Food is one of the most important decisions you’ll make for your event. It’s also one of your largest expenses. So how do you ensure you’re getting an amazing caterer and offering a tantalising menu? Here’s what you need to look for.
Event planners work with lots of people. And finding the right vendors for your team can increase your ability to meet your client’s needs. Once you find a reliable vendor, partnerships are possible and often extremely helpful. But what if you don’t have something as essential as a good caterer? Or what if your best caterer is booked and you need to audition another one? How do you separate the talent from the wannabes? Here’s what you need to look for when hiring a caterer:
- Responsiveness and an ability to work with you.
- Good recommendations.
- Experience working with your type of event and/or venue.
- Sharing your vision.
- Willingness to do a tasting.
Why Is It Important to Find a Good Caterer?
This question is almost a no brainer. Of course, your caterer provides the food and will be a large part of your event budget. You want to get your money’s worth. The beauty of your venue will be ruined with burnt or cold food. The experience you’re trying to provide, shattered. But there are other reasons to look for a good caterer.
Caterers are food experts. They not only cook it, they know it. Many of them have dreams of opening their own restaurant someday and they spend their free time concocting menus. Working with a professional caterer can bring another level of expertise to your event. You have a vision for it and a caterer can likely help you construct the food portion of the experience. Rely on them for creative suggestions, combinations and local sourcing.
Flexibility and Improvisation
Goodness knows you’re asked to make all sorts of food substitutions as an event planner. From vegan to gluten-free, kosher to allergies, there are a lot of food concerns these days. A professional caterer can handle those types of requests in stride. While you may be tempted to scrap a menu idea when you realize it isn’t going to fit the dietary needs of half of your guests, your caterer may know a substitution that could help you keep the menu you’d like without attendee issue.
Need someone to help manage an area like the kitchen and waitstaff? Guess what? Your caterer is that person. A skilled caterer is adept at conceiving and preparing meals that fit your event, and they manage cooks, servers, cleaners, kitchen staff, and a host of others to ensure your meal is a memorable one.
Caterers are some of the few people with as much stamina as an event planner. It takes a lot of prep, coordination, and follow through to create a meal for large groups. Attention to detail is one of their top traits, along with an ability to work long hours on their feet. They are the perfect partner to the event planner. And a good caterer/planner team is critical to an event’s success.
Some caterers can help give you ideas not only on your menu but on the food presentation as well. Some events require impressive food displays. A skilled caterer knows how to wow your audience with more than just the menu and taste. They are creative professionals in all areas of food presentation from the way the food is plated to breath-taking food designs.
What Should You Look for in a Good Caterer
A “good” caterer is largely subjective and depends on your event expectations. At the very minimum, they prepare and cook excellent food based on your specifications. But as noted above, a caterer can be much more and become a partner in your design vision.
The first part of knowing how to find a good caterer is understanding your expectations and that of your stakeholders. Most stakeholders are just looking for good food, but occasionally they demand more. A conference for the American Culinary Association would require a little more than just really good lasagna, for instance.
Then you need to decide, are you looking for someone to make a great meal or someone who will be a partner to you, giving input into the food side of your event experience? There are all levels of caterers and understanding what you want before you begin looking for it is essential to shortening the search process.
Once you know your expectations and that of your stakeholders, look for the following things when auditioning caterers. Do not assume they all have the same interests or abilities. What one caterer handles, another believes is the domain of the event planner. Make sure you take the time to spell out your expectations so that everyone has a good understanding of them before the day of the event.
1. Responsiveness and an Ability to Work with You
A critical part of working with any new vendor is responsiveness. If you can’t get in touch with them and they don’t return your calls, it’s extremely difficult to hire them in the first place.
But the second part of this is an ability to work with you. They should provide you with ideas and suggestions based on their experience. You want someone who is willing to take an active part in creating something that will be the talk of your event.
However, if you don’t want the food to be a major part of the event experience and memory, you need to convey this as well. Maybe budget is top of mind? Or maybe you are just looking for unobtrusive canapes and finger foods that don’t detract from the event happenings and networking opportunities. A good caterer fits within the parameters of what you are looking for.
2. Good Recommendations
People talk about caterers. Good or bad, it’s out there. Ask a caterer for past clients you can contact about their experience but keep in mind, this recommendation could be coming from a cousin or a significant other of the owner. Businesses never share the bad. They only share those customers they know will give a good rec.
That’s why it’s also important to do your research on the Internet. Chances are someone has said something about them online. It’s fine to ignore a couple of less than stellar reviews. Everyone has an off day or maybe it was a difficult client to work with. But if there’s a pattern of things that appears in the reviews like “late” or “short staffed,” you want to give careful consideration to these things.
Another place to get recommendations is other people in the industry. Just know that if you go this route, other event planners may be protective of their favorite caterers in the same way parents protect the identity of their favorite babysitters.
3. Experience Working with Your Type of Event and/or Venue
Familiarity breeds experience and having an experienced caterer on your event team means a lot less explaining and hand holding. It’s valuable to have experience in two areas - the type of event and the event venue (or places like it).
Having experience in the type of event is important because you needn’t educate them on the challenges or specifics involved. After all, there are different demands on a corporate luncheon than there are on a wedding buffet. Make sure you select a caterer that has experience with your type of event.
Having worked an event at your venue before is also helpful. If they haven’t worked at the venue, working at a similar venue can provide the necessary information they’d need to be successful. For instance, historic estates have requirements and adherences that a local bar wouldn’t. If they’ve worked a historic property before - even if it’s not the one you’re hosting at - they’ll know to ask about the specifications before the day of your event.
4. Sharing Your Vision
You’re entering into a partnership with your caterer. While most are willing to accommodate event planners and their menu visions, you want to ensure you’re working with a caterer who moves beyond chicken and cheesecake. Are you looking for down home comfort food or trendy fusion dishes? You want to work with someone who can see what you can and is ready to bring it to your audience.
Here’s an easy question to ask to get to the heart of whether they share your vision or are simply “yes-ing” you. Ask them what ingredients they most often use.
5. Willingness to Do a Tasting
Before you arrange a tasting with half of the caterers in town, you should use the requirements in this section to narrow down your list of caterers to three. Any more than that and it’s difficult to differentiate between them and thus make a decision. Plus, when it comes to tastings, you want to be seen as a credible potential client, not one stopping by for free cake.
Because of this, many caterers are hesitant to do a tasting. After all, they’re not just sticking some food in the microwave and putting it on your plate. They’re spending time in preparation. So out of professional courtesy to them, only ask to do tastings for those who have made the shortlist for your event.
Don’t discount a caterer who requires a tasting fee, as long as it is minimal or applied against your bill should you select them. You are asking for their time and skill. That deserves payment. After all, you know the feeling when others want to “pick your brain” for free. A free tasting is the equivalent to that if you’re not a serious potential client.
Remember, you’re not here just to taste the food. You’re also both performing a face-to-face interview during this time. This gives you an opportunity to get to know them and not just their menu.
Additional Things You May Want to Consider When Selecting a Caterer
Delivery has made leaps and bounds. Amazon can deliver food in an hour in some locations but with a caterer, the distance of their kitchen from your event is a major consideration if they’re not preparing food at your location. Large distances from their kitchen to your tables can mean cold food and additional expense. Check if they have a fee for going across town. This is essential to your event budget.
It’s important to be clear on just what the caterer will do. Are they supplying the linens, serving dishes, and waitstaff? Do they handle clean up? Pricing varies a lot based on services so it’s important to understand what’s entailed. Your venue might handle some of these things as well so make sure everything required is made clear at the beginning.
Some caterers also provide additional services like decorations, table lighting, flowers, and other rentals like tables. If you need any of these services, you’ll often save money if they’re booked as a package.
Venue’s Preferred Vendor
If you’re short on time and want a caterer that has already been vetted, ask your venue if they have a preferred list of caterers. Before you sign a contract with the caterer, make sure you find out from the venue how they add people to that list. Are they caterers that have worked the venue with high marks? Or is it simply open to those who ask? This is a big difference in assessing quality.
Pay a Visit
In the section above, the importance of a tasting was mentioned. The tasting serves two points: to ensure the food is up to your standard and to get to know the caterer. But a casual meeting is not the ideal way to see them in action. If possible, find out where their next event is and stop by. Don’t crash it, just see how things are going.
Are things frantic and chaotic or is everything happening with only the usual amount of stress? Yes, those are kind of the same thing but it’s all in how the caterer and staff are handling it.
Hiring the ideal caterer for your event can make everyone happy. They provide an excellent experience for your guests, make your job easier by coordinating the kitchen with aplomb, and often give your attendees something else to talk about, especially on Instagram. But finding a fantastic caterer takes some work. Perform your due diligence. It’s worth the effort.
Additional Resources About Catering and Events
Confessions of an Event Caterer
18 Delicious Miniature Event Desserts
18 Fun and Quirky Food Stations
5 Hot Trends in Event Food and Beverage
25 Health Conscious Catering Ideas for Your Next Event
How To Plan For Attendees with Special Diets