A good caterer can do more than supply good food: He or she can turn your living room into a fantasy dining experience for eight or eighty. Photo by Felipe Prado | Sxc.
EMIL GROSSO is President, Sebastians Café and Catering in Boston (Sebastians.com). He has catered events ranging from small intimate dinners to lavish weddings and charity events with extensive guest lists.
Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Parties & Events
Choosing The Best Caterer
A Step-By-Step Guide
CAPSULE REPORT: Are you yearning to have a smashing party this holiday season (or any time), but you lack the time, organization skills and/or vision to make it materialize? A wonderful caterer is a party-giver’s best friend. He or she can take care of everything, so all you need to do is send out invitations. A great party can cost as much as a vacation—but it’s just as memorable, and to many more people. Here, Boston caterer Emil Grosso, president of Sebastians, offers advice on creating your own memorable event.
With the holidays just around the corner, experienced hosts will book a caterer early to ensure the success of their private parties and company events. The right caterer can make or break a get-together, so if you don’t have a trusted favorite, some research and proper selection methodology are necessary to plan your perfect gathering.
Begin the process by defining the type of event you are planning. Is it a sophisticated holiday cocktail party, a formal sit-down dinner, a dinner-and-dancing extravaganza? Or is it something more homey—a casual sing-along or trim-a-tree party. Or is it your office party or an open house for clients? Think of what you’d like to do and how many guests you anticipate; then, establish a realistic budget. While prices vary from community to community, hiring a professional team to prepare fine food and a staff to serve it can be as expensive as enjoying it at a restaurant. If you can’t have the kind of elegant filet mignon dinner you want at a restaurant for $35 a person, you can’t have it at home for that price, either. You can save substantially on alcohol markup, but may also need to rent linens, glasses and other equipment.
Once you have the concept, you are on your way. Next, select the date for the event, keeping in mind to avoid conflicts such as the first night of Chanukah, Christmas Eve or a day that others you are inviting may have a conflict (e-mail key invitees to ask—it may be the evening of their office party, or the kids’ school pageant).
Next, it’s time to think about the proper help you need. A skilled caterer will enable you to plan, and enjoy, your event.
When looking for a caterer, references are critical—there’s too much at stake (your successful party) to go with an unknown entity. Seek out the names of the caterers with a reputation for excellent food and service. Creativity and unique menus also make events memorable and are attributes you should seek out.
First, pick a date, and clear it with key invitees. Photo by Marja Flick-Buijs | SXC.
- Friends. Ask friends and colleagues for recommendations of caterers that they have used and thought were excellent.
- Parties. Think about parties you have attended where everything was “just right” in terms of food, service and display. Find out who catered.
- Venues. Call the most fashionable churches, synagogues or independent wedding venues for recommendations on the most exciting caterers. While many may not do smaller events, they may be able to recommend hot up-and-coming caterers who do—often people who formerly worked for them.
- Culinary Schools. If there’s a culinary school in your town, call and ask for recommendations. Graduates often go on to become caterers or work for other caterers—and the school staff has the buzz on who the best ones are.
Once you’ve pulled together a list, you can begin making calls to find out availability. If caterers say they don’t do a party of your type/size/budget, ask for the names of people they like who do smaller parties. There are always relatively young businesses, or caterers who prefer to do small events, who have a track record.
When you have narrowed your list down to a few choice caterers who are available the date you wish to have your party, it is time to drill down and determine exactly which one is the right one for your party. This involves interviewing the caterer, understanding what you can get for your budget, selecting and tasting menus, discussing theme and rental needs, working out beverage arrangements, agreeing upon price and service requirements/fees and always checking recent references.
The first step is to discuss your budget over the phone with your list, and understand if it is doable. You may have to be flexible in terms of exact foods—short ribs instead of rib-eye—but the caterer can give you a price range for a buffet, sit-down, passed hors d’oeuvres, etc., and tell you what percentage to add for alcohol, rentals (glasses, linens), decor (flowers), staffing, etc. (There are other expenses, from invitations to music, as you’ll see below.)
If your event is complicated with multiple vendor needs (florals, entertainment, lighting, rentals, etc.), you may want a caterer who can acquire and manage these services for you. If one-stop-shopping is important in your busy life, and you want a professional to take the extra work off your hands, ascertain that the caterer does this regularly and can smoothly perform the duties.
While prices in any given locale generally fall within a particular range, smaller caterers who may work from rented kitchens may have lower overheads, and may be able to cater your event for significantly less than a caterer who owns a large facility and supports a large overhead.
Caterers should be able to provide sample menus they’ve created for similar types of parties. These days, most businesses have a website with menus plus photos of dishes and displays. Also obtain references.
A fun party invitation. Photo by Maria Brown | SXC.
After reviewing the background materials, you’ll be able to narrow the choices to a very short list based on budget, experience with similar events, references and personal compatibility. Chemistry with the caterer is very important. If everyone on the list scores an “A,” then you’ll have to rely on instinct (you’re also lucky—you’ve got a great group of caterers to choose from). But my guess is that one will stand out. Then:
- Ask for a proposal. Did the caterer listen carefully and send a proposal that accommodates your wishes and budget? Do you like the menus? If you asked for something creative—is it your idea of creative? Have all of your requests been addressed? If you’re serious about two or three finalists, ask for a proposal from each.
- Meet in person. Meet privately with the caterer at his or her place of business or kitchen. Do not agree to meet with the caterer while he or she is catering someone else’s wedding or event. Yes, you may want to see him or her in “action,” but this means the event underway does not have the caterer’s full attention. And, if the caterer makes a habit of meeting with prospects at other events, this caterer may well do the same during your holiday party. When you pay for a catering professional, you deserve his or her full attention.
- Meet your day-to-day contact. Ask who will be the day-to-day and on-site contact for your event. Be sure you feel comfortable with this person. You want an event manager who seems to be enjoyable to work with, appears to be competent and client service-oriented and inspires confidence that you will feel relaxed and able to mix with your guests. During your meeting, ask for a list of references that have used the caterer recently for similar events, and never book a caterer who has not given you a number of references of satisfied clients who have recently used them. Then, you must do your part: Be sure to call and speak with these references, and do ask for their candid feedback. While people only give good references, you need to ask what could have been done better. Was it 100% perfection? If not, what might you ask to be done differently next time. Determine if anything that could have been “done better” was the fault of the caterer or the fault of the client who failed to ask for something in the first place, changed his mind, etc.
Selecting The Menu
It may seem that the most fun part of planning a party is deciding what to serve. But it’s also a complex undertaking, and your choices have direct impact on budget.
Before even thinking about a menu, the first question to ask is, how will the meal be served? Passed food? Plated sit-down? Buffet? If a buffet meal, will it be served by staff, or will guests help themselves? These days, served buffets are very popular, but the caterer needs to prepare 10% more food—just in case some guest takes healthier portions or comes back for seconds.
When selecting menu choices and serving formats ask the caterer for recommendations based on similar parties he has worked. For a formal dinner party, ask for a sampling of three- or four-course menu suggestions—e.g. soup, salad, main course and dessert. For a party based on appetizers and cocktails, ask for a menu recommendation that will satisfy guests while still being finger food oriented, and request ideas for signature cocktails (red and green martini combinations for Christmas, for example). A more casual event such as a neighborhood sing-along still requires significant planning. Have the caterer suggest menus that are crowd pleasers, such as warm winter soups, crisp salads with seasonal favorites such as cranberries or apple slices, warm cookies for dessert and gourmet hot chocolates and coffees for after dinner.
A self-service buffet can be a cost-effective solution. Photo by Markku Pyymaki | SXC.
The menu is the cornerstone of any event, so if your event will be top-drawer, make sure your caterer uses only the freshest seasonal ingredients. Top caterers always work with fresh food and rarely will use canned or frozen ingredients. Inquire if the caterer uses all fresh ingredients, or if any of the ingredients or finished dishes will be previously frozen.
Think if any of your guests requires special accommodations—gluten-free or kosher, for example—and let the caterer know. Most caterers can provide a vegetarian or vegan option, a kosher or gluten-free meal or special children’s selections. Also, be sure to tell the caterer about any food allergies that your guests may have—seafood or dairy, e.g. This will be important information for food preparation (the avoidance of cream soups, for example, will accommodate both dairy allergies and vegan diets).
Family traditions are part of the holidays. If family members have certain “must have” favorite holiday recipes, tell your caterer. A family recipe can be incorporated into your menu. Using grandma’s recipe or serving a traditional dish from the “old country” are wonderful ways to personalize a holiday party.
Tasting The Menu
Once you have chosen a caterer and settled on the menu, it is important to taste it. Arrange for a time to visit your caterer, where a tasting menu prepared for you. Taste and presentation are important. If you don’t like something about the menu, the tasting is the time to discuss it with your caterer and ensure that changes are made to your satisfaction. Remember, this is your party and every detail matters. A good caterer is there to work with you to ensure that the event comes off exactly the way you want it to be.
A formal dinner party, elegant and all-white for
New Year’s Eve. Photo by Jan Roger Johannsen | SXC.
The caterer should also visit your premises (home or party venue), understand the kitchen setup, where guest tables and the bar will be set up, where music should be stationed for best traffic flow, etc.
You should discuss drinks and alcohol with the caterer, even if you are planning to supply them yourself. Most caterers will provide a bartender (and often insist upon liquor liability insurance for each guest), and of course will recommend and acquire all soft drinks, mineral water and alcoholic beverages for you.
Be sure to go over exactly what you want served, and what level of participation you require from your caterer. A good caterer will be licensed to serve both food and alcohol in your home, and will most certainly help you pair the proper amount and types of beverages with your food selections.
- Do you want a master mixologist who will create dazzling cocktails for your guests, or simply someone to pour wine, beer and mineral water?
- If the caterer is buying the liquor, what level of liquor do you want poured? Top shelf?
- In terms of wines, the caterer knows what wines will complement the food he is making (unless you’re a connoisseur and want to do the pairing yourself). However, you need to be happy with the wine as well as with the food. Ask in advance of your visit if you can taste the wines along with the menu.
- Always have an ample supply of non-alcoholic beverages: still and sparkling water, flavored waters, soft drinks, coffees and teas, including decaf coffee and herbal tea.
Photo courtesy Martin Miller’s Gin. Read our
Beyond The Food
When at the tasting, ask to see photographs of the caterer’s table displays. Some caterers who provide buffets or food stations include floral arrangements and other decorations within their fees and/or range of services. Some provide staff, some don’t. Be sure you have a precise list of what is and what is not included.
- Serveware and other rentals. Ask the caterer whether he or she will be supplying plates, silverware, glasses, trays, linens, tables, chairs, decorations, and other rentals (chafing dishes, e.g.). All top caterers have arrangements with reliable rental companies that provide any equipment you may need. Discuss the options available. You may have a dozen stunning martini glasses, but are inviting 20 guests. Do you want to mix and match what you already own, or do you want everything to be consistent?
- Dishes, glasses, flatware. You may have beautiful dishes, but not want to use them at a large party; or, you may want to show them off. For a theme party, you may prefer to rent holiday patterns and colors, or gorgeous plates that give your event the exact look and feel that you have in mind. Discuss your needs with your caterer. Dishes, flatware, glasses and linens are available in a myriad of styles and colors. Your caterer will help you select just the right look to complement your home or party venue and the food. Remember that these rentals are typically an added cost so be sure to get a detailed breakdown of anticipated expenses from your event manager and be sure that they fit into your overall budget.
Special plates like Spode’s Christmas Tree
Garland can add to the special event.
- Staffing. Does the caterer’s price include staff for the event, or do you need to pay an extra hourly rate? Different catering companies price their services differently, so be sure to ask. Make sure your caterer has experienced staff for your event. Inquire how long the servers who will be assigned to your party have been with the company—you might be surprised. Quality caterers will have experienced staff, and the difference in service will show. Ascertain if you’ll be getting the “regulars” or supplemental holiday staff, and if it’s important to you, you may wish to specify this in your contract. Additionally, catering staff should also be properly attired so no one mistakes them for guests. Ask the caterer how their staff will be dressed at your event. If you’d like something different (red bow ties, for example), feel free to request it (and supply the red bow ties). Last, but not least, staff should look like they are enjoying themselves. A simple smile goes a long way.
Price, Contract & Other Expenses
Many people don’t like to talk about money, but unless you have so much that you don’t care, you need to know exactly what everything is going to cost, and what the total price you have been quoted includes.
Having a good idea of your budget is crucial when deciding to have a party in the first place, and is a major consideration when selecting a caterer. The fees and extras add up quickly, so be prepared for them or have a contingency plan. For a less formal get-together, you may determine a buffet will cut down on service fees. You may select less expensive liquors or wines—or serve only wine and beer. Flexibility and good communication between you and your caterer will ensure an event that works within your budget.
- Get a detailed breakdown. Be sure you have a detailed breakdown of food, beverages, rentals, decoration, service fees (staff and gratuities) and other expenses (e.g. insurance), plus any sales tax. Ask the caterer if the gratuity for the staff is included in the overall fee, or if they are expecting a cash tip at the end of the event.
- Be sure to have a contract. This way both parties understand explicitly the terms of the event. Review the contract for date, time and guaranteed number of attendees. It should specify the date(s) up until which you can add or delete guests from the contract. This is important information in terms of your RSVP date to your guests. Keep in mind a caterer may base an estimate on a minimum of 100 guests, so if you only have 80, there might be an extra fee.
- Understand the payment schedule and cancellation terms. A standard deposit is 50% upon signing, with the balance due at a later, specific date.
Other things to add to your budget that are not normally serviced by caterers are invitations, entertainment and party favors.
- Invitations. An elegant party requires an elegant invitation; a casual one can get away with an electronic invitation (which certainly cuts down on invitation and postage costs).
- Music. If you want music—from a pianist or string quartet to a disk jockey, add several hundred dollars more to the budget. Your cater may be able to recommend someone; or, inquire at the local college music department. You should discuss the traffic flow—where to position the music—with the caterer.
- Photography. While your party doesn’t require a wedding photographer, you may want to hire a good amateur or student photographer to capture your event. You’ll have nice photos as a memento for yourself and to share with your guests.
Working with a good caterer will enable you to host a party that will be enjoyable for all—and most especially for you! These tips are general guidelines that top caterers are trained to follow. A good caterer will be delighted to review these areas and work with you to host a well-executed event and memorable event.
1. Define the type of event you want to host; set a realistic budget for catering and other expenses.
2. Select a date, avoiding obvious conflicts.
3. Identify several caterers and look at their menus and presentations (websites are helpful).
4. Ask for references and make sure to check them out.
5. Schedule a tasting with the chosen caterer. Have the caterer visit your premises or venue.
6. Make arrangements for special accommodations such as vegetarian or kosher meals.
7. Address special family requests.
8. Ask for photographs of previous events the caterer has managed.
9. Iron out details such as linens, flowers and tableware.
10. Discuss service and staffing options.
11. Discuss how alcoholic drinks will be handled.
12. Thoroughly review the caterer’s estimate, identify any missing expenses, get a contract and know your cancellation clauses.
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