With the holidays just around the corner, experienced hosts will book a caterer early to ensure the success of their private parties and company events. The right catering companies can make or break a get-together, so if you don’t have a trusted favorite catering company, we can help you with the process.
Begin the process by defining the type of event you are planning. Is it a sophisticated holiday cocktail party, a formal sit-down dinner, a dinner-and-dancing extravaganza? Or is it your office party or an open house for clients? Think of what you’d like to do and how many guests you anticipate; then, establish a realistic budget.
Next, select the date for the event. Then, it’s time to think about the proper help you need. A skilled caterer will enable you to plan, and enjoy, your event. When looking for a caterer, references are critical—there’s too much at stake to go with an unknown entity. Seek out the names of the caterers with a reputation for excellent food and service. Creativity and unique menus also make events memorable and are attributes you should seek out.
Once you’ve pulled together a list, you can begin making calls to find out availability. If caterers say they don’t do a party of your type/size/budget, ask for the names of people they like who do smaller parties. There are always caterers who prefer to do small events, who have a track record. When you have narrowed your list down to a few choice caterers who are available the date you wish to have your party, it is time to drill down and determine exactly which one is the right one for your party. This involves interviewing the caterer, understanding what you can get for your budget, selecting and tasting menus, discussing theme and rental needs, working out beverage arrangements, agreeing upon price and service requirements/fees and always checking recent references.
The first step is to discuss your budget over the phone, and understand if it is doable. You may have to be flexible in terms of exact foods—short ribs instead of rib-eye—but the caterer can give you a price range for a buffet, sit-down, passed hors d’oeuvres, etc., and tell you what percentage to add for alcohol, rentals (glasses, linens), decor (flowers), staffing, etc. If one-stop-shopping is important in your busy life, and you want a professional to take the extra work off your hands, ascertain that the caterer does this regularly and can smoothly perform the duties. Caterers should be able to provide sample menus they’ve created for similar types of parties. These days, most businesses have a website with menus plus photos of dishes and displays. Also obtain references.
After reviewing the background materials, you’ll be able to narrow the choices to a very short list based on budget, experience with similar events, references and personal compatibility. Chemistry with the caterer is very important.
Then: Ask for a proposal. Did the caterer listen carefully and send a proposal that accommodates your wishes and budget? Do you like the menus? If you asked for something creative—is it your idea of creative? Have all of your requests been addressed?
Meet in person. Meet privately with the caterer at his or her place of business or kitchen. Be sure you feel comfortable with this person. You want an event manager who seems to be enjoyable to work with, appears to be competent and client service-oriented and inspires confidence that you will feel relaxed and able to mix with your guests.
Selecting The Menu
It may seem that the most fun part of planning a party is deciding what to serve. But it’s also a complex undertaking, and your choices have direct impact on budget. Before even thinking about a menu, the first question to ask is, how will the meal be served? Passed food? Plated sit-down? Buffet? If a buffet meal, will it be served by staff, or will guests help themselves? These days, served buffets are very popular, but the caterer needs to prepare 10% more food—just in case some guests take healthier portions or come back for seconds.
When selecting menu choices and serving formats ask the caterer for recommendations based on similar parties they have worked. For a formal dinner party, ask for a sampling of three- or four-course menu suggestions—e.g. soup, salad, main course and dessert. For a party based on appetizers and cocktails, ask for a menu recommendation that will satisfy guests while still being finger food oriented. Have the caterer suggest menus that are crowd pleasers. A self-service buffet can be a cost-effective solution.
Tasting The Menu
Once you have chosen a caterer and settled on the menu, it is important to taste it. Arrange for a time to visit your caterer, where a tasting menu prepared for you. Taste and presentation are important. If you don’t like something about the menu, the tasting is the time to discuss it with your caterer and ensure that changes are made to your satisfaction. Remember, this is your party and every detail matters. A good caterer is there to work with you to ensure that the event comes off exactly the way you want it to be.
The caterer should also visit your premises (home or party venue), understand the kitchen setup, where guest tables and the bar will be set up, where music should be stationed for best traffic flow, etc.
You should discuss drinks and alcohol with the caterer, even if you are planning to supply them yourself. Most caterers will provide a bartender (and often insist upon liquor liability insurance for each guest), and of course will recommend and acquire all soft drinks, mineral water and alcoholic beverages for you. Be sure to go over exactly what you want served, and what level of participation you require from your caterer. A good caterer will be licensed to serve both food and alcohol in your home, and will most certainly help you pair the proper amount and types of beverages with your food selections.