Wedding Catering: Tips for Selecting Your Wedding Caterer

Choosing the best wedding caterer responsible for creating gourmet delicacies for your wedding can be a real challenge. There are a few things to consider before making your decision for the perfect wedding caterer for your very special day.

Choose Your Reception Venue Before Selecting a Wedding Caterer

Before you start shopping around for a wedding caterer, you should first choose the wedding reception venue. Most wedding reception halls have agreements where you can only use one of their caterers for your wedding.  This will make things much simpler, for you as well as for many of your other wedding vendors. By utilizing a caterer familiar with the wedding reception venue, you can rest assured that the servers and cooks will be well-versed with the kitchen and reception room area. This is very important for the successful execution of the main entree and dessert in addition to the serving of the beverages.

Decide on your wedding catering budget before you meet with the Wedding Caterer

Decide what your catering budget is before you begin meeting with wedding caterers. Ask family members and friends what they have paid for their wedding caterers to get an idea of what you want to spend per person as well as a total fee.

The cost of your wedding caterer will largely depend on the type of meal you provide at the wedding reception and HOW it is provided. A sit down meal (served meal) vs. buffet style are your two main choices and each have their own pros and cons. Sit down meals are wonderful because everyone gets what they ordered and they just relax as the wait staff serves the food and cleans up the plates while continuously refilling beverages on the tables. However, sit down meals are usually more expensive than buffet style meals and will cause you to do more advance planning.  For example, sit down meals will require you to send out meal cards in advance to get all of your guests’ meal selections, where you would typically let each guest pick from two or three entrée choices. And, the more options you offer your guests, the more expensive the bill. You will need to get an accurate count for how many guests want the beef entrée vs. the chicken entree (for example), and how many are vegetarian, etc.  Furthermore, you then have to have a seating chart which can be a headache if your families don’t know each other very well or there is a divorce on either side.

Buffet style meals, on the other hand, are more flexible with portions because people eat as much as they need and require less wait staff to serve food which saves you money. Also you have the option for more types of food because people can choose the sides they want or take a little of everything. You also don’t have to worry about getting meal cards from your guests in advance of the wedding.

Furthermore, a seating chart is optional with buffet style meals.  Buffet style wedding receptions cost about half to two thirds the price of sit down meals which works well if you are on a tight budget. Just make sure your wedding reception venue has the room for the buffet set up so that your guests can easily get to and from the buffet tables.

One of the most important – and most expensive – parts of the wedding catering comes down to the bar station. You have the choice of either hiring an external vendor who can provide the bar service, or else hiring a wedding caterer who can take care of the bar station as well as the food. Either way, count on spending a few thousand dollars on champagne and other beverages throughout the event. If you can’t afford to pay for two bottles per every invited guest, consider closing the bar after a certain time. Drinks can still be served at this point; however, guests will be responsible for paying for their own.

Get recommendations of great wedding caterers from your network of family, friends and co-workers

Ask friends, family and co-workers who have had or attended weddings in your area what good and not so good experiences they have had with food and catering. The quality of the food and service is important, but also find out how easy these caterers were to work with and how flexible they are.  Compile a list of the good references you are able to get from your friends, family and co-workers.

Your wedding reception venue might also have a list of recommended wedding caterers and other wedding reception vendors they have worked with before.  Equally, your wedding cake maker or florist might have worked with a great wedding caterer at a previous wedding.

Call the caterers you’ve heard good things about. Begin with them and include any that you researched on your own online or through the phone book. Schedule to meet with those you like from your phone discussions. Be sure to ask key questions such as general cost and availability up front.
Meet with and Interview the Wedding Caterers on Your Short List of Choices

Plan to meet with all of the wedding caterers from your short list. Ask about their payment policy (deductible or deposit included), details on what the wait staff and servers wear and what duties they perform, specifics on their contract and how long the meal will take to be served from start to finish.  Different caterers offer different amenities with their wedding catering packages and they also package them differently.  You need to find out exactly what is included and what is not. Listen carefully and take detailed notes.

Some provide china with their catering package while others provide disposables.
Some provide top and skirt for the dinner and buffet tables while others do not.
Some include labor charges in a per person cost while others have an additional charge for labor.
Some charge corkage charges for opening or pouring bottles of champagne or wine that they do not provide while others do not.
Some charge for special linens, chairs and other decorations – ask to see swatches if you need help with color and fabric selection.
Some have per piece wedding cake cutting charges if they do not provide the wedding cake.
Be sure to ask about their ability to provide the Bar service – there are usually a few different options (with different pricing levels) you have for the Bar station.
Some include gratuity a cost per person charge while other add gratuity based on the total wedding catering cost.
How do they handle the left over food and drinks after the wedding reception is over.

In addition to general information, you will also want to know some details that will impact your final decision of which wedding caterer you’ll select.  Here are some examples of other questions you might want to ask:

How long has the wedding caterer been in business? Consider their track record before handing over a significant deposit.

Has the caterer serviced the location where you are holding your wedding reception?  A wedding caterer who is familiar with your selected wedding reception venue knows what is required for efficient service of your wedding guests and knows the mechanics of the facility which means that there is less probability of mistakes, oversights or duplications of service.

Does the wedding reception facility charge the wedding caterer a “catering fee” to provide service at that location?
Some wedding facilities charge wedding caterers a flat fee or percentage of sales fee which means that your cost of catering at that facility may end up being higher than at other locations.

Has the wedding caterer provided service for a group of this size before?  If so, see if you can get references from the wedding caterer from the client they worked for previously.  It is also a great idea to view photos of previous events so you can see what the wedding caterer is capable of when it comes to presentation.  Good food presentation is as equally important as the quality and taste of the food.

How many weddings or other events would the wedding caterer be providing service for on your wedding date?  If your wedding caterer plans too many events on the same day as your wedding, you may run into problems with the wedding caterer if they run late on your event or another person’s event.

What is the ratio of servers to guests that the wedding caterer will be providing?

Does the wedding caterer take care of items like table set up and tear down and placing the tablecloths/skirts on the tables?  If the facility does not take care of table set up and tear down, someone will need to do it.  Some wedding caterers will handle the set up but not the teardown.  Others will handle teardown and cleanup at an additional charge.

What is the amount of tax and gratuity? Do the quoted prices include tax and gratuity or is it added to the food cost total?  Some wedding caterers include tax and gratuity in their per person charge while others add it to the total billing.

Is gratuity based on the total food bill or is it based on the total bill?  Some caterers use the food total as a base for the gratuity while others use the entire bill as the base.  If you are obtaining rental items, i.e. linens, china, glassware, etc. from the caterer and they are basing gratuity on the total bill this could add significantly to your cost.

How are leftovers handled?  In many cases there will be a significant amount of food and drinks leftover at the end of the wedding reception.  Some wedding caterers will package the leftovers for you while others will simply dispose of the leftovers. Tip: If refrigerated storage is not available at the facility, bring coolers with ice to store the leftovers.   Food that has been in temperature conditions of higher than 40 degrees F or lower than 160 degrees F in the case of heated foods for 4 hours or more should NEVER be saved due to potential food related illnesses.

How is the staff attired?  Some have a uniform standard while others are somewhat lacking in a uniform appearance.  Also, if you have a specific color scheme for your wedding reception decorations, you’d want to make sure that the colors of the catering staff’s attire doesn’t clash.

Taste the food you are thinking of selecting as part of your wedding reception menu

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Most wedding caterers can have a taste testing meeting with you and your fiance so that you can taste samples of the food you are considering having at your wedding reception. Also, make sure you understand the presentation of the food as well.  If you are aware of any vegetarians, children or those with food allergies among your wedding guest list, see what options the wedding caterer has for those individuals.

If a wedding caterer does not offer tasting sessions, strike them off your list immediately unless you have tasted their food at a previous wedding.  Without tasting their food, there is really no way to decide if the wedding caterer is right for your wedding celebration.
Finally, book your wedding with the wedding caterer

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Once you have decided on a wedding caterer (and have a wedding reception venue selected for your wedding) and have selected the menu it is time to reserve the service date and sign the contract with the wedding caterer.  Make sure they are insured and licensed.  As with all bookings, when you confirm your wedding caterer and the menu, be sure to get everything in writing. If you book a long way in advance, keep in touch with them in the run up to your wedding, confirming the final menu a few weeks before your wedding day.

The contract should be in the form of an agreement that outlines specifically what you are getting, when you are getting it, and what you are paying for – including an itemization of all labor and equipment charges and the specific services that will be performed by the wedding caterer.  Be sure that the agreement specifically outlines times and guarantees service on your date and time since some wedding caterers have canceled service of a smaller event at the last minute in order to service a larger event.  Be sure you fully and carefully read the agreement before signing it.

A Little Bit of Planning Goes A Long Way

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Good wedding caterers are in demand and booked well in advance so may not be available on the date you want them. Also, decide what you want on the menu and some idea of how much you are prepared to pay before you start your research.  Try to obtain some recommendations for wedding caterers from your family and friends, and also use the internet for your research. Once you have obtained this information you will be able to eliminate wedding caterers who are already booked for your wedding date and who are out of your price range.  Next you will want to consider the menu options of the remaining wedding caterers.

If you have a specific menu in mind and none of the wedding caterers have the items you are looking for on their standard menus, you might want to check with them to see if they are prepared to provide your special dishes.  Professional wedding caterers are fully capable of preparing dishes besides their standard fare.

Choosing a good wedding caterer is essential to having a successful and memorable wedding reception!

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