How to Choose a Caterer

You are looking for a caterer for your upcoming event, whether it is a small intimate dinner at your home, an elegant wedding, or a corporate launch.  Caterers come in all shapes and sizes, and the most important thing about finding the right one for you is to match their style to your vision for your event.

What did you like or dislike about the food and service at the most recent wedding or event you attended?  While it’s not every day that you book a caterer, you’ve likely experienced being a guest at a catered event, and this can be valuable information to bring to the decision making table.  Know what you are looking for when you begin shopping for a caterer – not necessarily the menu, but the feel you would like to achieve and the vision you would like to execute.  Let your potential caterer know about your style and what you are looking for, and the menu can evolve to suit your event.

First Meeting

Whenever possible, meet with your potential caterers in person before making your decision.  This will allow you the chance to explain your ideas, and ask questions as they come up.  Bring along the key decision makers for the event (committee members, parents, spouse, etc) to discuss your event with an event manager.  Will the person you are meeting with today be present at your event?  This is your first impression of the caterer and the company – is the chemistry there? Ask to see the kitchen.  Every caterer you are considering should be regularly inspected by your local health department.

Decide on the Style of Presentation

The most basic decision you need to make is how the food will be presented to your guests – plated dinner, buffet style, food stations, or stand-up reception.  The style of service plays a big part in the overall feeling of your event, and is a major factor in determining the staff and menu cost. 

Tastings

While not required, a tasting can be a great decision making tool to find your perfect caterer.  Ask about your caterers tasting policy – some include tastings for a fee, as a complimentary process after you have booked, or even as a general tasting of some popular menu items (not necessarily of your menu).  Use the tasting to refine your menu after booking, or to get a sense of your caterers presentation style and attention to detail before you book.

Compare Apples to Apples

When comparing quotes from different caterers, be sure that you are comparing the same things against each other.  Catering charges can vary greatly because every company will have their own way of determining costs.  Menu price may only include the food, or it could include food, staff, and wine service.  Staffing costs can be presented as an hourly rate, or as a flat rate.  Be sure to ask for an itemized summary and breakdown of costs so you don’t miss any hidden costs or fees that you will be surprised with on a final invoice.

Discussing Costs

When you have received your estimates from caterers, you can determine if your preferred caterer is in your price range (remembering to compare apples to apples).  Don’t be afraid to discuss your budget with your caterer, as it allows them to present a menu that is within your price range.  

Don’t forget about “extra” charges that often come up with events – corkage fee, cake cutting fee, percentage service charges, and automatic gratuity can add a substantial amount to the final bill.  Ask each caterer about their fees so you can budget accordingly.

Get it in Writing

Most caterers will have you sign a contract or sales agreement when you book your date.  Read everything carefully and ask questions about their policies for cancellation/refund, incidental charges, overtime, and payment schedule.  Many caterers require payment in full before your event, so be sure you have agreed to all payment dates and estimates.

In the end, you should feel extremely comfortable with the people you have chosen to create your event.  Cost is not the only factor in selecting you perfect caterer – go with your instincts, and with the company that makes you feel confident you have made the right decision.