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By Kristin Lindsey, Managing Editor, Akron Life & Leisure Magazine
It’s that time of year when graduation parties, bridal and baby showers, wedding receptions and family picnics are in full swing. Food plays an important role in these types of events, so choosing the right caterer is crucial. With businesses such as restaurants and grocery stores adding catering services to their repertoire, options abound. The key is finding someone who is friendly, accessible and able to provide the food, services and pricing you need.
When meeting with potential caterers, let them know your budget up front. Much of the price depends on what type of food is served, and if a caterer knows your budget he or she can make suggestions accordingly. You’ll also want a solid estimate of how many guests you plan to invite and to find out if the caterer quotes prices on a minimum number of guests. If you want a maximum of 50 guests, and a caterer requires a minimum of 150 for a Saturday night, you know you need to either switch days or find another caterer.
One of the most important steps when selecting a caterer is to inquire about service. “No matter how nice a place is or how good the food, it won’t matter if the service is bad,” warns David Cavalier, banquet director for The Galaxy Restaurant and Banquet Center. Cavalier also suggests asking to read evaluations from past clients or getting personal recommendations.
To ensure service that meets your needs, ask plenty of questions. Chris Meyer, off-site caterer and deli manager at Papa Joe’s suggests asking if the caterer brings supplies such as serving utensils, plates, cutlery, linens, etc. The last thing you want to do is assume it’s all under control and then realize you have hundreds (or even thousands, depending on the event) of dollars worth of food and no way to serve it. You’ll also want to find out if the caterer is able to handle bar service and staffing needs, and how much those will cost.
For services not offered, such as rentals, entertainment or décor, Audrey Wallace, senior coordinator at Totally Cooked Catering, suggests taking advantage of your caterer’s contacts, and using their experience to book extras.
To ensure you’re stress-free on the day of your event, Wallace also recommends seeking out a caterer that has an in-house coordinator. “Event planning may not be your full-time job, but it is theirs,” she says. “Let them do the work for you!” Moe Schneider, owner of Moe’s Restaurant, echoes that statement, adding that on the day of the event you should be able to relax and be treated like a guest.
Of course, the main thing that comes to mind when we think catering is food. If you’ve never sampled dishes from your potential caterer, Cavalier suggests asking for a tasting. This will help you first decide if it’s the right caterer for you, and can also provide ideas for your event’s menu. “Think about having color on your plate,” Cavalier advises. “Eye appeal makes food taste better.”
Give your caterer a clear idea of your plans and ask for appropriate menu suggestions, mentioning specific food requirements, such as a vegan entrée for your cousin Sue, says Carol Moore, director of retail food services and off-premises catering manager at Mustard Seed Market & Café.
For the sake of your guests, try to strike a balance between serving boring, unforgettable dishes and those that are so out of the ordinary that everyone is afraid to eat. “Be creative with your menu selections,” Wallace suggests. “Cover your bases with two stable items and one fun signature item for your guests to try.”
Ask in advance if the caterer will leave the unused food in refrigerator-ready containers. “Remember,” Meyer says, “you paid for it.”
With the uncertain economic climate in the country today, people are increasingly worried about overspending and many are looking to trim back wherever possible. “Surprisingly, the final bill you pay to a caterer is often equal to or less than what you would pay to do it yourself,” Schneider explains. So, before you rule out hiring a professional, gather all your data.
Ask potential caterers a series of questions, Moore suggests. How much do they charge per hour? Is there a minimum? Is travel time an additional charge? Are gratuities included? Is there a service charge? And, of course, don’t forget to discuss all the technicalities of deposits, cancellation fees and payment of the final bill. “Review any contract or proposal to avoid last-minute surprises,” she advises. “For a large and expensive party, it might be wise to get two or three competitive bids for comparison of price, creativity and menu.”