations is indicative of how they will perform during the length of their contract with you. Many caterers will claim to have the best-tasting food made with the freshest ingredients at the most competitive price, but it is a rare quality for one to be both quick to return calls and emails and open to critiques and new ideas. While these may seem like somewhat insignificant factors when compared with overall taste and cost, they actually mean that the caterer is truly concerned with meeting the customers’ needs and ensuring that they are pleased with both the product and the service. A prospective caterer should be learning as much as they can about you in your first few conversations with them, so you should expect them to be talking and asking questions about 20% of the time and you providing answers and outlining your needs about 80% of the time. If the caterer is not asking questions about the event they may see you as simply ‘the next client’. They should be interested in learning about your event. They should be asking about your theme, tastes, and budget.
2. Familiarity With Your Venue
You may be in for a surprise if you hire a BBQ take-out joint to cater a formal ballroom wedding. Or if you choose a high-end corporate event caterer to serve a rustic barn wedding. Why? Because these caterers may not be accustomed to preparing and serving food in such a setting. This can get even more specific depending on restrictions of the venue itself, like in the case of museums and historical sites. You want to be sure you choose a caterer who has worked at that venue before and knows all the rules that are typical in a venue such as yours. Even more traditional venues can also have restrictions that caterers must follow such as certain setup standards or disposal restrictions for waste food and water, so having a caterer that is familiar with a venue’s rules can potentially save you lots of hassle on event day.
3. Flexibility Regarding Menu Options
Practically every caterer has a standard menu or menus to choose from. Many offer some a level of built-in flexibility to adapt these menus to your specific needs by substituting specific items or customizing others. Any caterer who has been in the industry for any length of time knows they need to have a few different menu options that are constantly being updated and changing to keep up with current trends. However, the caterers who standout will go beyond standardized menu options and be willing to create amazing fare that matches an even more specific theme and dietary needs. If a caterer isn’t willing to adapt their menu or challenge its staff to work with and celebrate your custom theme, move on to the next one on your list. A proper caterer should offer menu proposals and attend tastings to finalize each dish’s flavors and perfect the portions and presentation to compliment or amplify your event design and theme. An ideal caterer should also be willing to handle special requests. We suggest that you ask the caterer if they are willing to include a family recipe you provide. Or ask if they will work with items of special significance to the style or theme of your event. Or even ask if they can they prepare vegetarian, vegan, kosher, or children’s, meals for your guests. All of these are important questions to ask upfront to see how far each caterer you interview is able and willing to accommodate you.
4. Ability to Handle Your Specific Type of Event
Not every caterer is perfect or every client, and many caterers themselves openly admit this. All caterers handle a broad range of events, but they are built to serve different markets. This allows them to work more effectively so it’s important to ask enough questions to determine if a caterer has the right kind of experience for you . Each caterer has areas they specialize in so even a caterer with a great reputation may not be the best fit for you. For example, some are more ’boutique’ and specialize in smaller intimate-type social events. Others specialize in serving large corporate and non-profit clients. So, when interviewing your caterers, and we suggest that you speak with at least three caterers, be specific about the type of event you are planning and the type of food and/or presentation you are expecting. Otherwise, you may end up selecting a caterer who simply isn’t a good fit for the type or style of your event. Some caterers excel with barbecues they are great for casual barn weddings and others shine with elegance that work well for that black-tie gala. You need to select the caterer that works for that specific function, not just because you know someone else who has used them previously and liked them.
5. Willingness to Provide Tastings
How will you ever know what a caterer can do unless you sample their food? And more specifically, how will you know what the menu items you are considering will taste like unless you specifically try them?
Some people shy away from asking to sample the specific items they want for their event because it seems like a hassle for the caterer, but it is standard to ask for a sampling of what you are intending to order before you sign on the dotted line. We recommend that you attend at least three tastings with separate caterers and make sure you can sample your options and get a feel for their style and presentation. Never settle for a caterer that will just give you a generic sample. You need to know what the food on your menu will taste like. In some cases caterers will charge for these tastings so prepared ask if their is a charge prior to scheduling your sampling. In addition, you can request wine parings for these tastings if they are appropriate for your event (again, be prepared to pay a fee … it’s a small price to pay to ensure you choose the right caterer). And when you are sampling the food, always take note of how it is presented, as any caterer who takes the time to properly display a sample will probably be more likely to make that kind of effort on your wedding day.
6. References You Can Call and Talk To
Always check up on the caterers you are considering. Start off online with sites like Yelp, Wedding Wire and Angie’s List for their reviews and ratings. However, don’t feel like you have to stop there. Online reviews are not always reliable or authentic. For example, a good caterer may have had a few nightmare clients who skew their ratings, while a truly mediocre caterer may have padded their online reviews. So see if you can track down some past clients of the caterers you are considering and reach out to them. After all, people are often more forthcoming in private conversations about any disappointments in regards to the food or overall experience with the caterer than they are in written reviews online. Don’t just rely on what the caterer tells you, or what their handpicked references tell you…do some extra legwork to ensure you are getting the straight story.
7. An Experienced Chef and Kitchen Staff
Surprisingly, how long a catering company has been in business may not be as critical in selecting a great caterer as you may think. The length of time in the catering industry doesn’t necessarily translate into great and tasty cuisine. The chef’s background and experience can be more important than the owner of the company who has awards on their shelf. It’s the chef, sous chef and kitchen staff that often seals the deal, so make sure to ask about the chef’s bona fides and previous experience because they will probably be the one most responsible for the outcome of the meal and whether your guests enjoy it or not. When a caterer is willing and able to elegantly and expertly surprise and delight your guests by delivering beautiful, tasty and adventurous food with great service that compliments your event theme, you know you've picked the right caterer.
8. Complete Explanation of Services/Goods Promised in the Contract
Every detail should be included in the contract, included selected menus, number of servings and/or people to be served, beverage/bar service details and all pricing and additional services. Even what seem to be small details or no-brainers should be included in the contract. Get everything in writing with clear terms for setup/cleanup and left over food. Most caterers will take the leftover food away unless agreed upon beforehand and a liability release is signed. The caterer’s contract should clearly spell out exactly what food, beverages and services the caterer will be providing on your wedding day. Moreover, it should protect you from non-performance as much as it protects the caterer from non-payment/default, so be sure to read over it entirely and carefully. An important thing to inquire about is what comes standard in their contracts and what is an upgrade. For example, do they quote paper and plastic plates while you are expecting glass or china plates? This is a very important point as the rental of these items can add up. Also inquire about the number of staff the caterer intends to bring to service your event. The minimum ratio we suggest is 1:12, which not only includes the servers, but also encompasses the chef and their staff, the crew loading and unloading the truck, the dishwasher, the bartenders and the banquet captain.
9. A Well-Defined Cancellation Plan
No caterer with a shred of dignity and scruples enters into a contract with plans to bail at the last minute, but you need to make sure there is a cancellation clause in your contract just in case your caterer has to cancel. Get detailed information on how they handle cancellations and make sure it is included in your contract. You should find out if your deposit is fully refundable and what the next steps are and will they refer you to other caterers or help make some calls to see who is available in the case of cancellation. You don’t want to be left without recourse with only days or hours before your event, so, always make sure cancellation procedures and penalties are in place so you are armed with a proper backup plan.
Any reputable catering company is going to have liability insurance. If they don’t, this is definitely a red flag. This type of insurance protects them and keeps you from having to deal with any recourse if something were to happen and they weren’t properly insured. Insurance coverage, or "liability insurance" is a given for professional caterers. You certainly don’t want to legally be on the hook for some oversight or accident that was the fault of your caterer.