How to Pick a Caterer
Catering is one of the bigger ticket items depending on your guest list, so it’s always good to get an idea of what is out there… even BEFORE you book your venue! The worst feeling is when you find the ideal setting, book it, but then find out all of their preferred caterers are wayyyyy over your budget.
If you opt to go with a venue that does not have in-house, exclusive catering, your venue most likely either has a preferred list you CAN choose from, or an exclusive list you MUST choose from.
Secret #1: Most caterers will happily give you a rough range for their average wedding at your venue before you book your venue, just to ensure you are sticking within necessary numbers. Where venue pricing is usually very cut and dry, catering is much more dependent on the type of cuisine you’d like, and guest count, so make sure you communicate your “Must Haves” (i.e Bar Services, Dessert, Late Nights, etc.) with the caterer to ensure they are factored into the quote.
When looking for a caterer, my recommendation is two-part:
- Take your venue & your planner’s recommendation. Chances are, if they tell you a certain caterer is out of your budget, they’re correct (*see my disclaimer below!). They’ve been in the industry most likely a good while and can steer you in the right direction so you’re not wasting your time contacting caterers who have much higher minimums than your budget allows.
- Scour social media! Sounds odd, but once you have an idea of a few caterers that interest you, looking on Instagram and Pinterest can help you get an idea for their overall aesthetics. Save the images you love, then see if you can find the links to the catering groups responsible for creating the eye candy!
Deciding On Service Style & Menu Items
Gone are the days of just a plated entrée choice for a wedding. Many caterers offer a variety of service styles, including plated, buffet, stationed, family style, and a cocktail, heavy hors d’oeuvres style event.
There are so many couples who say to me, “I don’t want a plated meal because at my friend’s/sister’s/cousin’s wedding, we were the last people served and it took an hour, and they only had a guest count of 100… and the food was cold!” I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard a version of this statement!
In reality though, this experience was just bad luck of the draw. Many caterers do plated meal service right, using tricks to keep food hot, and bringing enough staff onsite, that for even a 200 person wedding, dinner should be served in 30 mins or under.
Secret #2: Plated is not always more expensive than buffet! Many couples have a preconceived notion that plated meal service will be much more expensive than a buffet or stationed meal option. Honestly, pricing is subject to the caterer; I’ve seen some caterers where they price the same for plated and buffet, some where plated might be as much as $19 more per person than buffet, or where buffet is $12 more per person than plated. Every caterer has their own thought on this subject and prices accordingly for their business.
When it comes to service style, my recommendation: ask the caterer for their suggestion because a lot of things can affect what they suggest: guest count, the venue setup and layout, and even the time of year all play a part in what service style they may recommend. If you are absolutely dead set on an option, that’s totally okay – make sure you communicate what you’re looking for early on because some caterers don’t offer certain styles of service.
As for menu items… the world is your oyster! (Yes, all the pun intended!) Most caterers have set packages of what they’ll do in a certain price range, but they still allow customization. Others, like Mountain Laurel, actually don’t have set packages; we build out our proposals entirely based on a phone conversation with the couple or from the info included in their questionnaire. In building out the menu this way, we get to add in fun little tributes to the couple, their pets, their family, etc.
Budgeting for Catering
Like I said before, catering is a pretty big-ticket item for most couples because of their guest count. If you’re having a guest list of 175, and you want to add another appetizer at $4 per person, you’re looking at $742.00 right there with tax… One small addition or subtraction can make or break your budget quite literally!
Secret #3: You know how at venues, they usually offer better rates for Fridays or Sunday weddings, and even BETTER rates for weekday weddings, like a Thursday? Shhh, don’t tell… but caterers usually do, too.
While food costs are hard and fast costs, supply and demand is a factor, if albeit a small factor, in catering quotes. If you are tying the knot on an uber-popular date, chances are your catering will be a bit more expensive because of the demand; however, if you’re getting married in the off-season on a Thursday, you probably will see your menu be anywhere between $3 and $6 less per person! That makes a big difference when you’re talking a wedding of 200 guests!
This statement also applies if your wedding isn’t that far away; if you book an off season date that’s only 6 months away, and a caterer happens to be open, chances are they will have a discounted rate for that day because they’d rather book it than have it sit open.
**Disclaimer Statement for Above in Section 1 Recommendations) – Venues might not be aware of this pricing increase or decrease based on date popularity for caterers (100% transparency, I wasn’t aware of this the first two years I worked for a venue!) If you fall in love with a caterer, but you’re unsure based on venue/vendor advice if they’re a good fit budget-wise, still reach out! It doesn’t hurt to inquire and hear the real deal straight from the catering company.
Most caterers will not openly announce there is a difference in pricing based on dates, but just keep it in mind when picking the time of year and day you say your “I Dos.”
Just like in any other vendor category, there is a caterer out there for EVERYONE. No matter if you want an Indian-Italian Fusion menu, or a laid-back BBQ style event, there is a caterer who will make your wedding day extra special (and delicious).
Lauren Stine is the Director of Wedding Sales at Mountain Laurel Catering. Mountain Laurel specializes in real food and event production. They utilizes as many farms, markets, orchards as possible, as well as the changing seasons to craft each individual menu and align their client’s tastes with their occasion and personalities. Their goal as a wedding caterer is to slowly eradicate the belief that wedding food can’t be absolutely inspiring, served piping hot, and be delicious. (No dry chicken breast allowed!)
Learn more about Mountain Laurel Catering at www.mountainlaurelcatering.com . You can reach Lauren at Lauren@mountainlaurelcatering.com | 717-614-0453. Follow them along on Social Media: @mountain_laurel_catering
Want more wedding planning tips: You may like to read –> “Saying yes to THE dress!”