Posted by: A Part of the Solution | September 19, 2011

How to Pick the Right Caterer for Your Event

All righty then. You’ve been to events where someone hired the wrong caterer–or just had platters sent over from the local grocery. You want to avoid throwing that kind of a pall over your own event. Here’s how to get what you want (or almost) for what you can afford (or nearly), and build a relationship with a firm you can count on (if necessary).

First: Be clear about your needs. Is your event a party? A workshop? A sales meeting? Is this an all-day thing where you also want coffee service? Is this a life milestone event where everything needs to be fancy? If the food is most important to you, hire the caterer first and work with her/him to find a usable site. If the space is most important to you, book the site first and work with site management to find the best of all possible catering solutions.

Remember every chair, tablecloth, fork and platter has to be paid for one way or another. Will you use disposables? Don’t try to work  with a rental company yourself since either the site or the caterer will likely have an ongoing relationship with a good rental firm (and their in-house discount will give you the ‘straight’ rental price you would have seen anyway).

Remember servers will be a part of the bill as well. If you’re getting platter drop off, you’ll have to coordinate setting the food out, clearing  it up and any staffing during service (self-service tends to be messy and uneven, staff the buffet with only one person to keep the table appetizing and reasonably tidy). Occasional service workers are more expensive than you’ve probably imagined. A good caterer pays people well and fairly for their time. In return, you get cheerful, helpful, knowledgeable staff who have you finished at your site before you go into contractual overtime.

So what about the food  already? Well, if you (or the crowd you’re feeding) have special dietary needs, you’ll have to look carefully at your catering options. When you find a couple of likelies, ask them for recommendations from customers whose events were like the one you’re host/ess/ing. Don’t talk to the person who had bag lunches on the bus if you’re organizing a Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary party for Pop-pop and GeeMaw.

Be honest about your budget with the caterer. S/he has worked more parties than you’ll ever attend–and will know a few work-arounds to get your budget and your event theme to meet in the middle. Don’t try to conceal you’re having a wedding reception in fear that the caterer will egregiously up-charge you. I’ve worked with that bride before, “Oh, I’m having 80 or so friends and family from time zones away for a little get-together in eight months.” Right. Every caterer I’ve worked with or known of wants to help make your day special. Just name your budget and see what they can do for you.

Next, be honest with yourself and your loved ones about the limitations of your budget. If what you can afford is cake and punch and a good dance band, fine. If any of the parents/bosses/committee members finds endless fault with what the budget allows you can a) ask them to find a better deal b) ask them to kick in more of the do-ray-mi c) failing the first two options, ask them to please be quiet–since complaining doesn’t improve the situation or raise more capital.

Remember you can schedule your event between meal times, so  you’re not obliged to provide a big feed. Remember that if your event covers one or more meal times, it’s not OK to give your attendees light hors d’oeuvres in lieu of a real collation. Remember to sit down with your finalist caterers and actually eat their food. And, it should be food like unto the food you would choose to have served at your event: don’t sample cake if you’re booking bag lunches.

Put everything in writing. Get everything in writing. Have a contract. Save your e-mail exchanges in a special folder so  you can review closer to the actual event and be absolutely certain you’ve conveyed your needs and expectations and had them confirmed back to you by the professional you’ve hired.

If you like the service, food and people your caterer provides, recommend her/him to everyone. If you’re in a position to use the company again and again, make a long-term arrangement to get an ongoing discount. Caterers love repeat business. They save sweat and fuss when they know where to park, who the site manager is and how much leeway they have in getting in and getting out.

Book ’em, Dano!


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