Here is the thing about weddings these days: in most cases you have to serve food. And that often means hiring a wedding caterer. And that often means… money. Because as it turns out, feeding a whole lot of people a meal, or something close to it, isn’t cheap. (I know, I personally had a meltdown over this very issue when planning my own wedding, so if you’re feeling the stress that’s okay.)
So, since I’ve done zillions of hours of research on wedding caterers and general wedding planning in the years since my own wedding (see in particular, that super detailed book I wrote about wedding planning), I’m here to walk you through all of your wedding catering questions.
Ways to Cater A wedding
While this article is going to go into depth on the more traditional wedding caterer, first let’s take a peek at the whole slew of wedding food-service options available to you. They vary widely in investment of time and funds—but different things work for different weddings (and people).
The full-service wedding caterer: We’ll discuss this further below, but a full service caterer doesn’t just serve good food, they also take a ton of the work of the logistics of party planning off your (proverbial) plate.
The traditional wedding caterer serving less-traditional food: Remember, traditional caterers don’t just have to do steak and dry chicken. You can hire full-service pros and have them make tacos, or piles of appetizers, or whatever you’re into.
The restaurant wedding: While we often see restaurant weddings hosted in super fancy (and expensive) establishments, the reality is that you can host your wedding reception in any restaurant that will agree to have you. If the location isn’t used to doing weddings, this might take a little extra planning and work on their end to feed a whole lot of people at exactly the same time, but you won’t have to worry about the food being good.
The food truck wedding: Hire professionals to roll up in their kitchen and make delicious food. Food trucks can serve your guests right from the truck counter, or function more like portable commercial kitchens. Either way, the logistics (and tables) are on you.
The potluck wedding: You’ll know it if you’re surrounded by the kind of people who do potlucks, and if you are, go for it. Just remember that tables, chairs, cutlery, and clean up will be managed by your loved ones. (More details on how to make that happen here, and a great New York Times article for additional research.)
The self-catered wedding: The real deal. The whole enchilada. Not for the faint of heart (or the non-cook).
Hiring a traditional wedding caterer
Okay! So you’ve decided to go the tried-and-true traditional wedding caterer route. You don’t want to procrastinate finding a wedding caterer, but you shouldn’t attempt to book one until you’ve come up with a rough guest count, booked a venue (and set a date, duh), and have decided on a general budget for food. Once you’ve checked those boxes, get Googling, researching, and talking to friends and family. Also check with your venue to see if they have a preferred (read: required) list of caterers they allow you to work with.
Unlike many other types of vendors, there are likely going to be a limited number of wedding caterers in your area in your price range (and that applies to all price ranges, from high to low). Once you figure out who they are, you’ll want to narrow it down to those you’re interested in. Then—assuming you have more than one choice—contact them to get a rough price quote and set up a tasting. With many wedding vendors, it’s easy to get a feel for their portfolios through online research. But all the photos in the world aren’t going to tell you how food tastes… or if it was served on time.
What To Ask Wedding Caterers
Alyssa Griffith of Rose Gold Events suggests that you think about these questions when meeting with wedding caterers:
Do you like the food?
Is the catering manager competent?
Does the catering staff seem like they’ll work to meet your needs on your wedding day?
Is the chef who cooked for your tasting the same person who will cook for your wedding?
Do they offer cakes? And if you prefer, can you provide your own cakes?
Can you provide your own alcohol? (And if you can, will they serve it? Would they cover that under their insurance?)
Are there additional fees, such as cake cutting, corkage, or service charges?
Are they a true full-service wedding caterer? (Do they do bar, rentals, lighting, setup, teardown, cleanup, etc.?)
What is their backup plan if a chef gets sick, or there is another crisis?
Will they give you references of recent couples they’ve worked with?
Different Ways To Think About The Meal
A good wedding caterer should be able to prepare many kinds of tasty food, from a Middle Eastern spread to a pancake breakfast. Less traditional food choices can be delicious, and they also offer the potential benefit of cost saving. The farther you steer away from pricey protein options (like the admittedly delicious steak and lobster), the more you can bring prices down. Although any wedding caterer can and should walk you through a range of food and service options, here are the basic variations. Make sure you talk to your wedding caterer about comparative costs, including rentals, service, and food for any options you’re interested in:
Seated meal: This is thought of as the most traditional wedding option, and it can also be the most expensive. Because of that, a generation or two ago it was reserved only for weddings of the very wealthy—by which I mean, if you have to skip it, don’t feel bad for a second. While besuited waiters bring a certain charm to your event, they also greatly increase your staffing costs.
Family-style meal: The family-style meal involves large platters of food being served to each table and passed around, just like you would do at a holiday dinner. All told, this is often cheaper than a meal served by waiters, but it can be more expensive than a buffet. You’ll still need a decent number of servers to make this happen, and you’ll need more food.
Buffet meal: This can be the most affordable service option for serving a full meal. You still need a buffet to be staffed—someone needs to tidy it up and refresh the food as it runs out—but your staff-to-guests ratio is much lower. That said, your food costs could be higher (because nobody likes an empty-looking buffet), so talk to your wedding caterer to figure out what service option will ultimately be the most cost effective. If your wedding is large, make sure you have a good plan for crowd control. You’ll generally need one buffet line minimum per one hundred people.
Brunch or lunch: Although morning weddings can be cost effective in a variety of ways, the lunch or brunch meal doesn’t always save you the fortune that is sometimes promised. Lunch lets you skip the aforementioned lobster with fewer people noticing, and it will definitely lower your alcohol bill. But the food alone won’t tend to save you enough to justify moving your wedding to earlier in the day.
Heavy appetizers/Cocktail Hour: Here, you skip the expensive main courses, skip the pricey servers, and go hog wild on what are essentially snacks. Just make sure you have enough food to really fill people up (particularly if you’re also going to booze them up) and let the mixing and mingling begin. (Much more on cocktail receptions here.)
Wedding Caterers Don’t Just Cook The Food
Keep in mind that a full-service wedding caterer also does a ton of things you may not realize. They don’t just cook, they also generally set up your tables and chairs, often coordinate your rentals, provide the waitstaff (and often bartenders), serve the food on time, clean up the dining area and kitchen, pack up leftovers, and take away the garbage. When you’re calculating the price of traditional catering versus less traditional options, make sure you remember that a wedding caterer’s bill includes a ton of things that you’ll have to pay for on your own if you go a more DIY route. On that note, you want to make sure you’re hiring someone who will do all those tasks skillfully and on time.
did you hire a wedding caterer? what kind of wedding caterer did you have—or what worked if you put yourself in charge of catering?
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