A History of Experience
The FAQs below are derived from a history of 16 years and counting of hands on experience. The history of catering is cumulative and always evolving and that is why it is also endlessly engaging and challenging.
What is the difference between a restaurant and full-service catering?
Well, a high concept definition/answer to those 2 questions might be that when you hire a caterer they actually are bringing the restaurant to you. That is especially and literally true if your event takes place in a location that does not contain a kitchen and requires the caterer to compose a list of all the equipment necessary to build-out an on-site kitchen in order to prepare and cook the food for your event. Another way to think of this is that they create a pop-up restaurant specifically for you and your guests.
What are the benefits of hiring a boutique caterer?
Fine boutique Caterers (different from big factory catering companies) create customized menus that differ for each event, service style and most importantly for each client, taking into consideration the client’s taste preferences and the type of event they will be doing i.e Family Style, Food Stations, Formal Sit Down Plated and Served Meals, Buffet style, Passed Appetizers only, Grazing Station or a mix of styles.
Boutique caterers do not rely on set menus. Seasonal farm-to-table choices are not frozen and kept in storage waiting to be put to use when the next event comes along. Fine Catering chefs, compose menus, create a shopping list and then procure the menu ingredients comprising that list.
However, Catering is not just about food. It also includes Service, Labor Staff and last but not least, Presentation. That said, I think that clients would best serve themselves by thinking about answers to a few key questions listed below as they pertain to their event, the kind of food they would like to provide and which kind of Caterer they think might be able to best meet their needs.
Questions to ask yourself before hiring a caterer
How important is the food to you?
For example, for me, if I am served sub-par food or even just ok, but un-interesting food, the enjoyment of the event is greatly lessened, especially if it is taking place during meal time. But hey, (full disclosure here) I’m a foodie and that is the place from where I hail. Still, ask yourselves that question. Because let’s face it, most of the time food is, if not themost important element, it is one of the key components that shapes and effects your enjoyment quotient at an event.
Does the Caterer have their own Pastry Chef who makes their desserts?
Truth be known many catering companies purchase desserts from outside sources because they do not have a pastry chef as part of the staff. If this is the case, many times, not all, desserts are rather ho-hum in both selection and taste. So if desserts are important to you then this is something to consider.
What percentage of your budget will you allocate for food?
One of the first questions I always ask my client is “What is your budget”? It is not a trick question because the answer to this question will help me food-match you with the appropriate kind of caterer.
Skilled and trained catering chefs are akin to artists and their food is an art. Moreover, high-quality food is very expensive and organic is even more so. So if you ever wondered why the catering quote is so expensive and takes up such a large portion of your budget (sometimes more so than if you were eating out at a fine restaurant) consider for a moment the following:
After taking the time to create a customized menu suited to your palate, caterers then need to source the food on that menu from a reliable purveyor. Whereas most restaurants have fixed menus that go unchanged for at least a season or a couple of weeks. At a restaurant, all the sourcing, menu creating and planning have already been done and basic ingredients are on hand. As opposed to the Catering Company who does this anew each time for each client and event. Once done they the caterer then has to order, shop, gather and finally prep the food off-site before arriving at the event location. Once that is completed, the chefs then finish the food on-site during your event in order to adhere to the event timeline. This translates into time and labor costs.
Are food presentation and/or service also important to you?
Some caterers excel and are known for gorgeous, artful and inventive presentation. Others might give you delicious food but the presentation is very basic. They use chafing units instead of platters and their buffet tables lack a distinctive signature look. They don’t add decor, flowers or botanicals to trays, or buffet tables. They just provide food. Some do much more. It just depends on the caterer and their particular business model.
Do you have a distinctive style / look that you would like incorporated into the presentation of the food? If so, how would you describe it? There are caterers who can design certain looks with the display pieces and serving platters that they have as part of their personal “equipment arsenal”. Some charge for using that equipment and some don’t, depending on the budgets with which they have to work. So as a Catering Concierge I, personally, will want to know what kind of presentation you expect and envision and what your budget can withstand when incorporating those elements.
Some caterers will design your Place Settings and tablescape for you. They will go to the rental showroom and do mockups and send you pictures for your approval. Again depending on the catering budget, some will charge for this service and others will include it as part of their service.
How important is service to you?
Based on the number of guests you are entertaining, there are rules of thumb from which good and conscientious caterers will not deviate because, in the end, bad or insufficient serve staff can destroy the entire event experience and reflect badly on both the host, the planner, and the caterer.
Quality caterers pay their staffs well and have worked with them time and time again so they know who they are hiring and what they can expect in terms of skill and know how.
Beware of caterers who will easily drop the number of necessary staff in order to meet your budget and land the job. You will end up with a poorly serviced event and no amount of good tasting food can make up for bad, slow service.
Does your venue have a kitchen?
If your event takes place in a location that does not contain a kitchen, the caterer will need to build out an on-site kitchen to prepare and cook food for your event. They will compose a rental list of all the equipment necessary to get the job done.
Quote and Costs
Personally, I send Clients completely broken-out quotes listing and separating food costs from labor costs. I list how many hours the staff will be on the job as well as the expected timeline/duration of the event from start to finish (including the kitchen and wait staff arrival and wrap out time) including the number of staff that the job in question demands. This way there are no surprises on either end for either client or caterer.
For most Food-focused Catering Companies, rentals are always separate from food and labor. In fact, in my personal experience, I have found that companies that have their own rentals are less focused on food than those who don’t. Rental items can be coordinated by Catering but paid separately by the Client to the rental company. They are over and above catering costs.
It is best to ask the caterer to create a list of rentals needed for your event because the client may not be aware of all that will be needed for the execution of the menu. If rental cost is a concern don’t hesitate to ask the caterer or his/her representative if there is a menu that would rely on fewer rentals.
The 20%+ Administration Fee on Food and Labor
It is charged by all catering companies and if you don’t see it listed, be assured that it is reflected and spread amongst all other fees. This fee goes by many names including but not limited to: Support Fee, Coordination Fee, Service Charge, Administration Fee. It covers Workers Compensation Insurance, Vehicle Maintenance, Walk-throughs, Menu Consultations, Front-of-House Relations, Liability Insurance, Planning, Staffing, Payroll, Office and Catering Supplies etc. This 20% fee may include Rentals but usually, it does not. It is NOT a gratuity.
As in all service businesses, Staff Gratuities are greatly appreciated and I think should not be overlooked even though most Catering Companies will tell you that the gratuity is optional. As a catering concierge and someone who witnesses first hand, day in and day out, how hard a good staff works to bring you a successful event, I think a gratuity should always be something the host includes in his/her budget projection.
Questions to ask when interviewing caterers
Who is their typical customer?
Are their customers foodies who like to be offered food not found on restaurant menus city-wide? Or are they people who want to offer what is trending?
Are they full service?
Does the Catering company have their own bartenders, Captains and Waitstaff? Or do they cull from outside staffing Companies? Many outside staffing companies pay their staff poorly and thus don’t necessarily have skilled and vetted labor to offer and events then suffer as a result.
Do they allow you to bring in your own alcohol?
Some Catering Companies are happy to have you provide the alcohol for your event and they will provide the bartenders. You will most likely save money if you provide the bar. So ask if this is permitted.
What style of catering do they most often do?
Small events from 10 to 300 or are they typically doing events for 500 and over?
Menus are composed and based on guest count, timeline, budget and the kind of guest in attendance. For example, high-end donor dinners require a different kind of food presentation than a children’s birthday event.
Ask About and For a Tasting
Most Catering Companies charge for tastings and then will apply a percentage of that cost to the event if you end up using them. Ask whether they will do a tasting. Please note: Sometimes the event and the budget is too small for the caterer to accommodate a tasting.