In my years in event planning, I have spent more than five years working for high-end caterers across the country. I've seen it all and learned a lot. I know that choosing a caterer can be tricky and a bit intimidating, so I'm here to share my expertise with you to make this part of your planning process more comfortable.
FIRST THING'S FIRST
Do I really need a caterer? I hear this all the time. "My mom is a great cook." "My grandma makes the best pies.... Maybe they can cook for us on our wedding day." The short answer is, yes... You should absolutely hire a caterer.
While mom and grandma are amazing at what they do, let them relax and not stress on your big day. For large events and especially weddings, bring in the pros. You really can't afford accidentally burnt bruschetta or an accidentally dropped tray of cupcakes on your most important day, can you?
WHAT STYLE OF SERVICE SHOULD I OFFER?
Caterers usually offer three to four common types of service. These are buffet, family, plated and (sometimes) stations. Let's break it down:
Buffet: Buffet service is the most common style because it is the most budget friendly. This style does not require staff (though advised if the budget allows), so it can be offered as a "drop off." Buffet style is best paired with smaller and more casual events. With larger groups, buffets may increase wait times for everyone to self-serve, which can eat into to your venue rental time. Offer a double-sided buffet to help move the line faster. Another possible downside to a buffet is guests tend to take a little more than they might typically eat, so the risk of running out of food is there. To help mitigate that chance, order more than your estimated guest count (see 10% rule below), and have a server stationed at the entrees to help portion.
Family Style: Family style is very "in" right now. It is fun and keeps guests from having to get up and lug plates, flatware and glasses to a buffet line. In a family style meal, your caterer will place platters of food at each table, beginning with sides and finishing with entrees. Guests serve themselves at the table. Family style may cost a bit more than a buffet because it requires staff and possibly more tray and/or platter rentals, but it creates a fun ambiance that your guests will enjoy. The risk of running out of food is relatively low since guests only have to consider others at their table instead of the entire party.
Plated: Plated style meals are the most pricey and with good reason. Your chef hand-plates each meal and plates are served to your guests by event staff, much like at a restaurant. Plated meals are the most beautiful, but require more staff than any other option. You should not ever run the risk of running out of food with this option, which is a huge plus. In typical plated style service, kids and the elderly will be served first, then women, then men. However, for large parties, it may make more sense to start at the table farthest from the kitchen and have servers work their way in. Be sure to discuss the best service option with your caterer.
Stations: I love stations! Stations can include everything from a dessert table to a carving station. Stations get guests moving and grazing. Stations evenly distribute lines so that they service takes little time. Be creative with your stations. Make them unique and beautiful. Don't forget to add staff, platters, serving utensils, and risers as needed.
Bonus! Food Trucks: Food trucks are super hot right now, but they are
not appropriate for every venue. If your
venue allows food trucks, be sure that guests are not having to walk too far for food. Another thing to consider is whether or not the food truck you selected is used to doing parties. Having experience serving large gatherings is different that servicing street food. Food trucks are a hybrid between buffets and stations. Food trucks will need water, electrical outlets and other important accommodations you will need to discuss in advance of your event. Be sure that if they are using disposable cutlery and plates that it is an eco-friendly choice (no plastic!).
HOW MUCH FOOD SHOULD WE ORDER?
With everything from rentals to gift bags, food to ice, ALWAYS order 10% more than your total guest count. Your guest count should include your vendors who will be in attendance during dinner like servers, bartenders, photographer, band members, chef, event coordinator and their assistant. Then, add 10% to that number. Why?...there are so many reasons! Dropped plates, extra hungry guests, unusually delicious (free) food, an extra plus one that you weren't planning for, baby sitter fell through at the last minute so unexpected kids...the list goes on and on. In short, just plan for the unexpected. It's always better to have too much than too little.
WHEN SHOULD WE SCHEDULE A TASTING?
If your caterer has a great reputation or comes highly recommended from a trusted friend, you can feel confident to schedule a tasting after booking. If not, it is totally fine to schedule a tasting before you book as long as you are seriously considering booking this caterer. Tastings are not for free dinners while you are engaged, so do not take advantage. If a caterer is not willing to provide a tasting before you book, or worse, at all; definitely reconsider booking with them.
Before your tasting, prepare a list of questions for the chef and/or the event coordinator. Let them know in advance the type of food you are most interested in serving so you are not tasting steak when you are planning to serve pasta.
Pay attention to your surroundings. If their kitchen is dirty or disorganized, you may want to reconsider. If your caterer is late or there is a lag in service at your tasting, this could be an indicator of how service will go at your event. A well-organized and hospitable caterer is crucial to the success of your dinner service.
This is an important day you are planning, so be sure you put together an experienced and skilled vendor team.
Your need for event staff will depend on your budget, your guest count, and your service style. Here's my recommendation: If your event will be under 50 guests, drop off catering service is an option. Choose buffet style and save some money. If your event will have more than 50 guests in attendance, you should have event staff no matter what service style you choose. This includes a day-of coordinator, bar tenders, and servers. Event staff will do more than just serve food. They will restock and replenish a buffet table, assist guests with drink refills, take out over-flowing garbage, bus empty plates and used napkins, clean up post-event, and so much more.
So, how many staff should you hire?
50-75 Guests: 1 Event Coordinator; 2 Servers; 1 Bartender
75-100 Guests: 1 Event Coordinator; 1 Coordinator Assistant or Lead Server; 3 Servers; 2 Bartenders
100-150 Guests: 1 Event Coordinator; 1 Coordinator Assistant or Lead Server; 4 Servers; 2 Bartenders
150+ Guests: 1 Event Coordinator; 1 Coordinator Assistant or Lead Server; 5-10 Servers; 4 Bartenders
As always, it is better to schedule too much staff than not enough. It is not fair to have too much work for your staff to handle, so be kind. Hire adequately and tip generously.
Most likely, your caterer will need access to a commercial kitchen. If your venue does not have a commercial kitchen, you may need to rent kitchen equipment (like a portable oven, fryer, etc.). If your caterer will be stationed outdoors, the California health department requires their area to be tented. A 10 x 10 tent is usually sufficient. Make sure your catering staff will have adequate light, both at their station and along their pathway to and from. Once the sun goes down, they need to see and stay safe!
Ask your venue if they have potable (drinkable) water. If they do not, make sure you let your caterer know to bring in water for things like chaffing dishes and beverage refills.
Your caterer will most likely have their own tables, but make sure they don't need you to rent any extra items. Some caterers provide plates, glassware and flatware, but be sure to clarify this ahead of time and include any caterer needs on your rental quote.
WHAT ABOUT THE BAR?
Great question! The bar is a whole different entity. Your caterer may provide bartenders, but most caterers will not provide alcohol. In California, liquor licenses are required in each county and the cost of these annually is not practical for caterers (who service multiple counties). Most clients will need to purchase their own alcohol. BevMo is a fantastic service for this. Not only can you set up a tasting in advance (so fun!), but they will deliver everything including ice! Don't forget to rent coolers, carafes, beverage dispensers, add garnishes, glassware, a portable bar (if your venue does not provide one), a back bar for storage of liquor boxes and glass racks, and adequate signage.
You will also need a bottle opener, wine tool, a garbage bin, a bar towel and a plan to relieve the bartender, as needed. Most bartenders will want to have a tip jar at the bar.
If you are planning an open bar and do not wish to allow the bartender to accept tips from guests, make sure to communicate that ahead of time and compensate them at the end of the night.
Fun Fact: Most event staff are gig workers. What does this mean? It means that they likely have another job Monday through Friday and they pick up catering shifts on the weekends, so be patient. Your server may be an accountant and your bartender may bar tend at a brick and mortar restaurant or pub during the week. If your event is on a Saturday night, understand that those are typically very busy nights for bartenders. They may be missing out on large tips at their regular job in order to service your event, so compensate accordingly. Bar tending requires mad skills and lots of practice!
Self Service Bar: For parties of under 50, a self service bar is a great option to reduce costs. Pre-batch a few signature cocktail in beverage dispensers for guests to access on their own. Place glassware, an ice bucket, and garnishes on top of your bar and don't forget signage! Why is this option not great for more than 50 guests? Beverage dispensers will need refreshing, glassware needs restocking, and refills are inevitable. Staff is a must.
DESSERTS AND LATE NIGHT SNACKS
You may want to stick with tradition and have a cake for dessert. Most caterers are not also bakers, so that may need to be a separate vendor (and separate blog post). If you would like to offer another dessert selection, ask your chef what his or her specialty is. In culinary school, Chefs learn to make amazing, unique desserts, so let them show off if the budget permits.
Many weddings are opting to do a small cake (for pictures), then small desserts stationed like petit fours, churros, or donuts for budget-friendly sweet treats.
If your guests will be drinking, a late night snack is a must! Caterers can supply some pretty cool ideas like a French fry station, a popcorn station, a s'mores bar and so much more. Keep your guests' energy level high and their drive home safe. Don't skip the sweets.
As you can see, there is a lot to consider when booking your caterer, so be sure to book well in advance of your event. Give yourself plenty of time to iron-out these details. I hope this article was helpful and as always, don't hesitate to reach out to your French Events event coordinator if your read this and realize you need to add to your rental quote or hire staff. "Oui" got you! We are always happy to answer any questions you may have an don't forget to ask about our list of caterer recommendations in the Bay Area.