Wedding Catering: The Quick Guide
If you're at the begging stages of planning your wedding, your first step should be booking a venue to secure your date. Once you have your venue booked, the next step is to book your caterer. If your venue does not offer on-site catering (or gives you the option to hire an outside vendor) then you have some research to do. Here is a quick guide to prepare you for hiring your caterer with a few things to think about before beginning your search.
Ask for Suggestions: Most wedding venues will offer you a list of preferred vendors who have worked on their property before and have had a good reputation. Even if they don't have a list, someone on site can most likely refer you to some catering companies. You can also ask around to family and friends who have recently gotten married.
Know Your Budget: Before contacting any vendors, know what your budget is. If a catering company is way outside of your price point, don't schedule a tasting yet. (It's like trying on a wedding dress you can't afford - it's too dangerous). Call around for some price quotes on sample menu and then make a consultation appointment with the ones you can afford.
Formality & Style of Service: Your budget will also largely determine the formality and style of service you can provide to your guests. See the "Styles of Food Service" guide to find out which would work best for your wedding style and budget.
How Catering is Charged:
The national average cost for catering in the U.S. is $400. Most couples spend between $1,800 and $7,000. This price varies by region, formality, cuisine and guest count. In general, catering is priced on a "per person" basis which is based on the following:
Food: appetizers, main entree, and sometimes desert. Food prices vary based on the type of cuisine and style of service.
Beverages: Most caterers provide beverages, both non-alcoholic & alcoholic
Staffing: The amount of staff required is based on the size of your guest list and the style of service. It's also dependent on the types of tasks they'll be required to do, like setting tables, cleaning up and managing rentals. Servers are typically charged per person, per hour so the more they have to do, the more they'll need to be paid. A plated/sit-down dinner will require a chef and other kitchen staff to be on site at your venue as well.
Rentals: Caterers will typically provide rentals in a wedding package or for an extra fee - most of the time from a third-party rental company. Some venues provide these rentals in their overall cost.
Location/Travel: If your venue is outside of the city limits that your caterer is based, they may charge an extra fee based on miles and the amount of vehicles needed for your event.
Additional Fees: Some of the most common additional fees include service fees (which don't always include server gratuities), tax, cake-cutting and corkage fees.
Gratuities/Tips: Tips for your service staff may already be included in the service fee, but this is not always the case. Make sure to clarify that with your caterer. Tipping should generally be 15-20% of overall food costs.
Types of Catering Businesses:
Full Service Catering Companies: These types of companies specialize in catering for large events and often offer clean up, set up, multiple styles of service and cuisine, server staff, bar packages, dinner-ware and linen rentals. Because they provide a lot more, they tend to cost a lot more.
Private Small Catering Businesses: These are small businesses often run by an individual with a small team. You tend to get very personalized service and most of what a full-service catering company would offer, but on a smaller scale. They don't have a large staff, and will hire servers for the day-of. Many will help with the set-up and clean up on the day-of but to an extent.
Restaurant Catering: Most restaurants, especially established ones, will offer catering services and can accommodate large groups. However, they don't often offer staff to stay on-site to serve and buss, and don't take care of set-up clean-or rentals. So you'd still want to hire service staff.
Styles of Dinner Service:
Buffet Service: Consists of several dishes for your guests to serve themselves. Guests will typically be dismissed by table when it's their turn to go to the buffet table. This is a more casual style of service, and is one of the more budget-friendly options because it doesn't require as much staff and equipment.
A basic buffet dinner typically includes bread, 1-2 salad options, a vegetable, a starch and at least one form of protein.
Money saving tip: do a 50/50 split on protein choice (like chicken & beef) and request to have someone serve your guests for portion control.
Plated Service: Guests are seated and courses are brought out by servers to their tables. Guests will typically choose an entree choice from a pre-determined menu when they RSVP. This is a more formal style of service, and will often cost more because it requires more staff.
Courses for a plated dinner can include as little as 2 courses (salad and main course) or more if you add desert, soup, etc...
Plated Service Hack: On each guests name-card, include an indication of what entree they ordered to help service staff. For instance, color coding for each entree type.
Family-Style:Guests are served with platters of food at their tables, where they can then serve themselves. Service staff refill these platters as needed. This is also a more casual style of service and tends to be in the middle price point, depending on what you're serving.
Family-style tip: When planning your centerpieces and place settings, make sure you leave enough space on the table for the platters of food.
Styles of Appetizer Service:
Appetizers are typically served during cocktail hour - in between the ceremony and reception.
Passed Appetizers: Servers will walk around the cocktail hour space with trays of appetizers for guests to grab. They typically offer a cocktail napkin to guests as they are being served.
Stationary Appetizers: Much like a buffet, appetizers will be stationed on a surface where guests can help themselves.
Note: Guests tend to eat more when food is stationary rather than passed. However, this isn't the most cost effective option since it requires more server staff.
Alternative Food Service Ideas:
Here are some budget friendly alternatives to traditional catering that can also offer a fun and different experience for your guests.
Food Trucks: Not only are food trucks super trendy and fun, they can also be a more affordable option. Your menu may be limited to a few items, but it can save you money in the long run, especially if you use disposable dinner-ware rather than rent china. You should still hire servers through a catering company to take care of cleanup.
Cocktail Party: Keep the appetizers coming all night with a few stations spread around your event space for guests to help themselves. You can also choose to have select appetizers passed throughout the night. You'll find this allows more time for mingling, speeches and dancing!
Desert Only: This is a great option if you're open to a late-night celebration (after dinner-time), and are a couple of sweet tooths! You can go all out with different displays of candy and baked goods! Just make sure it's clear to your guests that no dinner will be served.
Brunch Menu: Having a day-time wedding can cut costs all around, especially when it comes to food. Serve your guests a brunch style menu complete with mimosas, lots of breakfast pastries, bacon and eggs, quiche, fruit, and a few lunchy items. As a plus, people tend to eat and drink a lot less earlier in the day.
Well, I hope this information makes you feel confident to go out there and hire the best caterer for your wedding style and budget. Don't be afraid to think outside the box! Have fun with it and reflect your couple personality with your menu!
Your Wedding Planning BFF