When it comes to the things that can make or break an event, few are as important as the quality, flavor and appearance of the food and beverages you serve. Your guests and will probably not remember as much about the decor or entertainment, but they will definitely remember whether or not their meal was delicious. A lot is riding on your decision of which caterer to hire… amazing catering can rescue an event, but bad catering will almost always send guests to the
In addition, because catering is often the #1 or #2 line-item cost for most events, the caterer you choose is also a significant budgetary decision and can influence how much money you have left over to spend on other areas.
Based on input from caterers, here are the 8 top criteria you should consider when hiring a caterer.
#1 – Responsiveness and Personal Interest in Your Needs
How responsive and interested a caterer is during your initial conversations is indicative of how they will perform during the length of their contract with you.
Many caterers will claim to have the best-tasting food made with the freshest ingredients at the most competitive price, but it is a rare quality for one to be both quick to return calls and emails and open to critiques and new ideas. While these may seem like somewhat insignificant factors when compared with overall taste and cost, they actually mean that the caterer is truly concerned with meeting the customers’ needs and ensuring that they are pleased with both the product and the service.
A prospective caterer should be learning as much as they can about you in your first few conversations with them, so you should expect them to be talking and asking questions about 20% of the time and you providing answers and outlining your needs about 80% of the time. If the caterer is not asking questions about the event they may see you as simply ‘the next client’. They should be interested in learning about your event. They should be asking about your theme, the purpose, budget and goals.
#2 – Ability to Handle Your Specific Type of Event
Not every catering company is perfect or every type of event, and many caterers themselves openly admit this.
All caterers do a broad range of events but are built to service different markets more effectively than others so it’s important to ask enough questions to determine if a caterer has the right kind of experience for you. Each caterer has areas they specialize in so even a caterer with a great reputation may not be the best fit for you. For example, some are more ’boutique’ and specialize in smaller intimate-type social events. Others specialize in serving large corporate and non-profit clients.
When interviewing your caterers (and you should speak with at least 3 caterers for any event with a reasonable budget), you need to be specific about the type of event you are planning and the type of food and/or presentation you are expecting. Otherwise, you may end up selecting a caterer who simply isn’t a good fit for the type or style of your event.
#3 – Flexibility Regarding Menu Options
Practically every caterer has a standard menu or menus to choose from, and many do provide some level of built-in flexibility to adapt these menus to your specific needs by substituting specific items and/or customizing others. Any caterer who has been in the industry and knows what they are doing should have a few different menu options that are constantly being updated and changing to keep up with current trends.
However, the standout caterers will go beyond standardized menu options and be willing to create amazing fare that matches even more specific theme and dietary needs.
An ideal caterer should be willing to handle (or at least consider) special requests. Ask the caterer if they will work with items of special significance to the style or theme of your event. Or can they prepare vegetarian, vegan, kosher, or children’s meals for your guests?
All of these are important questions to ask upfront to see how far each caterer you interview is able and willing to accommodate you.
#4 – Willingness to Provide Tastings
How will you ever know what a caterer can do unless you sample their goods? And more specifically, how will you know what the menu items you are considering will taste like unless you specifically try them?
Some people shy away from asking to sample the specific items they want for their event because it seems like a hassle for the caterer, but it is standard to ask for a sampling of what you are intending to order before you sign on the dotted line.
Attend at least 3 tastings with separate caterers and make sure you can taste what you want. Never settle for a caterer that will just give you a generic sample; you need to know what the food on your menu will taste like. Be prepared to pay for these tastings if necessary.
#5 – Complete Explanation of Services/Goods Promised in the Contract
The caterer’s contract should clearly spell out exactly what food, beverages and services the caterer will be providing on the designated day(s). Moreover, it should protect you from non-performance as much as it protects the caterer from non-payment/default.
Every detail should be included in the contract, included selected menus, number of servings and/or people to be served, beverage/bar service details (if applicable) and all pricing and additional services.
Even what seem to be small details or no-brainers should be included in the contract. “Even get everything in writing with clear terms for setup/cleanup and left overs,” says Anastasia Stevenson, Owner of Coastal Creative Events .
Most [caterers] will take leftover food away unless agreed upon beforehand and a liability release is given.”
#6 – A Well-Defined Cancellation Plan
No caterer with a shred of dignity and scruples enters into a contract with plans to bail at the last minute, but you need to make sure there is a cancellation clause in your contract just in case your caterer has to cancel.
You don’t want to be left without recourse with only days or hours before your event, so just make sure cancellation procedures and penalties are in place so you do have a backup plan.
#7 – Insurance
Every caterer we talked to called insurance coverage “a given” for caterers, and you certainly don’t want to legally be on the hook for some oversight or accident that was the fault of your caterer.
Any reputable catering company is going to have liability insurance. If they don’t, this is definitely a red flag. This type of insurance protects them and keeps you from having to deal with any recourse if something were to happen and they weren’t properly insured.
#8 – An Experienced Chef and Kitchen Staff
Surprisingly, how long a catering company has been in business may not be as critical in selecting a great caterer as you may think.
Length of time in the catering industry doesn’t necessarily translate into great and tasty cuisine. The chef’s background and experience can be more important than the owner of the company who has awards on their shelf. It’s the chef, sous chef and kitchen staff that often seals the deal.
And when do you know you have picked the right caterer? When a caterer is willing and able to elegantly and expertly surprise and delight your guests by delivering beautiful, tasty and adventurous food with great service that compliments your event theme, you have nailed the catering aspect of your event.