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. A lot is riding on your decision of which caterer to hire, and if you think this decision really isn’t that important, look at it this way … amazing catering can rescue an event that’s on the rocks, but bad catering will almost always send guests to the doors (or, in your nightmare scenario, to the restrooms).
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 depending on food costs and quantities.
Add in the fact that caterers can vary dramatically in their pricing and the types of meals and services they offer, and the process of selecting a caterer can figuratively and literally feel like you are comparing apples to oranges (pun fully intended).
So we talked to a dozen veteran caterers and event managers about the criteria they recommend in selecting a caterer. And based on their recommendations…
Here are the 10 top criteria event you should consider when hiring a caterer.
#1 – Responsiveness and Personal Interest in Your Needs
Of all the event and catering professionals we spoke with, this came up over and over and over again, mainly because 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 (and more on contracts later).
“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,” says Cheryl Lynn Foster-Gerton, an event designer and owner of An Essential Event in Denver. “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’,” says Lyndsey Bunn, Catering and Conference Services Manager at Silver Legacy Resort Casino . “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 caterer is perfect or every type of event, and many caterers themselves openly admit this.
“All of us do a broad range of events, but we 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,” says Arthur Bassani, owner of In Thyme Catered Events in Secaucus, NJ . “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], like us.”
So 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.
“Some caterers excel with barbecues that are great for company picnics, some with exceptional Latin-fusion for that themed event, and others shine with elegance that work well for that black-tie gala,” says Greg Jenkins, Partner at Bravo Productions. “You should select the caterer that works for that specific function, not just because you’ve used them previously for a company meeting or employee holiday party.”
#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,” says Rene Wunderlich, Corporate Account Manager at the Inn at New Hyde Park.
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.
“If a caterer isn’t willing to adapt its menu or challenge its staff to work with and celebrate your custom theme, that’s a red flag,” says Christine Courtney-Myers of the C3 Agency . “We revise menu proposals and attend tastings to finalize each dish’s flavors and perfect the portions and presentation to compliment or amplify our event design and our client’s theme.”
An ideal caterer should also be willing to handle (or at least consider) special requests. “Ask the caterer if they are willing to include a family recipe you provide,” says Lyndsey Bunn. “Or will they 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,” recommends Danielle Rothweiler of Rothweiler Event Design . “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.”
In addition, you can request wine parings for these tastings if they are appropriate for your event (again, be prepared to pay a fee … it’s a small price to pay to ensure you choose the right caterer). And when you are sampling the food, also attend to how it is presented, as any caterer who takes the time to properly display a sample will probably be more likely to make that kind of effort on your event day.
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#5 – Familiarity With the Venue
You may be in for a surprise if you hire a BBQ take-out joint to cater a formal ballroom fundraiser. Or if you choose a high-end corporate event caterer to serve a barn wedding. Why? Because these caterers may not be accustomed to preparing and serving food in such a setting.
This can get even more specific depending on restrictions of the venue itself, like in the case of museums and historical sites. “You want to be sure you choose a caterer who has worked at that venue before and knows all the rules that are typical of sites like this,” says Teresa Davenport, Associate Director of Development and Communications at Morven Park, a historical site in Northern Virginia. “For example, no red wine or live flowers are allowed inside our historic house museum.”
Even more traditional venues can also have restrictions that caterers must follow – like certain setup standards or disposal restrictions for waste food and water – so having a caterer that is familiar with a venue’s rules can potentially save you lots of hassle on event day.
#6 – 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, so you may want to consider having an attorney look at it before you sign it.
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.
“An important thing to inquire about is what comes standard in their contracts and what is an upgrade,” says Heidi Hiller, Owner of Innovative Party Planners . “For example, do they quote paper and plastic plates while you are expecting fine china? That is important as the rental of these can add up. Also inquire about the number of staff [the caterer] intends to bring to service your event. The minimum ratio we suggest is 1:12, which not only includes the servers, but also encompasses the chef and his/her staff, the crew loading and unloading the truck, the dishwasher, the bartenders and the banquet captain.”
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.”
#7 – 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.
“Get detailed information on how they handle cancellations and make sure it’s included in the contract,” advises Julia Pavlovski of Wedding Wise. “You should find out if your deposit is fully refundable and what the next steps are. And will they refer you to other caterers or help make some calls to see who is available?”
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.
#8 – References You Can Call and Talk To
Of course you will need to check up on the caterers you are considering, and it’s always good to start online and check out sites like Yelp, Wedding Wire and Angie’s List for their reviews and ratings.
However, don’t stop there, as online reviews are not always reliable (or even authentic); for example, a good caterer may have had a few nightmare/hater clients who skew their ratings, while a truly mediocre caterer may have padded their online reviews. So see if you can track down some past clients of the caterers you are considering and reach out to them.
“People are often more forthcoming in private conversations about any disappointments in regards to the food or overall experience with the caterer than they are in written reviews online,” says Julia Pavlovski.
“It’s wise to check references, make calls and conduct one’s own due diligence,” adds Greg Jenkins. Translation: Don’t just rely on what the caterer tells you, or what their handpicked references tell you, or what the Interwebs say … do some extra legwork to ensure you are getting the straight story.
#9 – 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,” says Julia Pavlovski. “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.”
#10 – 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,” says Greg Jenkins. “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.”
So make sure to ask about the chef’s bona fides and CV because he/she will probably be the one most responsible for the outcome of the meal and whether your guests enjoy it or not.
And when do you know you have picked the right caterer? As Christine Courtney-Myers succinctly puts it, “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.”