So, you’re ready to plan your wedding.  You have been dreaming about where you want it (the venue), the color scheme, the flowers, the music (live musician or DJ), the photography, the food and service.  As a caterer with over 25 years of experience, I can tell you that your photographer and food service are paramount to the success of your wedding and reception.  I am of the opinion that selecting a venue that is photo friendly is just as important as one that allows you to bring in an independent, highly qualified caterer!

The photographer is responsible for documenting the day and recording it for a lasting memory the two of you can share for generations.  The food and the dining experience is what your guests will likely remember most.  It does not need to be the most expensive meal, nor does it need to be a full meal.  The food does need to be of high quality, appealing to the eye and, moreover, delicious.  Make sure the caterer you pick has many years of experience and can help you choose items that are within your budget. The caterer should offer you a complimentary tasting – a test drive of sorts.  They should meet with you one-on-one and not ‘staff out’ your tasting.  This is a time for first impressions.  A caterer should be easy to talk to and pleasant with you, and their own staff.  The tasting is the time where you can get a sense of who they are and what the mood at your reception will be.

A good caterer should offer you choices within varying price ranges and work with you to fit foods into your budget.  Do not accept a cookie cutter price for a cookie cutter menu.  You should be given a variety of choices and a range of prices.  Some foods simply cost more to buy than others and some treatment of selections is more labor intensive.  Guests today are more food savvy with the advent of the Food Network and how-to magazines.  A large segment of the population are gourmet chefs in the making and will be impressed by a menu that is trendy and a bit more creative than institutional hotel food with beef or turkey carving stations and chafing dishes of baby new potatoes and broccoli or carrots.

Do not be unrealistic with your expectations.  If your budget is low, tell them.  If you can only afford a meal that would be considered a bargain, you should not ask about those items that would appear on a fine steak house or 4-star restaurant menu.  When looking for a viable alternative, ask about a brunch, luncheon or cocktail party.  These will cost less and fit into the caterer’s schedule better.  Ask about a Sunday brunch or Saturday afternoon luncheon where you can fill in your menu and guests appetites with fruits, veggies, salads and lower-end proteins, like eggs and cheese.  For dinners, items that are made as casseroles, such as chicken divan, stuffed cabbage, pasta primavera and shrimp scampi are budget stretchers.  Mexican or Italian themed menus are also very affordable.  Stations that offer something fun and interactive like pasta or potato bars, with lots of toppings, appeal to young and old alike. Side dishes that can feed vegetarians well without providing special meals are best.  

If you expect many children in attendance, find a caterer that will give you a lower fixed price or one that does not charge under a certain age.  Children are not likely to eat the adult food.  They will pick at a fresh fruit display, drink lots of soft drinks and eat cake.  They are all about the party, not sitting down to eat.

Staffing is also important.  Do you want your guests to be spoiled and their every desire fulfilled or is your priority to have them fed and the venue clean, plates cleared and water glasses filled? Do not tell the caterer how many servers you want or can afford.  The best meal in the world will fail if served cold!  Servers that receive a flat fee per hour should not be your major budgetary concern.  They can make or break your reception.  Your caterer knows exactly how many staffers they need to get the job done.  You are about to hire an expert who orchestrates two or more weddings per week, not just one in a lifetime.  If you trust them, take their advice.  I have seen brides that pay for a room full of flowers only to ask to cut two servers who together make less than the cost of an arrangement.

Remember that catering is an art form.  Your caterer needs to plan, prepare and execute a meal for over 100 guests with a moveable, adaptable kitchen and crew.  If you walked into a restaurant with 100 of your best friends at one time, how would their service be?  Would the quality of their food be top-notch?  A good caterer pulls it all together off-site and often under sometimes very questionable conditions, such as utilizing a tent or historic building or preparing catering services on rocky or sandy terrain.  When planning, give them the time they need to set-up and breakdown.  Do not expect them to be prepared in 30 minutes.  Brides will often build a timeline around an hour for the ceremony itself when most last 20 to 30 minutes.  Give your caterer the time in your schedule to arrive, set-up and display and present their craft without your entire guest list arriving 30 minutes early! Assume that your ceremony will be shorter, not longer than estimated.

In closing, use your instincts.  After meeting or talking to several caterers, schedule your tasting.  Get a feel for what they have to offer and if you can work with them.  No egos should be tolerated!  Taste your food and work on a menu that excites you, but remember you will probably be the only one who will not eat at the reception.  And get a good, well-recommended photographer to document the satisfied smiles of you and your guests and both you and your caterer will be proud and happy!

By Jerri George of Catering by George!