Published January 13, 2015
What's tougher than throwing your own cocktail party? Finding a good caterer. What you need to look for and look out for, so your guests don't go hungry — or worse.
1. "Did I mention this is my first time?"
As any stressed-out host can attest, planning a social event of any scale is hard work, be it a small cocktail party or a formal wedding. With the time constraints of daily life — those related to work, family and other commitments — ever increasing, more and more people are now handing over part of the job to someone else. By some industry estimates, there are now more than 30,000 specialty caterers doing business in the U.S.
But that figure leaves out smaller operators who may not be listed in phone books and professional directories, a group International Caterers Association President Linda West describes as "selling sandwiches out of the back of the Volvo," which could include thousands more outfits. Anyone can call himself a caterer, and that means a huge disparity in the level of service, skill, cleanliness and general professionalism you might find out there. The best way to choose a caterer you can trust? Word of mouth, West says. Talk to people in your area whose opinions you trust; even better, ask anyone who has held a catered event that you've enjoyed. And when speaking to a potential caterer, be sure to request at least three references — and call them.
2. "You could probably do this a whole lot cheaper."
Most full-service caterers like to handle everything from the food and the alcohol to the coat check. They say this makes things easier on the host, but it's also more profitable for them. There are some easy ways to save money though — starting with buying your own liquor. Some caterers charge above-retail prices on alcohol; if you buy it yourself, you'll pay roughly half their price. Even if your caterer then charges you a $2 to $5 corkage fee per bottle, the savings can still be significant — especially if your retailer accepts returns of unopened bottles, which many do. A word of caution: Liquor laws differ by jurisdiction; in some areas it's illegal to provide your own alcohol at a catered event, so check first.
You can also save big by renting your own supplies — if your caterer will allow it — such as tables, chairs or dishware. You'll save on the markup, which can be as much as 30%, and you can still ask your caterer to handle the setup.
Finally, be flexible about the date. If you hold your event on a Friday, Sunday or even midweek, you can save up to 15%, says Michael Roman, president of Catersource, a support and education organization for caterers.
3. "You may not want to know what's in my secret recipe."
We knew a caterer in Indiana, who has since passed away, who was famous for his sweet-and-sour meatballs. People begged him for the recipe, but he kept it closely guarded. And for good reason: The meatballs came frozen from a restaurant-supply house, and the sauce was doctored with such secret ingredients as grape jelly.
Ingredients can become a sticking point with caterers and their dishes, many of which include surprising — and not always healthy — additions. If you have any special requests such as vegetarian dishes, be sure to let your caterer know, and ask to review lists of ingredients.
Food allergies are a more serious concern. Fort Wayne, Ind., catering chef Marla Cohen recalls a four-year-old at one event who was allergic to peanuts and touched a plate that had held chicken satay: "Her bottom lip swelled up just like that." Cohen called an ambulance and the child was fine, but anaphylactic shock can kill. Most people with allergies know what foods to avoid. But if any of your guests has such a condition, it's vital to tell your caterer; some troublesome ingredients — like peanut oil — may be hidden in preparations.
4. "That staggering drunk wants another round? No problem!"
Alcohol gets any good party flowing, but serving it in your home presents potentially dangerous situations. Liquor concerns "are a very hot issue in catering today," says Catersource's Michael Roman, who adds that hosts often expect bartenders to cross the line by serving minors or to keep serving guests who've already had too much to drink.
Serving underage or obviously drunk guests is illegal, and if something goes wrong, you're the one who could be held liable. "This is something that's up to everyone to enforce," Roman says. "The host should back up the bartender." Such situations require diplomacy and finesse, so ask for experienced bartenders — and ask the caterer to keep a watchful eye. Linda West, the head of the catering association and owner of Houston-based Mélange Catering & Special Events, hands out taxi vouchers to anyone whose level of impairment seems questionable. The vouchers include next-day returns so guests can pick up their cars — sober.
An added safeguard: While you may pay much more for it, if you do purchase the alcohol through your caterer, you are generally covered by the caterer's liability insurance.
5. "This spread will easily serve 50...dieting models."
A host's worst nightmare is running out of food. Dallas event planner Jennifer Fenimore recently handled a wedding where she was promised food for 50. Forty-two guests showed up, and they still ran short. "I wish I had known what the caterer considered a portion size," she says. "The only thing that didn't run out was the mashed-potato martini bar" — a station featuring mashed potatoes in martini glasses, with a variety of toppings — "and that's only because we had the wrong size of martini glasses. They were too small."
Experienced caterers know that some groups eat more than others, but they should never run short. If you expect your guests to be served a full lunch, be sure to tell your caterer. If a finger-food buffet will serve as a light meal at your reception, make that clear too. On the flip side, if your budget is limited, don't skimp on portion size. Former Chicago caterer Adrienne Battin once had a client who was expecting 18 for lunch and wanted her to serve a buffet with just 18 shrimp. "I told her that I wasn't going to stand there like a police officer and tell anyone who took two to put one back," Battin says. "If you can't afford shrimp, don't serve it." 6. "You want to know if things will go smoothly? Hire a psychic."
Timing is critical in the success of any social affair: A cocktail hour that's going well should be extended, but not by too much, or your guests may overdo it and be unable to fully enjoy dinner. One of the most important roles of a caterer is to help ensure that things go smoothly by finessing the pace of an event. A good caterer should keep things moving along on schedule, but should also be flexible. Late-arriving guests to a sit-down dinner can be accommodated by a longer appetizer course, for example.
But even the best-laid plans can be disrupted by the unexpected snafu. Battin once handled a home wedding reception where the portable ovens she'd brought couldn't run without shorting out the host's electrical system. A neighbor was nice enough to lend his portable generators, but without them the entrée might have been Chinese takeout.
Experienced caterers schedule walk-throughs when they're planning to cook at an unfamiliar facility and carry such unusual kitchen equipment as socket testers and oven thermometers. If your caterer doesn't ask to see your facility first, request that he pay a visit — or consider going with another outfit.
7. "Your leftovers will feed my family for a week."
You paid for that food, and it's yours, even the leftovers. Just as in a restaurant, it's your right to have all the leftovers returned to you, wrapped for takeout. But it isn't unheard of for some caterers to quietly take doggie bags of their own.
"At one company I worked for, the cleanup people walked off with the leftovers," says Battin, whose client had been expecting to find food in her refrigerator the following morning. It was probably a misunderstanding, but it cost her company, which then had to compensate the client.
Of course, you may not want the leftovers. Newlyweds, for instance, may be leaving on their honeymoon the day after their reception and don't particularly want to come home to two-week-old food. If none of your relatives or guests are interested in taking home slightly wilted hors d'oeuvres, consider gifting them to your caterer — Battin says she often parcels them out to service captains, security guards and other support staff as an extra gratuity of sorts. Another option: Ask your caterer if he works with an organization that accepts leftovers for the needy.
8. "I hope you like piercings. My waiters have more holes in their head than a block of Swiss cheese."
Food service attracts a wide range of workers, from career professionals to moonlighting artists. And while it may be cool for artists to sport pierced eyebrows on their own time, you have a right not to have to look at them at your event. If you don't want to see piercings, for example, or green hair or tattoos on your servers, tell your caterer up front. In turn, it's the caterer's right to accept or not accept a job based on those requests.
You can be as specific as you like: Roman of Catersource says he once had a hostess ask him not to use any waitresses who were well-endowed. "She said, 'My husband and I are having problems,'" Roman recalls. He complied with the request. "Don't be afraid to ask for something — anything is negotiable," he says. (Not entirely true: Race and ethnicity are off-limits.)
You're free to dictate a dress code for the servers, too, within reason, though any special outfits — if you're throwing a costume party, for example, or a corporate event and want the servers to wear T-shirts with logos — are your responsibility. Otherwise, simple all-black, all-white or black-and-white attire is considered standard.
9. "You say 'budget'; I say 'guesstimate.'"
Many a host has spent hours on end fine-tuning the menu, shaving costs here and there to fit a strict budget, only to be surprised by the bill at the end. That's because many caterers neglect to calculate tax and gratuity charges in their estimates, add-ons that can easily boost a final bill by as much as 25%. "If I say I can pay $100 (per guest), I don't want to get a bill for $125," says Linda Cauiola, an event planner in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Tax and gratuity figures can vary widely; you can expect to pay as much as 22% for the latter. Ask whom it will cover: Often the gratuity may include wait staff, security guards, captains and any other service people employed by your caterer. You're not required to tip more on top of it, but you may want to: It's not uncommon, for example, to give a little extra to captains or the wait staff. (Valet parkers are tipped at the guest's discretion.)
But to avoid any surprises, tell your caterer you want to see an inclusive budget, and ask specifically about tax, gratuity and any potential extra charges. "If they get quiet, you have a problem," Cauiola says.
10. "Of course your event will be unique. But we're pricing chicken Kiev to move this week."
All hosts want their party to be memorable, and for the right reasons — not because theirs was the last in a long line of mini-quiche and vegetable-plate receptions this season. "I tell banquet managers all the time, I don't want the same thing they're serving at Company Y's function," Cauiola says. "But it happens — because they're lazy."
Caterers should keep up with trends but also have original ideas that can work within your budget. One result of the recent explosion of home-entertaining TV shows, books and magazines has been an increase in creative ideas and widespread availability of gourmet ingredients, often at reasonable prices.
So there's no excuse anymore for banquet-style chicken cordon bleu.
To ensure that your event is unique, Cauiola advises micromanaging: Check and recheck menus and event orders, ask questions, even peek into chafing dishes before guests arrive to make sure the salmon you requested is there and cooked the way you want it. "You have to be able to trust your caterer," she says. "My clients don't want a refund or an apology. They want their dinner to go well."