Once you’ve chosen a venue for your wedding, it’s time to choose a caterer. Here’s what you’ll want to know about how to do it.
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; 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.
Here are the four criteria that differentiate caterers. Taken together, they are what creates the caterer’s “wow” factor:
1. The quality of their ingredients. For instance, do they buy the best carrots or potatoes or fish 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?
2. The final product—the finished food. 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!
3. The presentation of the food on the plate, the presentation of the plate and the other ware on the table, and the presentation of the table itself. This is all about the look. Is it inviting, appealing, and appetizing?
4. The service staff. There are a lot of important criteria regarding the staff. Do they know the menu and what’s in each dish? Are they able to communicate clearly and easily with your guests? Is their appearance neat and professional? Do they present as pleasant and positive? Are they alert to the needs of your guests? Are they, on the whole, competent?
There is lots of variation in how caterers meet these criteria, but all four 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, 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.
Pricing is wedding specific, but any caterer can talk about their pricing within a range. For example, a caterer might say that they start at $70 per person and typically range up to about $100 per person. Those rates should reflect their complete package: food and drink; staffing; china, linens, glassware and other service equipment, sometimes including tables and chairs; sales tax; and if they include it in their bill, a gratuity.
David Egan is the proprietor and steward of Chase Court, a historic gothic wedding and event venue in downtown Baltimore. Follow ChaseCourtWeddingVenue on Instagram and Facebook, and follow David’s column, Getting The Wedding You Want in Baltimore OUTloud!