Tips for Selecting a Caterer for Your Event
How to find food choices, flexibility, and fit
If you are like many people in today’s digital age, you consult online reviews when considering a restaurant choice. After all, someone else’s negative dining experience can save you the wasted time and expense. Good food can outweigh poor ambiance or a less than stellar wait staff. Bad food, however, is just…bad food. And the poor taste that it leaves in your mouth can overshadow fancy linens or a smiling waiter. That is one of the reasons why carefully selecting a caterer for your event is so important. Great food served at an event that has some other small mishaps will still leave guests feeling satisfied and happy. But serving food that is less than par or is outright terrible will bring down all the other well-planned, wonderful aspects of your event. So put some time and thought into selecting a caterer for your event and follow these helpful tips when getting started.
Where to Start
Catering is often the first or second line item cost in an event planning budget. The amount spent on food and beverage can significantly impact how much money is left for other things. Your event is important to you and it should be to your caterer as well. Before considering the actual menu options and price list, evaluate how prompt the caterer is when responding to phone calls or emails. If they are not returning phone calls or emails before you hire them, then what kind of service will you receive once you have given them a deposit?
Be Specific Regarding Your Needs and Expectations
Caterers offer varied menus and pricing structures so that comparing one to another can be quite challenging. Be specific regarding the type of event, the food you would like served and your expectations regarding the menu and the service. A prospective caterer that is genuinely interested in gaining your business should take time to get to know you, learn about your business, and ask many questions regarding the event and your thoughts on the menu.
A caterer that specializes in elegant, black-tie affairs may not be best suited for a casual, outdoor barbecue. Experience with the type of event you are planning is important, so avoid the mistake of automatically hiring a caterer that you have used previously for a different type of event. Instead, talk to them about your needs and also seek proposals from other caterers with demonstrated experience in the type of event you are planning. A good caterer that wants to keep you as a client will tell you if they cannot deliver the kind of menu you are seeking.
Caterers typically have standard menu options from which to choose. Look for menus that are current and reflect the latest trends in food and beverage. Discuss other menu options that may be available; flexibility is important as you search for a caterer that will deliver according to your needs and expectations.
It's Not Just About the Food
When selecting a caterer, keep in mind that you are hiring them for food, beverage, and service. This includes the service you receive as their client as well as the service your guests will receive at the event. While you have no control over the wait staff at a restaurant, you do have control over what type of staff serves the food at the event you are planning. Inquire as to the number of servers, their experience in working an event similar to yours, and the number of staff in supervisory roles.
When seeking business proposals, the general rule of thumb is to request three proposals. The same applies when requesting catering proposals for your event. As in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, one proposal may be too high, one too low, but hopefully one proposal will be just right.
Want to know what a prospective caterer was like to work with? Whether they delivered as promised? If the food and beverage were as good as they say? Ask. Caterers should be able to provide a list of references; take this opportunity to find out what other clients have to say about their work. In some cases, you may be able to observe an event that they are currently working so that you can see first-hand what they can do.
Give It a Taste
Depending on the size of the catering budget and the type of event being planned, some caterers offer a tasting menu so you can literally get a taste of what they have to offer. If there is a caterer that you are particularly interested in, ask for a sampling of the proposed menu. Better to find out ahead of time if the mini quiches are soggy and if the asparagus is limp.
As with anything else in business, get it in writing. The caterer’s contract should specify what food, beverage and services they will provide as well as details regarding date, time and location. This includes selected menus, number of servings, beverages, bar service, table linens, accessories, servers, all pricing, and any additional services.
Contracts should protect both parties in an agreement. Make sure the contract with your caterer is designed to protect you from non-performance. Consider having an attorney review the contract -- the attorney fee for this will be far less than what you will lose if the caterer fails to deliver.
When planning an event, cancellation of that very same event may not enter your mind. However, unexpected things do arise and it is best to determine ahead of time how a cancellation will be handled. Your catering contract should include cancellation procedures and penalties should your caterer bail at the last minute. Similarly, if your client unexpectedly cancels the event and you are then forced to cancel the caterer, clearly outline the financial penalties for cancellation and incorporate that into the contract with your client.