Selecting a great caterer is like finding a needle in a haystack…or is it?

“Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.” —-M. F. K. Fisher

Well, here at PEC we completely agree with the above quote. Food is one of the most important elements in hosting an event. There are ways to cut corners, find deals and control the bottom line but the food is not where those cuts should be made.

The menu you provide at an event can literally make or break its success. People won’t remember a lot of details about an event years later but they will remember whether or not they loved or hated the food. Unfortunately, food is the one arena that there seems to be no middle ground for people. That is why it is so important to find a great caterer and even more important to find the perfect caterer for your specific event.  Yes, we do recommend that you use more than one caterer. They all have a specialty and it is important to find the caterer that fits the event.

Here are our tips for finding a great caterer:

Reputation: It is necessary to research the reputation of the caterer you are considering. Ask them for a list of references that you can check and make sure the reference they give had an event similar to yours. Ask to see copies of their licensing. You want to know if they are licensed to do fried foods, open fire foods, etc.  Better yet ask the local health department about their history.

Education: I wouldn’t ask my teenager to cook a high end meal for fifty so I am willing to bet you wouldn’t trust that kind of a meal to just anyone either. Ask for the Chef’s credentials. If you are going to the expense of hiring a caterer then you want to know that you are entrusting your event to someone with experience. Find out where they were educated in cooking, where they have worked and perfected their art. Don’t forget to ask about the education and background of the event staff too. They are the people who come in contact with your guests, you will want to know about their experience too.

Cuisine: Every caterer serves a primary kind of cuisine. Find out what they specialize in and make sure it is a match for what you are looking for. If it isn’t, don’t be afraid to ask if they are willing to customize their menus or if they only serve what is on their menu. If they go off menu to accommodate your requests be sure to have a tasting to verify the quality will meet your standards. (You wouldn’t order Mexican food from a Chinese restaurant – follow the same thinking here, just because they offer it doesn’t mean they do it well.) Side note: it may be important to find out if they do children’s menus as well. Not all caterers do.

Style: Any professional caterer should be able to offer you a number of options for service style. Some of the most common service styles are a sit down dinner, a buffet, butler style, family style and food stations and interactive food stations. Ask the caterer you are considering how many of each type of event they do per year. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can attend an event similar to yours that they have on the books prior to your event. It is always a good idea to see them in action.

Tastings: Almost all catering companies offer complimentary tastings once you have selected a menu. The tasting is an important element of selecting a caterer. It gives you a firsthand opportunity to judge for yourself the quality of the food in regards to taste, presentation and style. It is also an opportunity for you to ask for small changes to the menu like a different sauce, less spice, alternate ways to serve the item etc.

Alcohol Policy: Don’t assume that caterers offer alcohol service. Some caterers do and others are licensed only to serve alcohol provided by you. Even then, caterers will often charge a corking fee and/or a pouring fee. Most caterers will ask you to secure a banquet permit for alcohol service. Don’t worry they are simple to get and cost about $10. *Side note: Be sure to ask the caterer what they have in the way of non-alcoholic beverages.

Décor/Themes: Some caterers bring everything in disposable pans and just set them out on the table. (Don’t get me wrong, some events that is exactly what you need) Most caterers can show you pictures of basic service style. Only a handful of caterers can actually provide you with full on themed out décor. What do I mean by themed out? Well maybe you want the buffet décor to match your Egyptian theme or maybe you want the fabrics and flowers used on the buffet to match the colors you have selected for your wedding either way make sure that the caterer offers something that fits your event.

Staffing: Who actually facilitates your events is very important. Ask the caterers what their dress code and personal appearance policies are. Ask to meet your event lead prior to the event so you are comfortable with them and their knowledge of the event. Find out if your catering coordinator will be available to attend your event or at least be available to you via a cell phone in case you have issues. Make sure you know the caterers policy regarding staffing ratio to guests as well as their policy on overtime charges. 

Set Up/Tear Down: Caterers can give you an expected time line for set up for an event. You will need to know this as the set up time varies according to the style of event. Also make sure that you have allotted enough time for tear down prior to the venue needing to be emptied. Don’t assume that a caterer will clean up the space they have used for food prep. Often times you will need to negotiate the clean up with the caterer and it could cost you additional staffing fees.

Rentals: Some caterers offer plastic service ware and utensils complimentary and china for an additional cost. Some caterers offer the reverse. Make sure you know in advance what the fees are for rental items. Rental items can include everything from china and glassware to tables and linens. Coolers, ice, punch bowls, coffee carafes and water pitchers can all cost additional funds. This is the area to pay the most attention to. You certainly don’t want an unexpected charge because you assumed it was part of the caterers service.

Additional fees:  Yes, you need to bite the bullet and ask you caterer about all of their fees. Not every caterer charges the same fees and knowing what those fees are might make the difference between two caterers that are hard to choose between. Additional fees that you may come across when selecting a caterer are service fees, gratuities, taxes, fuel surcharges, delivery, and drop offs.

Contracts: Before selecting a caterer make sure to see what their contract looks like. Their contract should outline policies regarding such things as natural disasters, payments and deposits, final head counts, service timelines, liability, cancellations, and insurance provisions. *Side Note: make sure the caterer is carrying the right insurance. Often time venues request a certain level of liability insurance and you will want to make sure they meet the requirements.

Multiple Events Policy: No matter how good a catering company is, even they have their limits. If you are planning a big event it is a good idea to know how many other events they have booked on the same day and where they draw the line on taking multiple events on a day. The last thing you want is a catering company that thinks they can do it all and end up shortchanging your event by sending substandard staff or worse…food! It doesn’t hurt to check periodically leading up to your event if they have taken on more events that day even if they have told you at the beginning of the planning process that the day is free.

Follow these simple guidelines and selecting a caterer will be a much easier process. We know because these were all lesson’s we learned the hard way.

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