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Planning Your Menu? Here's What Your Caterer Won't Tell You

Posted by Alexandra Porto on

For many wedding guests, food is one of the most memorable parts of the day. There's nothing better than a meal that enhances your story as a couple and delights guests with equally stunning and delicious dishes. But to reach wedding food nirvana, you have to choose the right caterer first.

Not many brides can say they've planned an event where they had to feed about a hundred people. This unfamiliarity with large-scale catering can sometimes lead to a stressful situation. What entrees should you pick? Are you being ripped off? What about food allergies? It's a lot, but with a bit of guidance, you'll get through it. And if you have an event planner, this is definitely the time to lean on them too.

To help you figure out your wedding menu, we've decided to let you in on some of the lesser-known industry secrets that your caterer won't tell you. This way, you can cut through the fat (sorry, we had to sneak a food pun in there) and set your expectations so you won't be disappointed on your Big Day.

What your caterer won't tell you

Photo Credit: Olya Kobruseva, Pexels

Your Wedding Date & Venue Impact Food More Than You Realize

If you've ever prepared a Thanksgiving meal or hosted a dinner party where you were cooking, you know the importance of serving food at the right temperature. Chefs know it's one of the most essential parts of serving a meal.

Unless you are in the catering industry, you might not realize that your wedding logistics have a lot to do with food temperature and safety. Things like how far the kitchen is from the cocktail and reception space, or what season your wedding is being held in can impact how your food will taste. A cheese board isn't likely to hold up well outdoors in the summer heat, just as a room temperature dish will likely get cold quickly in the dead of winter.

It's recommended that you book your caterers around the same time as your venue and go with a team familiar with the space, if possible. This is crucial if you choose a non-traditional venue that might not have a liquor license, the necessary kitchen equipment, or the preferred power capacity. Do a walk-through and review these logistics early. Consult with the experts, like your planner - that is what they are there for.

Experienced caterers will know how to navigate some of the most challenging logistics; they are used to bringing portable coolers, burners, or even dry ice to serve food at the appropriate temperature. But they can't work miracles; if you choose to have a wedding in the middle of a field in 90-degree weather, there are going to be menu items that simply cannot be served for fear of food contamination. So set your expectations appropriately.

Food temperature is so important

Photo Credit: Charanjeet Dhiman, Unsplash

There's a Lot of Math that Goes into Catering

You might think catering is more about chemistry with cooking or the creativity that goes into plating presentations, but the truth is it involves a whole lot of math. Caterers must estimate how much food and drink guests will consume; they also need to order enough plate settings, cutlery, napkins, trays, and ice cubes.

It is a delicate balance for caterers to maintain profitability and not overorder while preventing the risk of running out of a particular tray or entree, which would be a major faux pas. Mastering these calculations takes years of experience, so this is not the time to go with an inexperienced vendor just to save a few bucks. Be sure to ask your caterer how many years they've been in business and if there are any other weddings they are also catering on your selected date.

Don't Expect Everything to be Made from Scratch

When it comes to feeding a large group of people, caterers need to work as efficiently as possible. This often means there is not enough time to prepare everything from scratch. It's typical for caterers to buy pre-made sauces or powdered eggs to save time and reduce costs.

You might even find something on your plate that you recognize from a warehouse store like cookies, dinner rolls, or frozen appetizers. This can depend on the cost and quality of the caterer, but don't be surprised to learn some ingredients were not prepared on-site.

Not everything is made from scratch

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Seasonal, Local & On-Theme Selections will Turn Out Best

Want an obscure, out-of-season ingredient to be served at your wedding? Your caterer will likely say they are happy to accommodate you but be aware that the item will have to be shipped in and won't be as fresh as something locally grown. With supply chain issues happening during the pandemic, shipping delays are much more common, so this is something you'll want to consider.

Just as you would speak to your florist about what is in season or locally grown, talk to your caterer about those same things and find out where they source the food served at your wedding. By using more locally grown, in-season ingredients, your wedding food will be fresher and taste better. Plus, you'll likely save a bit more versus custom menu items featuring hard-to-find ingredients.

Your guests are also likely to thank you, as we are sure they'd much prefer a hearty soup in the winter than a watermelon salad that doesn't fit the setting. Consult with your caterer to discover the best ingredients of the season and really wow your family and friends with vibrant, flavorful selections.

Another tip is to book your menu tasting as close to the actual season of your wedding. This way, you can better sense how the dishes will taste on your Big Day. And ask if the chef preparing the menu that day will also be the chef in charge of your wedding. Keep in mind that it is much easier to cook just a few plates versus feeding a large crowd, so if something is off at the tasting, it is likely to be amplified at the wedding. Speak up and ask for adjustments if something doesn't taste the way you like.

seasonal ingredients are best

Photo Credit: Jed Owen, Unsplash

Incorporate Your Menu Preferences, But Don't Preach

Full-service caterers can get really creative when it comes to accommodating different dietary preferences. While you want to pick a menu that reflects you both as a couple, you don't want to force grandma to eat a vegan meal she won't enjoy just because that is what you would choose.

Be mindful of all of your guests when selecting your catering menu. There's a reason most brides stick with tried-and-true steak, fish, and chicken options for their entrees. This typical trio can satisfy a wide range of food palates. If you are stuck, duo plates are a great option. They feature a combination of two proteins like chicken and shrimp or beef and a lobster tail sure to leave guests feeling satisfied.

The Per Person Rate Quoted is Far Below What You'll Actually Pay

Caterers often quote a per-person menu price. At first glance, you might think it is indeed "all-inclusive," but look closer, and there are typically many other expenses not included. Save yourself the headaches later and throw this number out the window. We mean it, the final bill so rarely comes close to the actual per person price that it's better to just track all of the additions, taxes, gratuities, and rental costs then add them up yourself.

Some in-house caterers charge as much as 22% for service fees. Depending on what region you're in, this might not even be given to the servers as a gratuity. Ask questions and find out what is covered under those mandatory fees. You'll also want to check the tax rates, especially if you have an out-of-town wedding.

alcohol has the biggest upcharge

Photo Credit: Maria Orlova, Pexels

Be wary of other hidden costs. Some caterers quote a low per-person price to attract business and then use fees to build up the difference. When this happens, you might even be spending more than if you had gone with a competitor. Here are some extras you should ask your caterer about and get in writing before signing a contract:

  • What menu options are included, how many courses, and what service type? What is the added cost for off-menu or upgraded selections? What about late-night snacks or extra stations during cocktail hour? If it is a carving or sushi station that requires an attendant, what is the additional fee?
  • How many guests are included in the contract? Are there fees to increase or decrease this count after a specific date?
  • Are tables, chairs, plates, utensils, and glasses included in the price? We recommend getting an inventory of everything being provided by your caterer.
  • What alcohol is included? If it's BYOB, is there a corkage fee? Does your caterer allow a buyback for any unused bottles? Are signature drinks based on total attendee count even if only a few people order them? Is a champagne toast also priced similarly? Are there any other associated liquor license, insurance, or permit fees?
  • Do you need to use an exclusive bakery for your cake, or is there a cake cutting fee if you bring your own?
  • What is the guest to server ratio? What number of bartenders, coat check or bathroom attendants, and coordinators are included in the contract?
  • What are the prices for any rental upgrades like linens, farm tables, or elegant dishware?
  • Is there a separate rental fee just for the event space? Are set-up, travel or shipping, and clean-up fees included in the quote? Is a menu tasting included, or is that an additional cost?

Small portions are the norm at weddings

Photo Credit: David B. Townsend, Unsplash

Portions will Likely be Smaller Than You're Used to

One of the ways caterers save is by reducing portion sizes. While an experienced quality caterer will never run out of food, many are still guilty of playing with portions to meet their profit margins. Fancy serving plates are often used to disguise this and distract guests with a beautiful presentation.

Ask about portion sizes in weight and find out if the plating at the menu tasting is the same way the dish will be served at your wedding. Also, inquire about side dishes and replenishing of cocktail stations, dessert tables, and buffet.

If you know your invited guests are big foodies, be sure to communicate this to your caterer. Typically, they will order less, knowing portion sizes will be cut back. If you come from a family of big eaters, they need to make adjustments to account for this, especially for cocktail hour.

Share Your Timeline for Better Food Pacing

Your caterers are more than just chefs. A full-service caterer can even assist with certain aspects of event décor and planning. Even if your caterer does not ask for a copy of your day-of timeline, offer one up to them and include them in the planning process.

Timing is such an essential aspect of your wedding. You don't want servers to delay your speeches or extend your cocktail hour too long. Typically, the first course is pre-plated or served right away so you can get to the dancefloor. A good caterer will recommend pacing so the food service will be smoothly operating in the background, and you and your guests can enjoy the party.


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