10 Tips for Working with a Caterer (Part 2): Guest Blogger Natalie Dietz

Part 2

And now, once you have decided the caterer you’d like to work with, some things to consider as the partnership begins.

Be upfront about budget limitations.

Natalie’s take: If you know you only have $5000 (as a random number) to spend for catering on an event, don’t be shy about this fact. It helps set realistic expectations of what can be done, which means you don’t have your heart set on something that you can’t afford in the end.  

Jason’s response: I couldn’t agree more with you on the need to be upfront with budget and eliminate the little dance we do with clients trying to figure out where they stand.  Nothing is worse than talking through the visions of beef tenderloin and sea bass only to find out the client should be talking chicken and tilapia. (No offense to chicken and tilapia it just is what it is)

Factor in costs other than food (staffing, rentals, alcohol/beverages, service/gratuity, etc.).

Natalie: With budget in mind, also realize that your $5000 doesn’t go just to pay for food. You’ll need to cover staffing costs in almost every case, plus depending on your venue, also the costs of renting tables/chairs/china/glassware/linens (which sometimes fall under the purview of the caterer), beverages and service or gratuities. Do you have separate line items for these other factors, or do they need to be covered by your overall catering figure.  

Jason: Service is an area in the budgeting process that particularly gets neglected.  There is nothing easy about picking up a restaurant, moving it across town and packing it up to do it all over again tomorrow.  If your caterer says that they can feed 200 people with two servers be prepared for a fairly unsightly eating environment.  It doesn’t do anyone any good cutting it short on service: your guests, the caterer or yourself.

Be prepared to serve a meal at mealtime.

Natalie: If you are having an event that falls during or over a mealtime, people will eat like it is a meal. Even if you mean to have heavy hors d’oeuvres or a late tea, your guests will still be hungry for dinner at 7 p.m. Which means they will all eat dinner amounts of food, and you’ll likely run out of food.  

Jason: Amen – that’s all I need to say on that  

Consider different formats (buffet, stations, seated/plated).

Natalie: Discuss with how to provide an optimal experience for your guests without going over budget or changing the mood of your event. The food costs for a seated/served meal are usually less than those for a buffet, because you are serving a finite and known quantity of food. The same thing goes for passed appetizers versus those served buffet style. But you might need more staff to make either of those happen. If your crowd is typically bad about RSVPs, a buffet allows a little more wiggle room for drop ins and is less awkward to work in extra people.

Jason: Another great format is family style.  It gives you the best of both worlds. Presentation of a plated meal with fewer servers and a great atmosphere.

Know your venue, its limitations/requirements, etc.

Natalie: Each venue (hotel, restaurant, concert hall, etc.) has its own unique set of requirements and rules. Some have exclusive vendors for outside services; others are very open to using whomever. Before you go too far down the event planning rabbit hole, be sure you are clear on all of those rules and expectations.

A big area that varies by venue and can either save or cost you a ton of money is the alcohol policy. Places that allow you to bring your own will save you a bunch on the costs, but then the burden of figuring out correct amounts is on you. A good caterer will know how to figure this out and will have trained bar staff that will work with you to optimize what you have.  

Jason: We have a general template that we work from based on the  alcohol options that will be served and timeline of the event.  Check with the caterer prior to making your purchase. Some package stores or wine shops will allow bottles to be returned that have not been opened or chilled which will allow for a little more wiggle room on purchasing.  Ultimately you know your crowd best.  If keg stands are a tradition at family reunions, you might want to order a couple extra beers Just in case.

Don’t be shy about asking for a tasting or discussing specific requests.

Natalie: If you aren’t sure about how something is going to taste, or if you’re stuck between two entree choices, ask the caterer if they’d be willing to do a tasting. They’ll mock up the plates and let you sample before committing. This is a huge help when you’re not sure exactly what tarragon tastes like or what an “airline” chicken breast is. Seeing and tasting a dish will either lock in your choice or tweak it to suit your vision. Don’t feel shy about scheduling a tasting; it’s a much better choice than serving 250 people something you don’t love.  

Jason: We always encourage clients to have a tasting on their menu if possible.  Typically, a tasting is offered once we are both generally comfortable with menu and price point.  There is a good amount of labor involved in a proper tasting and won’t be offered to everyone that picks up the phone to inquire about catering options.  Our goal is to put your mind at ease as it relates to the menu so that the night of the event you are prepared to enjoy and mingle.

Be respectful of the caterer’s time, recommendations and concerns.

Natalie: With tastings and other special requests in mind, remember to respect the caterer (and really any event vendor or staff’s) time and expertise. If your caterer steers you away from a certain dish or offers an alternate way of serving it, they aren’t doing it to ruin your special perfect night. Instead, they’ve probably tried or seen something similar that didn’t work. Serving ice cream to a room of 300 might sound like fun, but the caterer knows that it would be almost impossible to get it to the tables fast enough for it not to melt but for everyone to enjoy dessert together. Some foods are too finicky or much more work-intensive to prep or serve in certain settings. The caterer’s reputation is on the line with each meal he serves, so he’s going to look out for what makes him look good and meets your needs as well.  

Jason: We want to experiment and present guests with exciting new takes on food.  We also want everyone to eat in a timely manner and have the hot food hot and cold food cold.

If you would like to set up a tasting/meeting with your caterer and they are in high demand around town, be prepared to look further down the road on the calendar.  Tomorrow at 2 probably isn’t going to be available.

Have fun with it.

Natalie: After all, no one caterers a math test. It’s a party or other special occasion. So have fun. And realize, other than you, no one knows exactly how you planned things to go. So if someone forgets to put out the special pink cocktail napkins or mismatches the drink charms, it’s not going to be noticed. What’s more, as long as there is food, drink and a cheerful host, it’s really hard to have a bad time.

Jason: Double Amen!!