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Working With Caterers

Using the services of a caterer is a convenient way to handle the food needs for your reception. If you are holding your reception at a hotel or full-service event center, the catering service will be provided and you will have to use their services. If you are holding your reception at a venue that doesn't have on-site catering, you can choose the caterer of your choice.

Caterers can provide everything from appetizers to a full sit-down meal. Some caterers specialize in a certain type of food, such as Mexican, Mediterranean, or vegetarian. Therefore, you may want to talk with two or three caterers and be sure that you like their style before hiring one.

You should decide on the menu as early as possible. Find out if the place where your reception will be held has an adequate kitchen for the caterer's use. The kitchen should have a large refrigerator, plenty of counter space, and an ice machine. If there is no kitchen, you may need to choose foods that can be prepared in advance and served cold, or hire a caterer who has a mobile grill. Most caterers will bring hot food in a special insulated container, but they still need space to unpack the food and transfer it to serving containers. You may need to provide serving tables for the caterer's use as well.

Ask to taste samples of the foods that you are considering serving. Not all caterers will do this for you, and those that also own a restaurant may require you to purchase a meal. If possible, attend an event where the caterers are serving and, in addition to tasting the food, observe the employees' demeanor and the table set-up. Is everything clean and neat? Are the servers friendly and helpful? Are they noisy? How are they dressed and is it appropriate? Are there enough servers? Generally, there should be one server for every 30 guests when a buffet is served and one server for every 20 guests when a sit-down dinner is served.

Depending on the food that you order, you may be charged by the person, by the dozen, or by the tray. You will need to provide the caterer with an accurate guest count at least a week before the wedding. Find out if tax and gratuity are included in the price that you are quoted, or if it is extra. Also, find out the amount of deposit required and whether it is refundable. Most caterers charge an initial deposit to hold the date, then an additional percentage of the total cost to cover the cost of purchasing the food. This payment may be due closer to the wedding date. You may not be billed for the remaining balance until the wedding day.

Ask what serving dishes the caterers provide. Most will have all the needed serving dishes and utensils. If they don't, you may be asked to pay for the rental of the items. Ask if the place settings normally used are paper and plastic or real china and silverware. This will be important if the reception is formal or semi-formal. There will probably be an extra charge for the use of china and silver, since many caterers will have to rent them. Most caterers provide paper plates, cups, and napkins at no charge.

If the caterer provides linens, ask to see what they look like and what colors are available. If you are using round tables and you want round table cloths, you may need to specify that, since many caterers carry only square or rectangular cloths, which do not work well on round tables, nor do they look as nice. If you aren't happy with the available choices, contact a rental center. Some caterers will also provide the serving tables (generally 6' or 8' banquet tables); others do not. If they don't, they may be able to rent them at a discount. Most caterers do not stock glasses for punch or wine and they may not stock soup bowls or soup spoons. You will need to rent glasses or purchase plastic ones.

Ask how many employees will be assigned to the reception, how long they will serve, and how they will be dressed. Find out how many electrical outlets may be needed and if any other special items may be required. Also, find out who does clean-up, including dishes, and how the left-overs are handled, including the cake. If the reception center has an in-house caterer, they will keep the buffet table stocked from their kitchen with food that is additional to what you actually pay for. In this case, you will not be entitled to left-overs, except your cake. If the caterer is coming to a location that you specify, however, you will have paid for all the food that they bring. Health department regulations state that left-over food containing fish, dairy products, and eggs must be thrown away after a certain period of time, since it has been sitting at room temperature and could cause health problems. You may be able to take items such as raw vegetables and pasta salads home, however.

Be aware that if you want the caterer to serve the wedding cake and they are not providing the cake, you may be charged a fee for an employee's time and for washing dishes if you don't use disposables. Most caterers will not provide a cake knife and server, forks, or plates if they didn't provide the cake.

If you plan to have the caterer serve alcohol, they will need to have a liquor license or access to one. If they don't have one, they can subcontract the alcohol service to another company. Because of state laws and insurance restrictions, if you hire a caterer who has a liquor license, they must purchase and serve the alcohol. You will probably not be allowed to provide your own. To allow you to do so can void their insurance coverage and, should problems occur, they could be held legally liable for a situation that they had no control over. If the caterer does not have a liquor license and you choose to purchase and serve your own alcohol, in most states the caterer is legally unable to secure a bartender for you, so you must hire one yourself. If the caterer agrees to provide one for you and they do not have a liquor license, be aware that they are violating the law. The caterer may, however, refer you to individuals who tend bar, then you must hire and pay the person yourself

If food is left over at the end of the evening, you might ask the caterer to prepare a picnic basket for you to take to your hotel suite when you leave the reception. You will appreciate a snack of cheese, crackers, fruit and other non-perishable items at the end of a long day.

Beware of hiring a caterer who insists that they must provide your tables, chairs, and linens and/or serve your cake, even if your facility provides those items or you have already secured them from another source (such as a rental center or a decorator). The caterer may charge you a premium for such items. The caterer is your employee for your special day and if they refuse to do things your way, hire someone else who is more cooperative. Your time is too valuable to spend it dealing with someone who insists on having their way at your expense.

Hiring a caterer can take a great deal of stress from you and your family if you choose one who is cooperative and willing to do things the way that you want them to be done.

©1998 Glenna Tooman
all rights reserved
Memory Makers Event Planning LLC
www.memorable-events.com

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