Choosing Your Food & Beverage Caterer Guide

How to find reliable and creative caterers  –

  • Make inquiries of members in your own group who know caterers in the area 
  • Ask for referrals from other groups similar to yours
  • Ask for referrals from caterers you have worked with in your local area
  • Post on-line inquiries in your favorite communities
  • Request a list of caterers who are members of the local Convention & Visitors Bureau or Chamber of Commerce

Contact at least three (3) caterers and request a complete catering packet from each of them.  A standard catering packet will include a full set of menus with current prices for various types of food and beverage functions.  Beverages may be listed separately from food items and may also have a separate policy statement.  The packet should also include the current tax rates and service charges, meeting room rental if any, and a statement that outlines general catering policies.  You can find answers to many of your questions in the menus and the policy statements.  Unless you are working with a venue that provides meeting and catering services in-house, it is probable that you will need to make your own arrangements for equipment rentals and audiovisual needs.

Ask for a catering packet when you first begin looking at a venue or facility for your function.  This is something you would do automatically do when booking within 6 months, but some functions are booked a year or more in advance when the catering component seems less pressing.  The “devil is in the details” and if you are not alert you may find that you have booked with a venue or an independent caterer that has unreasonable catering policies and very little flexibility in meeting your needs. 

Menu Prices – 
If you are booking more than six months in advance of your event, don’t expect to receive firm price quotes at the time of booking.  Caterers will not usually quote menu prices more than six or even three months in advance because of fluctuations in food cost and lack of availability for seasonal items.  Other situations beyond their control may also affect their pricing when it is time to finalize the details of your event, such as new local legislation or union regulations.  But, the caterer should be willing to give you a price range or a maximum cap (usually a percentage increase per year) that menu prices will not exceed so you can safely compare and budget.     

Comparing and evaluating caterers – 

Set-up a comparison spreadsheet specific to your catered food and beverage function needs and insert from each caterer’s packet the expense and benefit items that are important to you.  If you are looking at a packaged plan, it may be beneficial if you break out the cost of each individual item included in the package to see if the package is truly more cost effective than customizing your choices.  A sample format you can use to set-up cost comparison spreadsheets is available for you below.

Once you have reviewed the various packets and narrowed your list of prospective caterers, tweak your function specifications as needed and send them as a Request for Proposal (RFP) to the finalists still under consideration, usually no more than two or three.  If you ask for proposals from all on your list, the time required to review and respond to all of them will soon prove overwhelming and counterproductive.  If you are unhappy with the bids you receive, you can then ask for proposals from others on the list.  

If you are planning a multiple day event with a very complex program, you may need to send a detailed Request for Proposal rather than the more informal functions specifications discussed here.

How to select the best caterer to suit your needs –
Ask questions and check references! The follow-up discussions you have with potential caterers after sending function specifications to them can be most enlightening and rewarding!  You can determine far more then about their capabilities and, more importantly, their flexibility in finding the right solutions for your food and beverage needs. Some caterers will be rigid about the packages that are offered, but others will be delighted to suggest alternatives that can save cost and still make an outstanding presentation, even if you are planning a simple, outdoor barbecue. In addition to the references each caterer provides, check with other meeting planners in the area and ratings from credible resources on the Internet. Online reviews on some sites can be skewed by frivolous complaints or numerous praises from friends and family, so keep that in mind.  Tastings – 
Before a final decision is made, you may want to schedule a tasting so you and a colleague can sample food quality and presentation.  Tastings are typically scheduled when you are finalizing menu items within 30 days of an event, but it can be scheduled earlier if you are considering a caterer that is unfamiliar to you and has not been referred by a trusted source.

TIP – 
Choosing items that are in season can cut food cost.  If the caterer is serving another group on the same day as your event, you can save cost by choosing the same food items for your group.  This practice is referred to as “ganging menus,” which enables the caterer to order food in greater quantity at a lower price.  It is likely that you will be pleasantly surprised to learn how much more you can get for your dollar when allowing your caterer to be creative.  It will make their job more pleasant for them and the menu options available to you for selection more impressive.  A win win. More tips in below.

You will most likely be working with a catering sales manager.  If you are not satisfied with options presented, ask the sales person to take your request to the chef to see if there might be better alternatives.  This will flag to both the sales person and the chef that you are one who appreciates and understands the meal planning process, and your options may subsequently become more varied and much improved.  You may even have an opportunity to work directly with the chef if your function will generate significant food and beverage revenue.

About the Author

Susan has managed high-profile events for IBM, GE, and other Fortune 500 companies. She has organized fundraisers, large festivals, and promotional events. Now, she is a blogger and speaks about event planning topics

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