Selecting a Caterer

There are many important tasks involved in wedding planning. But the success of your reception can largely hinge on having the right food, beverage, table settings and serving staff. In short, good catering is key.

For very small weddings on a strict budget this effort might be undertaken by some friends or family members. But most couples will want to hire a professional. Also, even if a wedding planner or bridal consultant was engaged to take care of things, the couple will still find it wise to be involved in this decision.

Tactful questions to the potential caterer should never be resisted or generate hostility. If they do, that’s a good sign to move on to the next candidate. Here are some items that should be covered:

Cost and scheduling are the first considerations. The professional selected will have to be able to do the job when you need and within your budget.

It isn’t necessary to have an exact date and total cost for the first interview. But at least the month, preferably the week, the wedding is to be held is important. Good caterers often book up months, even as long as two years, in advance. Having a specific date is, of course, always preferable. Simply ask if they’re available then.

Covering cost is critical. It’s important to be thorough and detailed. The level of detail need not be granular during the first conversation. An overall estimate of the number of guests and the type of food and beverage desired will be enough to get a rough estimate. That will tell you if you want to continue the conversation.

Take care, though, to advance the discussion to details once you have a caterer you might want to work with. Final costs may differ from the initial estimate by as much as 10-15% and still be reasonable. But if the final bill is 25% or more higher than the estimate something has gone awry.

That higher figure doesn’t prove the caterer was a con artist. Honest misunderstandings do happen. To avoid them, list what is to be included in the price. Caterers will base their rough estimate on a per head count. Prices vary from $10-$100 per person or more depending on what is served and what extra services are included.

List as much as possible and review the details when you’ve narrowed down the choice of caterer to 1-3 companies. Be sure to ask about things like whether linens are included. Find out how much it costs (and how long is required) for pre-set up and post-reception clean-up. Ask how many staff people the cost includes. Compare the cost of sit-down meals with a buffet.

There are other common sense criteria to employ, as well. References are important and you should make the effort to ask for and actually talk to some provided by each candidate caterer. Ask whether they’re licensed and bonded (insurance the company pays to protect against accidents by their employees).

Once these basics are covered you can drill down to more narrow (but still important) issues. Find out who will be at the actual reception. Ask to meet them. Find out whether they will serve liquor and at what cost. Ask whether they’ll provide a cake and ask to see some designs of past efforts.

Once you reach the stage of making a final selection, be sure to have a written contract. Most caterers will use one for all engagements. Read it carefully, including the (sometimes boring) fine print. Here you’ll find out about any ‘extras’ that can cost you greatly. Remember: everything is negotiable.

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