Congratulations! You are about to throw one of the biggest parties of your life! And the catering expenses may very well be the most significant part of your budget. It can be sticker shock at first; especially if this is the first time you have talked to a caterer. Let me offer some initial advice as a veteran caterer in the Washington DC area for over 30 years. I am Ruth MacBean of Teatime Delicacies, Inc. Here are some tips on what to look for when you start your search.
Determine your guest count. Nothing affects your budget more than the guest count. While it may seem like a grand time to invite 250 guests, your options for rental venues will be more restrictive. Hotel ballrooms are typically prepared for this type of wedding reception. A caterer is going to charge a per person rate, and it’s simply math–more guests: more money.
Determine a budget, and expect it to grow. Keep an open mind with regards to budget. There is a learning curve, you are going to discover things you never knew you wanted. You'll discuss things where the outcome may be, "Really? I don’t think we really need that. " Catering expenses include food and beverages as well as rental items such as tables, chairs, linens, plates, cutlery, glasses, and coffee cups. Within the category of linens alone there is a multitude of options. The more specialized your request, the more expensive it will be. The catering expenses also consist of all of your staff, including kitchen, wait staff, bartender(s) and the manager on duty.
As soon as you book your venue, the caterer comes next. These are the two biggest ticket items and they usually go hand in hand. If your venue has its own catering, then the search has ended. For offsite catering, book early. Many caterers only take a limited amount of events on a given date. Once you select your caterer, expect a deposit of 30 to 50 percent down, with the balance due one or two weeks prior to the event date.
Ask for a tasting, and let the caterer know of any food allergies. Most reputable caterers can accommodate any dietary restriction. But remember that this is your party; let the menu reflect your personality and style.
Who is cooking your food? Is the person you are talking with the owner of the catering company or a salesperson? Is the person you are talking to the person who will be onsite the day of the event? If not, will you have an opportunity to meet that person? Overall, what is your take-away from the meeting or tasting? Did the company make you feel like your event was important, or that you were just another number? I like to ask my bride and groom how they met, what they do for work, and where they are going on the honeymoon. Make sure they follow up with a timely proposal and answer any follow-up questions you might have.
A great money-saving tip is to see if you can purchase your own alcohol, allowing the catering staff to serve it. A hotel or restaurant won’t allow this, but many off-site catering companies offer this. You can purchase exactly what you want, and get it on sale. There are some stores that will allow you to return unopened wine and beer.
People come to a wedding reception to eat and drink (and most likely to enjoy the music and dance!) You want to make sure you have enough food and drink. If you think you can save money by serving less food, it makes everyone look bad: the caterer, the host, and the venue. Limiting the selection only means the caterer needs to bring more of whatever is selected. Accept early on that this is going to be one of the greatest parties you ever throw, and you want everyone to remember it! Good food and drink will seal the deal!
Ask for caterers' references and do online research for reviews. Do a Google search if you haven’t already. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I tell my clients, "Just because you don’t see something you like mentioned on a menu doesn’t mean we won’t prepare it. I just don’t want you to go on menu overload! Look at my cake photos. Look at other online photos. We can come up with something customized just for you." As you get closer to your event, my number one piece of advice is always, "Remember to breathe!"