wedding eats

I Do (Eat)

Get the most out of your wedding caterer

By Roxanne Webber

Food service is the largest expense of a wedding, according to the Bridal Association of America (BAOA). It’s also one of the hardest things to plan. Here’s what you need to know.

How Do I Find a Caterer?

Word of mouth is best. Besides asking friends, you can search Chowhound boards and check out message boards at DIY Bride, Offbeat Bride Tribe, and The Knot. Check for referrals from big catering and event planning organizations like NACE, ISES, Catersource, Leading Caterers of America, and BizBash. It’s fine to ask a potential caterer for references, so you can chat with people they’ve worked with.

What Information Should I Have When I Meet with a Caterer?

Know the date and location of your event, and have an idea of your budget for food; the average according to BAOA is $9,427 (including service, but not cake or booze). You can do a nice catered meal for a few thousand dollars, or you can hire an alternative type of wedding caterer. Since many locations have an approved list of vendors they work with, make sure you’re pursuing a caterer included on the list. Or, if you love a certain caterer’s food, ask what locations that caterer works with, and book your venue that way. Be sure to do a little research about the “on-list” at your prospective venues before you select a site so that you don’t end up unable to shop around for the best food.

How Can I Hire a Caterer that’s Not on the Approved List?

David Turk, owner and president of Indiana Market & Catering in New York City, says you may be able to go to your venue and discuss the issue, but you might have to pay a significant fee to use an “off-list” caterer. Museums and historic buildings are usually the most rigid about adhering to their lists, because they can’t risk having unfamiliar companies working in their valuable spaces.

What Should I Ask a Caterer?

Here are some basics to cover:

  • Will they be cooking on-site or reheating the food? If they plan to reheat something delicate like salmon, it won’t taste as good—especially if they microwave it.
  • Are they able to create a custom menu, or do you have to choose a menu package? If you’re really into food, you’ll want to be able to work with a caterer to create a unique menu that includes the quality and kinds of ingredients you want.
  • What sorts of spreads can they do? The main types are: buffet, sit-down multicourse meal, family-style dinner, brunch, or appetizers only.
  • What accents and garnishes will there be? Will they add decorative fruit and flowers to a buffet? Is that cost included in the price per person or is it extra? For a plated dinner, will the plates have any garnish on them or will they be unadorned?
  • What type of serving pieces will the food be presented on? If you’re having a traditional wedding, you may not want modern geometric platters. If you’re going for a colorful outdoor event, you probably won’t want restrained white china.
  • What will the servers wear? Make sure their uniforms fit with the style of your event.
  • Who will be on-site during the event to manage it? Can you meet this person before the day of the event?
  • Does the company also make desserts or cakes? If it does, can you use an outside source if you want to?
  • Regarding the rentals (plates, flatware, linens, tables, chairs, serving pieces, etc.), will a wide selection of styles and price ranges be available to choose from? And is the caterer responsible for the pickup and return of the rentals?
  • Additionally, David Turk emphasizes asking open-ended questions, like those you would pose at a job interview, so you can get a feel for the caterer. (For example: “Tell me about a wedding you were really proud of catering—what worked, what didn’t?”) Turk says he’d “approach it like a date.” You’re going to be spending serious time with this team, and you want people you can trust.

Roxanne Webber is an associate editor at CHOW.

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