CHASE COURT

 

18 East Chase Street Baltimore, Maryland 21202 (410) 727-1112

How to Choose A Caterer For Your Wedding!


I love wedding food! In the course of my work I’ve eaten at many hundreds of weddings. That comes with owning a wedding venue, of course. The vast majority of those meals have been good, and many even great—food that I would be happy to eat every day. 

Wedding catering has a bad rap, sometimes deservedly so. There are lots of caterers in the business. Some are outstanding, and some provide what is often termed as “rubber chicken” or “banquet hall food,” with service and presentation to match. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and often isn’t.

The kind of caterers we’re talking about here are full-service, off-premise caterers. “Full-service” means caterers who are on-site during the entire event, providing a complete staff as well as food and drink. “Off-premise” simply refers to caterers who go out to venues not their own — literally “off” of their “premises” — to cater. 

Full-service, off-premise caterers provide a lot. Catering includes food, beverages, and the bar; china, linens, flatware, glassware and other service ware; tables and chairs, if the venue doesn’t provide them, like we do at Chase Court; and service staff, including waitstaff, bartenders, kitchen staff, and an event manager. They also bring in kitchen equipment, from basic hand tools up to and sometimes including the kitchen sink, depending on what’s available at the venue.

The caterers I see at Chase Court are all in the top two or three dozen in Baltimore. Their pricing ranges from $80 to over $200 per person which, again, includes the food, beverages, and the bar; the equipment listed above (often referred to collectively as the “rentals”); and the staff. Others start lower. Some start even higher. And don’t forget about a gratuity, which is usually not included in the bill.

Pricing is also venue-specific. Each wedding venue has its own conveniences and challenges. So a given caterer’s cost to cater your wedding at one venue is likely to be different than at another. 

With all of that to think about, how in the world do you pick a caterer for your wedding? 

Your venue’s situation is the first place to start. Some venues are run by caterers, so if you’ve picked one of those venues, you’re done. Others, like my own, have approved caterer lists from which to pick. That makes selection easier, since the venue has done the work of vetting the caterer. Other venues present you with a list of recommended caterers, and others don’t even do that.

Most couples don’t have unlimited funds, so cost is usually a consideration. Caterers can easily tell you—within a range—what you’re likely to spend with them on a per-person basis, even without knowing your food and drink choices. All they need to know is your venue and your guest count. Understand that the range may be pretty broad, but it will tell you if this is a caterer with whom you can afford to work.

By the way, if you’re looking at prices on a caterer’s website, there’s a good chance that you’re only seeing the pricing for food and drink alone, exclusive of all of the other things I mentioned above. You can generally triple those prices to get your final cost.

Once you’re looking at caterers in your price range, there are several discreet things to consider, including the sourcing and preparation of the food, its presentation, the service staff, and the management—which is to say, the catering staff with whom you will be working with between now and your wedding. 

Food

The breadth and depth of caterers’ menus varies widely. Some caters offer a few simple, preset menus. Others build menus from scratch for every event, and draw upon a wide range of culinary traditions. 

But menus are only words on paper. One caterer’s Almond Encrusted Chicken, for example, can be very different from another’s.

Quality—and with it, taste—starts with the quality of their ingredients. For instance, do they buy the best carrots or potatoes or fish or chicken or whatever that they can find, fresh and full of flavor? Ask about sourcing, and about what they buy fresh and what (if anything) they buy frozen. What do they make themselves, and what do they buy ready-made? What do they make from scratch?

All of that contributes to the quality of the final product. It doesn’t matter if it’s a simple or complex dish, the question is how well do they do it? Taste is your guide! 

Presentation

Presentation is all about aesthetics: the look of the food on the plate, the look of the plate and the other ware on the table, and the look of the table itself. A caterer’s presentation can range from basic to over-the-top, and is directly related to cost and creatively. How much choice do they offer you around look and feel? And iIs their presentation inviting, appealing, and appetizing?

Presentation is the first place to look if you like the caterer but need to cut catering costs. For example, substituting fine China for disposables can save you a lot of money, and has minimal effect on the look and feel of your guests’ dining experience. 

Service Staff

There are a lot of important criteria regarding the staff. Are they able to communicate clearly and easily with your guests? Is their appearance neat and professional? Do they know the menu and what’s in each dish? Do they present as pleasant and positive? Are they alert to the needs of guests? Does the caterer outsource for service staff or do they have their own? Is the service staff, on the whole, competent? 

Catering Management

Finally, competence and depth of knowledge are critical in catering management. Sure, you want enthusiasm, but it’s more important to have a caterer who knows their stuff and will give you good professional guidance from start to finish, culminating with an outstanding experience on your wedding day. 

Putting It All Together

There is a lot of variation in how caterers meet these criteria, but all of the components tend to move up and down the price and quality scales as a unit. Moreover, price and quality also tend to track together. In wedding catering, as in so many other things, you usually get what you pay for.

Since everyone’s taste – and I mean that literally – is different, I encourage you to do a tasting with your caterer before you commit to using their services. That also gives you an opportunity to see their presentation and their standard of service.

Speaking of service, unlike a restaurant experience where you arrive, eat, and leave, you’ll be working with your caterer for several months before your wedding. Choose an experienced professional with whom you can have an easy and open relationship. There will be lots of important details about your wedding that a caterer needs to understand. A good caterer will have lots of questions for you and will offer solid professional guidance. It’s essential that you work with a caterer whom you trust to take good care of you, and in whom you have complete confidence.

Style and price vary widely with caterers. It’s easy to get a sense of their style by looking at their website and through their social media presence. Instagram in particular has become a place where many wedding professionals post images of their work. But don’t let either of those things be your sole source of  guidance. 

Talk to the caterers, meet with them, see how it feels. If they’re paying good attention and listening to you, have good ideas, answer your questions well, and show up in a way that suggests that they would be fabulous for your wedding, then you’re on your way to having a wedding with food and drink that you and your guests will love!



David L. Egan is the proprietor and steward of the castle at Chase Court, a wedding ceremony and reception venue in the fantastic Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland. Visit chasecourt.com and follow ChaseCourtWeddingVenue on Instagram

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