DIY Bride #6: Your Caterer

We are on a roll now! Venue: check. Guest list: check. Food: wait, what?
One of the biggest parts of any event – weddings especially – is the food. Everything can be perfect but if there’s something wrong with the food, it has the potential to ruin everyone’s memory of your special day. Food is a big deal.
Let’s say you have stayed within budget for everything up to this point. Remembering our initial budget for everything is $10,000 (the average wedding in the US is closer to $30,000), that would mean your budget for a caterer is approximately $1,500. For a 100-guest wedding, you’re looking at $15 a person MAX. This doesn’t include the cake, so that’s good.
Now, on to my favorite part: Research.
There are a couple things that you want to keep in mind while you’re conducting your research. First: What is your theme? If you are having a very formal Jewish wedding, it’s unlikely you’re going to want to look at caterers who specialize in BBQ. With our example couple (that would be Fictitious Chris Evans and mine’s fake wedding that exists only in my head), the theme is beach vintage. The location is a state beach venue and the guest list is 100 (including children and a pup). We’re crazy but in love – well, one of us is anyway. The DIY Bride doesn’t want to pay for frivolous bullshit (it’s true). And though we have the best intentions when it comes to making things ourselves, in the case of your wedding, there are somethings best left to professionals. Caterers fall into this category.
Inexpensive, good caterer can be a tough one to find. Notice I didn’t say cheap. Cheap caterers are all over the place. You don’t want cheap, you want inexpensive. That means value, not just less money. Good food, great price. This is your goal.
I always start my research with broad strokes then refine them as I get a better idea of how it will all fit together. I start with food categories. Do I want Italian food? Mediterranean? What does Fictitious Chris want to eat? Are there any restrictions that need to be considered like gluten, allergies, or general disdain? Laugh if you want, but if you serve food no one likes but you at your wedding, you’re going to be the only one happy and everyone will leave early. Do I think you should cater only to the mindless mob of people? Absolutely not! Variety is the spice of life!
So, for our example wedding, the state beach venue, the casual atmosphere, and the smaller guest list, allows for a bit more options. Italian food is my favorite so that’s where I start, but Fictitious Chris likes Mexican food – so I add that to my list. I start with (and this is going to sound silly) on Yelp and then cross-reference the ones I find with Four Square. NOTHING is more accurate in determining quality than reputation. And the best reputation to have is ‘word-of-mouth good’. I comb though the listings one by one (it does take some time) and I read their Yelp next to their website. I already know my budget and a lot of caterers will post their prices online. Easy to qualify or eliminate candidates. I make a list between 10-20 caterers that pass the Yelp/ Four Square test AND fall within my budget. I will also include some caterers that looked great but didn’t post prices – a lot of times, these caterers are open to negotiation. Next is recon.
One of the biggest issues that I have is manners. There is no reason to be an ass to someone you just met and there is certainly no reason to be an ass to potential clients. When we do recon, we are looking not for anything other than treatment. I like the ’email test’ as initial contact because anyone can be polite when someone is on the horn with you. It drives a sense of urgency and potential caterers tend to jump a little faster. In an email, they respond in their time; in their way. I will frame a nice email with basic details about the wedding and what I’m looking for, and that I would like to hear from them soon so I can make my decisions.
I will not consider any caterer that responds after 24 (business) hours from when I email. Unless I made the request at 6pm on a Friday, I should have a response within a day. Even if it’s a follow up so they can have more information; I should have contact in 24 hours. If not, I cut them. If they can’t make something as simple as an email a priority, how much of a priority will my wedding be?? Let’s say they respond but for some reason, I’m rubbed the wrong way. I cut them too. There are plenty of other caterers who can both cook well AND treat you with respect; I will not waste time on people who act more like I’m an inconvenience or a burden.
Once the email test is complete, now it’s time for contact! The first contact is by phone and the reps are always very nice. Let them know your theme and estimated head count and let them take it from there. What do they see that’s within your budget that suits your needs. Let them know you are interested in them catering and would like to schedule a tasting appointment (there may be a fee for this). I will never hire a caterer without tasting their food first. Now, if you’re securing your catering through a restaurant that you’ve eaten at – BOOM! Done and done! I would still recommend a tasting but you already have a good idea of the quality of the food.
By this time, you should have your list of 20 cut down to like 5 that you need to attend to the tastings. At these 5, you should be securing all the information you can so you can complete your pro/ con list and make your decision. Things you are going to want to ask:
1. Cancellation policy/ rain out policy – if you’re having an outside wedding, what is their ‘bad weather’ policy?
2. Details on the Contract – if possible, get copies of their standard contract in order to compare what all you get and what clauses may concern you.
3. Who is your go to? – who is going to be there during your wedding to make sure everything is right? (This is where your wedding planner comes in).
4. How long do you have to decide and what is their payment schedule? 
5. What do they include in their catering services? – do they provide tables/ chairs/ linens/ china/ etc? Or is it strictly food? A lot of caterers also rent out those things at a great price if you use their catering services. There are even a couple who won’t charge for some of those things!
6. Do they clean up? – seems like a simple ‘yes’ right? Wrong. A lot of caterers will charge you extra for the clean up but won’t tell you in such an obvious way. They charge time then book for only the time of your wedding and not the hour after it’s going to take to clean up. Then you come home from your honeymoon with an invoice in your mailbox.
7. Do they include beverages? – I don’t mean like a bar, but more like iced tea, soft drinks, water, lemonade, etc. If you are having a company supply and tend your bar, they would take this over. But if you are having a more open option – like a self-serve bar – than this is a great option for you.
8. Have they ever catered at this venue before? – Things always go a little smoother when it’s not their first time at a venue. They know what works where, how the process is, and some needed short cuts.
Those are the basics.
When you meet with them, listen well, get lots of information, and ask questions. The night before a meeting, write down any additional questions you might have like how do they handle last minute changes or when do they actually cook the food?
When choosing your caterer, you want to keep your venue in mind. Does it come with a kitchen where they can stage the food and then serve it? If not, then going with a buffet style serving would be your only option. Keep the ‘dream wedding’ picture we talked about on an earlier blog in mind. This will help guide you.
A typical catering service includes a cocktail hour (usually 60-90 minutes), a 3-course meal, and a dessert & coffee time (this is usually when the cake gets cut). You will need to have servers (one for every 50 people), a bus boy, and prep cook to pull off for 100 people, sit down or buffet. They are going to manage the food areas and make sure everyone is happy with their food. The wait-staff refill, serve, assist, and clean up – they are a vital part of the reception. 
While on the subject of servers, Let’s talk about your bar. Unless you’re having your wedding at your home, you will probably need to hire a certified bartender to serve alcohol – I don’t mean only if it’s hard liquor, even if you’re just serving beer. Most venues won’t allow self-serve bar. If you thought the food staff needed to be good, the bartender has to be brilliant. You will need at least 2 for 100 people, that way the bar is always manned and service is on point. Keep the booze flowing and you will he able to smooth almost anything over, but a jerk bartender can screw things royally.
That’s it for this one! Let me know if you have any questions, I will always do my best to answer them.

*This post was originally published 02/10/17*

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