10 Insider Tips for Choosing the Right Caterer
When it comes to the things that can make or break an event, few are as important as the quality, flavor and appearance of the food and beverages you serve. A lot is riding on your decision of which caterer to hire, and if you think this decision really isn’t that important, look at it this way … amazing catering can rescue an event that’s on the rocks, but bad catering will almost always send guests to the doors (or, in your nightmare scenario, to the restrooms).
In addition, because catering is often the #1 or #2 line-item cost for most events, the caterer you choose is also a significant budgetary decision and can influence how much money you have left over to spend on other areas depending on food costs and quantities.
Add in the fact that caterers can vary dramatically in their pricing and the types of meals and services they offer, and the process of selecting a caterer can figuratively and literally feel like you are comparing apples to oranges (pun fully intended).
So we talked to a dozen veteran caterers and event managers about the criteria they recommend in selecting a caterer. And based on their recommendations…
Here are the 10 top criteria event you should consider when hiring a caterer.
Responsiveness and Personal Interest in Your Needs
Ability to Handle Your Specific Type of Event
Not every caterer is perfect or every type of event, and many caterers themselves openly admit this.
“All of us do a broad range of events, but we are built to service different markets more effectively than others so it’s important to ask enough questions to determine if a caterer has the right kind of experience for you,” says Arthur Bassani, owner of In Thyme Catered Events in Secaucus, NJ . “Each caterer has areas they specialize in so even a caterer with a great reputation may not be the best fit for you. For example, some are more ’boutique’ and specialize in smaller intimate-type social events. Others specialize in serving large corporate and non-profit [clients], like us.”
So when interviewing your caterers (and you should speak with at least 3 caterers for any event with a reasonable budget), you need to be specific about the type of event you are planning and the type of food and/or presentation you are expecting. Otherwise, you may end up selecting a caterer who simply isn’t a good fit for the type or style of your event.
“Some caterers excel with barbecues that are great for company picnics, some with exceptional Latin-fusion for that themed event, and others shine with elegance that work well for that black-tie gala,” says Greg Jenkins, Partner at Bravo Productions. “You should select the caterer that works for that specific function, not just because you’ve used them previously for a company meeting or employee holiday party.”
Flexibility Regarding Menu Options
Practically every caterer has a standard menu or menus to choose from, and many do provide some level of built-in flexibility to adapt these menus to your specific needs by substituting specific items and/or customizing others. “Any caterer who has been in the industry and knows what they are doing should have a few different menu options that are constantly being updated and changing to keep up with current trends,” says Rene Wunderlich, Corporate Account Manager at the Inn at New Hyde Park.
However, the standout caterers will go beyond standardized menu options and be willing to create amazing fare that matches even more specific theme and dietary needs.
Familiarity With the Venue
You may be in for a surprise if you hire a BBQ take-out joint to cater a formal ballroom fundraiser. Or if you choose a high-end corporate event caterer to serve a barn wedding. Why? Because these caterers may not be accustomed to preparing and serving food in such a setting.
Complete Explanation of Services/Goods Promised in the Contract
The caterer’s contract should clearly spell out exactly what food, beverages and services the caterer will be providing on the designated day(s). Moreover, it should protect you from non-performance as much as it protects the caterer from non-payment/default, so you may want to consider having an attorney look at it before you sign it.
Every detail should be included in the contract, included selected menus, number of servings and/or people to be served, beverage/bar service details (if applicable) and all pricing and additional services.
A Well-Defined Cancellation Plan
No caterer with a shred of dignity and scruples enters into a contract with plans to bail at the last minute, but you need to make sure there is a cancellation clause in your contract just in case your caterer has to cancel
References You Can Call and Talk To
Of course you will need to check up on the caterers you are considering, and it’s always good to start online and check out sites like Yelp, Wedding Wire and Angie’s List for their reviews and ratings.
However, don’t stop there, as online reviews are not always reliable (or even authentic); for example, a good caterer may have had a few nightmare/hater clients who skew their ratings, while a truly mediocre caterer may have padded their online reviews. So see if you can track down some past clients of the caterers you are considering and reach out to them.
An Experienced Chef and Kitchen Staff
Surprisingly, how long a catering company has been in business may not be as critical in selecting a great caterer as you may think.
“Length of time in the catering industry doesn’t necessarily translate into great and tasty cuisine,” says Greg Jenkins. “The chef’s background and experience can be more important than the owner of the company who has awards on their shelf. It’s the chef, sous chef and kitchen staff that often seals the deal.”
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