If your venue requires you to hire a caterer, the task can be daunting. How are you supposed to know who to hire and, more importantly, what questions should you ask in order to find “the one”?
Below are some not-so-obvious questions to ask a full-service caterer that will help you narrow down your search.
1. HAVE YOU WORKED AT MY VENUE BEFORE?
Out of all the industry roles, it is most difficult to be a caterer when it comes to new venues. If a catering company has never worked at your venue before, or if you’re planning a backyard event, it’s important for the catering company to scope it out. If they are doing any type of cooking or preparing on site, they’ll need to know if there’s a kitchen, where electricity is, how many working surfaces they’ll have, how much space, etc. Things may need to be supplied by you (which means an additional cost) or they may lump it into their fee, but either way you’ll want to know before booking approximately what things are going to cost (to avoid surprises) and having worked at your venue before, they’ll know.
If they haven’t, it’s still ok. But be sure to keep going with these questions.
2. WHAT IS INCLUDED IN YOUR FEES?
There are a TON of things that may or may not be included in a caterer’s fees. Things to check for would be:
- service fees
- cake cutting fees
- mixers, fruits, etc. for bar
- water, soft drinks, etc. for bar
- drink service during dinner (ice water, wine pouring, etc.)
- linens (including table cloths and napkins)
- dish rentals (including plates, silverware and glassware)
- serving ware (chaffing dishes, cake stands, serving spoons, etc.)
- facilities (oven, stove, warmers, fridge, etc.) if the venue does not provide
- garbage cans/liners
Whether they do or do not include it in their quoted price, it doesn’t matter. But if they do not, realize it may be an added expense for you.
3. WILL YOU HANDLE THE SETTING OF THE TABLE?
In most cases, if your caterer provides the dishes, silverware and glassware, they will take on the responsibility of setting the tables for dinner. If they do not, either you or someone you appoint will need to take care of this task, and depending on the amount of guests, help with details you may have, it isn’t always a quick job.
4. WHERE DOES THE FOOD COME FROM?
If locally-sourced food is important to you, be sure to ask where the food comes from. Is it frozen? Is it organic? Is it fresh? Is it seasonal?
5. ARE YOU FLEXIBLE ON YOUR MENU OR CAN I ONLY PICK FROM WHAT YOU HAVE?
Sometimes a family recipe or food item means a lot to you and should be incorporated into your event. Some caterers will offer to work with you to create the perfect menu, others prefer to work off of the items they have perfected themselves. Either way, whatever is important to you, it’s good to ask. If you have a specific ethnic or cultural food that you’d like, be sure they can accommodate.
6. HOW LONG DOES A TYPICAL SERVICE TAKE?
This is HUGE. More and more, people say “I just don’t want dinner to take forever”. A great caterer knows how long a service will take based on the type of service (plated dinner, buffet, stations, etc.) and the number of guests that you have. Other factors will include the venue facilities too, but if the caterer estimates a three-hour dinner period and your event is only four hours, it might not be a good fit. Know this in advance so you aren’t barking at the chef the day of to hurry it up.
7. CAN I TASTE THE MENU, OR PARTS OF IT, IN ADVANCE?
This is also a really important factor. If you’ve had their food before it is best to taste things in advance. Some include tastings in the cost, some limit the number of tastings, others charge, it really depends on them. But find out what’s included and never assume that it is.
8. BASED ON THE TIMING OF OUR EVENT, AT WHAT TIME WILL YOU ARRIVE TO BEGIN SETTING UP?
Caterers should not arrive at the very last-minute. There should be some wiggle room because anything can happen. Find out how far in advance they typically arrive.
9. DO YOU OFFER KID-FRIENDLY, ALLERGY-FRIENDLY AND VENDOR MEALS?
More and more people are working with guests with dietary restrictions (particularly gluten-free and vegan/vegetarian) that need tending to. Most caterers are happy to help with this request if they know in advance. Unlike a restaurant who has more options in the kitchen, caterers should be made aware of any dietary situations to avoid any chaos in the kitchen.
For children, it’s great to know the standard “chicken fingers and fries” is an option and often these and vendor meals can be offered at a lower cost.
10. ONCE THE GUEST COUNT IS GIVEN, DO YOU ALLOW CHANGES TO BE MADE?
More guests are canceling last-minute and this is never fun. Typically, your guest count is due to the caterer/venue anywhere from 1-2 weeks before the event. From that due date to the point of the event, there may very well be changes to that number. Ask your caterer what the final cut off date will be to make any changes.
(The reason that a caterer has such a cut-off date is so they can order the proper amount of food without having too much waste and obviously ensuring there is enough)
11. WHAT HAPPENS TO THE LEFTOVER FOOD?
When you go to a restaurant and order a meal, whatever you don’t eat is often placed in a doggy bag to take home. Depending on your caterer (or venue) this may or may not be an option. Some caterers will give you any leftover food, either in their own containers or containers you are required to provide. Others do not. If you want any leftovers, find out if it’s possible in advance and what they need to make it happen.
12. HOW DO YOU HANDLE GRATUITY FOR YOUR STAFF? h
This goes in-hand with question #2, but if gratuity is not included in your final bill ask how past clients typically tip the staff. Can you give one tip to be shared amongst everyone? Does just the maitre’d get tipped? Bartenders? You don’t want anyone to think you’re ungrateful just because of a lack of communication.
13. WHAT WILL THE STAFF WEAR?
Depending on the style of your event, you’ll want to make sure your catering staff blend in nicely and professionally. If you have a black-tie event, the servers should not be wearing t-shirts and cargos. If you’re having a backyard BBQ, a white-glove service is likely going to feel disjointed.
Keep in mind, there are no “right” or “wrong” answers to any of these questions to a caterer necessarily. BUT you should be in agreement with their answers. If not, there is nothing wrong with finding a caterer who does match your style and needs. Once again, it is extremely important that you gel with your vendors.
For more information on event caterers, contact Simple Fare in Medford.