A couple of things first….mostly to save lots of money.
Think about having you wedding at an “odd” time. Have an outdoor ceremony early in the morning with a scrambled egg buffet to follow. Fridays and Sundays are less expensive many places than a Saturday night. Have an early ceremony with only Champaign and cake to follow. Brunch is almost always cheaper than dinner. Have a late in the day ceremony and just a cocktail hour after. If you have an early event, there isn’t a reason to have much (if any) alcohol, which will cut your costs dramatically. Have a casual back yard event that you can “self cater.”
OK…so you are going with a “normal” reception.
Be it in a Hall, a hotel or some other event kind of place. Then first thing you need to think about (and ask about) is WHO CAN CATER HERE? Many venues either have an in house caterer, or have a very short “approved” list of caterers. If you have less than 3 choices of who makes your food, you NEED to taste it BEFORE you sign any contracts for the venue. Really, you don’t want your perfect place to serve a plate of bland, white food. I’ve had the dinner that included chicken with white gravy, mashed potatoes and cauliflower. I’m not sure to this day which was which!!
My venue had a list of 6 caterers to choose from. Many kinds of food, many price points. I was a very happy girl. I didn’t need to check out the caterer before I signed the big old contract. I was sure that at least one of them would be able to do a good job for a good price.
Now, what is your wedding STYLE? Do you want a formal sit-down dinner? A casual buffet? A themed meal, like Thai meets West? This will tell you WHO to look for when contacting caterers. You won’t call The Rib Shack for a black tie dinner….nor would you call the fancy French place for back yard BBQ.
Most every town, even the tiny ones, has THE caterers. The ones that EVERYONE has had from Aunt Emma’s funeral, to the booster club dinner, to your cousin’s wedding last month.
In bigger towns and cities, you’ll have more choices. There will be the big specialists that cater cooperate events, big hotel shin-digs, and the big charity events in town. They don’t have a restaurant, they only cater. There will be smaller, family run operations that are caterers only, too. Many times they will be more flexible with menu choices and willing to work your grandma’s recipe into the menu. There are also many restaurants that cater. If you have a favorite, ask them!!
Be careful not to make assumptions about price….sometimes the big guys are really the cheapest, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes the food from the restaurant is cheaper, but hiring a wait staff will break the bank. You’ll have to look at all the fine print on a contract before you really know who is the most affordable!! If you see the menu prices are way out of your budget, don’t do a tasting, you’ll just torture yourself, or go into debt!
If you contact a caterer and they don’t get back to you within a week, either move on, or call them every day until you get an answer. In big companies you can get caught in red tape, in small ones you can be pushed aside for a very needy client. Neither is great business practices, but it happens. Don’t sit on your hands and wait until it’s too late!
Some budget killers when using a “real” caterer….
Having to rent table linens, china plates, stem glasses. Some places will include only disposable plates in the price, and you have to rent the real stuff….for up to $5 a person. (you might be able to rent linens for less from a local supply company, and get out of any “late night” fees from the caterer having to stick around until the end of the party)
Cake cutting and serving fees: If you don’t order your cake from you caterer, you’ll probably have to pay a cake cutting fee….upwards of $1.50 a person. Some companies will cut for free and set it out buffet style, but if you want it delivered to the tables, there will be a serving fee. Some companies have BOTH of these fees.
Sit-down dinner fees: Typically at least $3-10 a person more than the price on the menu. The company needs MANY more servers to deal with a seated dinner than a buffet, and you pay for every one of them.
“Food Stations” The idea of a carving station and a custom cooked something is wonderful and exciting. It’s like entertainment with the food! It also will change your budget from a buffet price to a sit-down price, if not more. Each “chef” will cost you at least an extra $125, and each extra server needed to man a station will cost around $15 an hour.
Kids Meals and Vegetarian/Vegan/Kosher meals….If you are having a buffet, and there aren’t appropriate dishes for these groups, they will be served a plated meal at a price. I strongly suggest if you have many of these guests you include food they will/can eat on your buffet. It will save you at least $25 per person, even if it doesn’t look that way on the bill.
OK...so we’ve looked at some budget killers…but you still don’t know if you want a buffet, plated dinner or a family style (the newest old trend). Here’s my take….
Plated dinners cost more per person for the same food. You have to somehow mark each seat with a entrée choice (more work on place cards). But they are more elegant. They also don’t take up your dance floor with a buffet cart setup. They can be much faster, since everyone is served more or less at once.
Buffet style is usually the cheapest option. Everyone chooses what they want, not what they wanted 6 weeks ago when they RSVP’d. They can take only what they will eat, and others can go back for seconds. But you can end up with a ton of leftovers that will probably end up in the trash. You can run out of one item early, and only have brussel sprouts left for the last few tables. It just takes that much longer to eat, since everyone will have to stand in line.
Family Style dinner…each table gets a few big plates of food, to be served by the guests at the tables. This option promotes conversation, allows for everyone to chose how much of what they eat and is a middle ground price wise. My only real problem with family style is that all tables (usually) must have the same number of guests. In some venues this is almost impossible. Sometimes you’ll have to either split up families, or sit just one single friend at a table to round it out.
So, you don’t like any of these options…you want something more casual, like the back yard BBQ, or a party in your local park, or your great aunt’s mansion. That’s great! You have a few more choices than I’ve gone over…mostly, you have restaurants that deliver in bulk but don’t provide staff. You have amazing family and friends that can cook. You have that giant BBQ pit that your dad has wanted to build for years. Here are some of my favorite choices:
Pick your favorite 3 restaurants and order take-out from each: Pizza from the Italian joint you had your first date at, sushi for the trip you took to Japan and Fish and Chips because you got engaged on St. Patrick’s day.
Hire the Pig Roast truck. Really, these guys will roast a pig in your driveway, with an apple in his mouth! Most will have side dishes on offer too. Some even fresh roast corn on the cob!
You have the “church lady” contingent on your guest list. You know these women, they have cooked for an army for all sorts of community events already, and they know how to do their thing. It might not be the most exciting menu, but it’s always good food, and plenty of it.
You have a bunch of “foodie” friends. Throw a pot luck… instead of gifts, everyone brings a dish to pass. You don’t get the cash for the honeymoon, but you also don’t get 4 gravy boats!! Everyone will have something they will eat, no matter their differing tastes. The only real trick to this one is having someone in charge of making sure you don’t end up with all entrees, or side salads!
You’ve decided on this last choice have you? Now for the nitty gritty…
Make sure you’ll be saving money, because you’ll be paying in stress. Keeping everything together is a lot of work. You didn’t think that a caterer was just paid to cook the food did you?
Make sure someone is in charge. If you have a “church lady” or an actual restaurant manager in the crowd, use them. They’ve got the experience to pull this off without having a meltdown.
Remember you have to keep hot food hot and cold food cold, even if you are indoors!! You’ll need to rent chafing dishes, or borrow every Crockpot in the neighborhood. You’ll need to have something like a kiddie pool filled with ice to put cold food bowls in.
Now for contract fine print.
Check the payment schedule, and write it on your calendar!! You really don’t want to miss one of these. It will totally ruin your day. Just don’t do it!!
Due dates for final menu and final head count. Every caterer is different. Some want the final head count a week early, some need a month. If you haven’t gotten your RSVP’s back a few days before the due date, you’re going to have to call all your slacker friends, or guess.
Double check all of the “extras”: linens, china, late night staff, cake cutting fees. Make sure they are EXACTLY what you and your sales person talked about. If not, don’t sign anything until you get it sorted out and have a new contract in your hand.
Ask what will happen with leftovers. If you want to, and it’s allowed, for you to take them home, make sure you have coolers with ice on hand. If you want it all to go to a soup kitchen, ask. Make sure any decision is in writing.
Ok, that’s my rant on caterers. Got questions? Leave a comment and I’ll try to answer them.