Event Food and Beverage Catering Guide [2020]

Event Food and Beverage Catering Guide

Guide to Successful Event Food and Beverage Catering

Planning food and beverage functions can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding components of your job as a meeting or event coordinator, but it can also be one of the most frustrating.

If you have already established a good working relationship with a caterer, you are ahead of the game.

But catering policies and catering staff will change from year to year, so it is important to have a good understanding of the meal planning process before making any commitments either verbal or written. Save yourself from unhappy surprises by knowing the right questions to ask up front.

Working with caterers

The preparation, presentation, and service of food and beverage is an art form in which caterers and chefs take great pride.

Although you will have a budget to stay within, it will work to your advantage in most cases to approach your catering contact about menus and policies with an open mind and ask for suggestions. The printed menus included in catering packets describe only standard choices available and will give you an idea of whether the caterer is within your price range, but printed menus never tell the whole story of what your caterer is capable of creating for you within your budget. Ask them!

Ask also about catering policies. They vary from state to state, city to city, venue to venue, and caterer to the caterer, and you may need to negotiate carefully before booking a venue if catering policies seem unreasonable.

Before making inquiries
Use these guidelines to help you prepare in advance, save time and control your budget …

Planning Food & Beverage Functions – Guidelines A-Z 

1. Set up an F&B expense worksheet

Setting up an Excel worksheet that will automatically calculate the total cost of each expense category relevant to your food and beverage function will prove to be one of the greatest timesaving and cost management tools you will use.

Once you have menus and price quotes in hand from various caterers, you can enter the different variables into the spreadsheet to compare prices, choose menu items, determine the right quantities to order, and monitor TOTAL cost.

As you enter prices and quantities, you will quickly see where you need to make changes to stay within your budget.  You can play with the items in your worksheet by entering, for example, a higher quantity of one item that is less expensive and a reduced quantity of another item that is more expensive.  You will quickly see how your changes will affect the bottom line.  Just be sure any new items you enter are included above the appropriate formula line so they will be included in the calculations.

There is a simple way to check your formulas in an Excel spreadsheet.  Ctrl~ will show the formulas, and Ctrl~ again will take you back to where you were.

The F&B expense worksheet will also serve as an invaluable tool to help with adjusting and forecasting cost if attendance projections increase or decrease or if additional equipment needs to be ordered, and so on.  Formulas for calculating all expenses relative to the function, including taxes and gratuities, labour and equipment should be included.

2. Two-step process to create a checklist and timeline

  1. Create a complete checklist
    Includes every task you can think of relative to your catered food and beverage function then combine tasks into separate categories that you can work more efficiently or assign by category to another team or person to handle independently.
  2. Using the checklist as a guideline
    Create a timeline that sets the start and completion dates for each category.  The checklist and timeline work hand-in-hand, and both will remain a work in progress throughout the planning stages as situations change for your meal functions. If you are diligent about monitoring both of them weekly or even daily, they will prove to be invaluable tools to keep you on track and on time.

3. F&B function specifications

The checklist and timeline will prepare you to create a realistic set of preliminary function specifications before initiating inquiries to the various caterers on your list. Forward these specifications as a follow-up after your first call or email inquiry so there can be no question about your needs.  This will prove to be a real time saver by eliminating many questions and unnecessary phone calls or emails! To set the tone for open and effective communications, your specs should be presented to your catering contacts in the beginning as a guideline rather than rigid requirements.  As the process moves forward, you will adjust the specs to incorporate unique circumstances that you will undoubtedly discover when working with caterers in different areas and venues.

Making inquiries to caterers – 

If you are planning an event with multiple food and beverage functions, outline all functions in the same set of pecs.  A “NOTES” section should be included for items you wish to have clarified by the caterer or areas of your program that you need to emphasize.  This will help the caterer be better prepared for your follow-up discussion and will also flag any area in your specs that could be problematic.
When the functional specifications have been drafted and the F&B expense matrix formatted, you will be ready to make initial inquiries to caterers.  Many venues such as hotels or banquet halls will require that you work with their in-house caterer, which simplifies matters to some extent but allows less flexibility.  However, if you book a function with a free-standing venue such as an outdoor garden, historic home, or an art museum, your next step will be finding the caterer who can provide the food and beverage services most appropriate for your type of group and function.

Food & Beverage Catering Contracts

A food and beverage contract will be handled differently if you are booking a catered function with a hotel or full-service venue rather than an independent caterer.   If you are also booking more than 10 overnight guest rooms with the same venue, you will most likely be asked to sign a contract for the sleeping room accommodations and another for the food and beverage functions.

If booking more than six months in advance – 

If you are booking food and beverage functions along with a conference that is to occur more than six months later, only an outline of the catering needs will be included such as dates, days of the week, number of catered functions per day, and expected attendance for each.  This information is necessary at the time of booking to ensure that space for meal functions will be provided.  Food items and menu prices will rarely be quoted this far in advance.

If booking with an independent caterer, more details of the food functions may be included initially, but a similar policy about quoting firm prices more than six months in advance will exist.  This is understandable because food cost fluctuates from season-to-season and sometimes day-to-day based on availability and current market prices.  If you insist that firm prices be stated in a contract more than 60 days in advance of the function, it will be unlikely that specific food items will be guaranteed.  When it is time to finalize menus, you may need to substitute preferred food items that have become significantly more expensive since you signed the contract if you are to stay within the quoted price.

Banquet Event Order –

Menus and all other details including equipment rental and service personnel will be confirmed as final by the caterer in a Banquet Event Order (BEO) or similar document once you are 30-days in advance of the event.  The BEO will require your signature of approval and will be considered an addendum to the contract and just as binding.  Once it is signed by you, the BEO will be used internally by the caterer for scheduling staff, purchasing food, ordering equipment, and so forth, so attention to detail when reviewing it will be absolutely critical.

Understand the attrition clause – 

A minimum amount of food and beverage revenue that your group will be obligated to pay, regardless of how many actually attend your function, will be included in one form or another along with terms for cancellation and another generalized contractual language.  The minimum revenue requirement is usually stated as a sliding scale and may or may not include the legal term for it, which is “attrition.”  Attrition penalties can cost dearly if attendance falls short.  It is standard policy for it to be included in meeting and event contracts, so you need to understand it and stay on top of it!

Food & Beverage Catering Details

Food and beverage preparation, presentation and service is an art form in which caterers and chefs take great pride.  The printed menus included in catering packets describe only standard choices available and will give you an idea of whether the caterer is within your price range, but printed menus never tell the whole story of what your caterer is capable of creating for you within your budget.

Selecting Menus

Policies vary from caterer to caterer, venue to venue, but the time for finalizing menus for an event will usually not occur until you are within 3 months of your event.  If you made preliminary choices earlier when you first booked your event, some menu items may no longer be available or the price may have changed due to current market prices.  Ask for a new set of menus and review them before you meet with the caterer to make final selections.  When you are ready to discuss current choices or substitutions, be perfectly candid about your budget and let your caterer know where you have flexibility and where you must stay firm.  If you allow your caterer to be creative, you may be pleasantly surprised to learn of possibilities that are not on the printed menus or combinations of food items that will cut cost and still create a beautiful and delicious presentation for your guests.  It will make the caterer’s job more pleasant and the menus more impressive.  A win-win.  Some caterers will prepare a tasting of various menu items for you and a colleague to sample before making a final selection.

TIP – Choosing items that are in season will help with food cost.  If the caterer is serving another group on the same day as your event, you may also save cost by choosing some of the same food items chosen by the other group.  This practice is referred to as “ganging menus,” which enables the caterer to order in greater quantity at a lower price.

Alcoholic Beverages

One of the more sensitive issues you will encounter when planning receptions and events will be alcoholic beverages.  The liquor license requirements for caterers and venues that serve food and beverage are very rigid in almost every state.  If you are accustomed to furnishing your own liquor in one city or state, you may find it restricted in others.  Policies may vary from venue-to-venue within a city, also, based on the different types of liquor licenses acquired.  Be sure to check with your caterer before every function even if you have worked with them in the past.  Laws and license requirements can change and food and beverage contractors must abide by them to the letter or risk having their businesses shut down.  Your organization may be liable, too, if a minor should be served unintentionally.  Be knowledgeable about that and take the necessary precautions to protect yourself.

How much F&B to order?

Caterers and venues refer to the final food and beverage order differently, but widely used terms would be Banquet Event Order (BEO), Group Detail Report (GDR), Private Event Order (PEO) and so on.  The BEO is considered an addendum to your contract and, once you sign your approval, it is just as binding. When you receive the BEO from your caterer, compare each item carefully against your function specifications or Request for Proposal.  Be absolutely certain that everything needed to satisfy your every need has been included and described correctly. Your caterer will recommend how much food and beverage to order per person for each type of function you are planning and will help you select items to stay within your budget.  This is particularly important when you are planning a reception with hors-d’oeuvres or a buffet rather than a plated dinner for a banquet.

You should rely heavily on their recommendations if you have little experience with ordering for a catered function or if you are unfamiliar with the group who will be attending.  But if you know your group very well and have a good history from previous events about what menu items are popular and which are not, you may be able to save money by ordering a specific amount to be served of each item rather than paying a flat rate per person.  This can be tricky, so give it careful thought.  There will always be an F&B minimum in your contract that requires you to pay a certain amount if your attendance is less than anticipated.  A guideline about quantities to order for food and beverage is available in the links below.

Within 30 days in advance of your functions

The original food and beverage contract for your catered meal functions may have been finalized years or months before your event, but it is the Banquet Event Order prepared within 30 days of your event that will be distributed by the caterer to kitchen staff, equipment rental companies, set-up and service personnel, food and beverage purchasing agents, and others who will be involved in producing your event.

The Food & Beverage Guarantee

The caterer will specify a deadline, usually three or four working days prior to your function when you must commit to a guarantee of how many people will attend and be served.  This guarantee must be equal to or greater than the food and beverage minimum specified in the catering contract.  After your guarantee has been given, you must pay for that number of people to be served whether they arrive or not.  You can increase your guarantee up to the day prior of the function, but you cannot decrease it.  The caterer will prepare a percentage of meals, usually 3%, over the amount guaranteed to provide for last minute walk-ins or unexpected guests at your function.  You will not be charged for the 3% extra meals prepared unless they are served.  At this point, it is important to advise your caterer the number of special plates to prepare for guests who are on restricted diets.

Adjust the figures in the expense matrix discussed in Food & Beverage Guidelines, a tool that will help you stay abreast on the fluctuation of your expenses based on the number of people registered for your planned meal functions.  When the deadline for giving a guarantee is reached, you should be able to give a realistic number.  If you have the previous history from similar functions for the same group, you will have a good idea of the no-show factor of those who registered but did not attend.  Typically, your guarantee should be reduced by the percentage of the typical no-show factor unless there is credible justification for decreasing the number of expected no-shows, such as mandatory attendance required by a company rather than voluntary attendance for a social event.  Remember, you will have to pay for whatever you guarantee whether the meals are consumed or not AND the caterer will not be prepared to serve more than 3% over your guarantee for those who show-up unexpectedly.  Your guarantee will require careful thought.

Catering Equipment Rentals –

NOTE about space requirements –If your food functions are to be held in venues that do not provide their own linens, silver, glassware, china, utensils, tables, chairs, etc., you will need to make arrangements with an equipment rental company to deliver and setup for you.  Most caterers will provide their own equipment for a portable kitchen such as portable stoves, food warmers, and refrigeration, but they will need adequate space available to them for set-up and service.  You should always know to expect the unexpected in equipment needs.  You may encounter such things as inadequate electrical hook-ups available for an outdoor portable kitchen area that would require rental of a generator – a costly item!

Food stations and catering equipment to be set-up inside your function room can be very space intensive and can result in a loss of seating capacity or standing room for your guests.  Determine early from your caterer the space requirements anticipated based on your planned food function then decide if it is feasible.  You may need to make adjustments to ensure that the capacity of the space for guests and seating will not be reduced to an unacceptable number in order to accommodate catering, audiovisual equipment, staging and decoration set-ups.  You may find that a simple adjustment to your program or menu will resolve a space issue.


Caterers may be able to assist you with referrals for florists, banners and signage, balloons, centerpieces, and other props, or they may want to include all arrangements in one package price.  Check this out.  You may find that a packaged arrangement will be more convenient for you and actually cut cost if you do not have to use your valuable time to coordinate for these services.  But if the package price is high, you may want to check into contracting independently with various vendors and service providers.  There may be restrictions on what can be brought into the venue or facility you will be using and who will have authorized access, so verify with your contacts before making any commitments.  For security reasons, you will be asked to provide a list of all vendors and service providers who will be working your event.

Audio Visual (AV) Enhancements

Most food functions will require some type of audiovisual enhancements whether it be for a formal or informal presentation, entertainment, or just speciality lighting and recorded music to create a relaxed ambience or to generate high energy.    Arrangements for audiovisual equipment and technical support will always be handled separately from the food and beverage portion unless the needs are so basic that in-house systems at the chosen venue will suffice.

This is an area that makes even the most experienced meeting or event planner a bit nervous.  Once the food and beverage “guarantee” of the number of people to be served is given to the caterer handling your function, you will be obligated to pay for that number of servings even if your attendance is lower than expected.  You can always increase your guarantee, but you cannot reduce it after the deadline, usually 4 working days in advance of your event (weekend days don’t count).  You will also have a contractual obligation called “attrition” that will state a minimum you will pay regardless of when you give a guarantee, so be sure you understand attrition!  More on that in the Contracts link provided below.

Food & Beverage Quantities to Order

If working with a caterer, listen to what is recommended!  A good caterer will give you good advice.  But, you need to have a basic understanding of quantities to order for the number of people you expect to be served – and the options you can consider when you are watching your budget!  Use the following info as a guideline, not a hard, fast rule!


Allow one beverage per person per hour for a 4-hour gathering to be on the safe side.  Not everyone will drink liquor!  Even those who do may switch from alcohol to water after the first or second drink, so don’t forget to order water. Bottled water will be appreciated, but by-the-glass from a pitcher will definitely be less expensive to serve!

The rate of consumption will decrease if the duration of the party is longer.  The quantities listed below are based on serving only one type of beverage, such as beer or wine.

 Type of Beverage    Number of Servings in Each Ordering ONE type of beverage for
4 hrs. to 50 people 
(see NOTE)
 Beer 1 case = (24) 12-ounce servings 8 cases
 Wine 750 ml bottle = (6) 4-ounce glasses 34 bottles
 Liquor 750 ml bottle = (15 to 18) 1-ounce pours per bottle 13 bottles + assorted mixes
 Coffee 1 gallon = (18) 1-cup servings  3 gallons
 Soda 1-liter bottle = (11) 6-ounce glasses 18 bottles
 Soda 1 case = (24) 12-ounce cans of (2) 6-ounce servings 4 cases
 Punch 1 gallon = (32) 4-ounce servings 6 gallons
 Champagne 750 ml bottle = (6) 4-ounce glasses 9 bottles for 1 toast

This may surprise you

A “soft bar” that serves beer and wine only will usually be more expensive because there are only 5 pours out of a bottle of wine versus 15 to 18 hours per person from a liquor bottle.
In recent years, consumption of cocktails has been lighter at group functions than beer and wine but that might not always be the case.


If you offer a combination, order less of each type to be served.  Order more of the type you think will be most popular and less of the others to reach a total number of one per person per hour.  This can be tricky unless you know the likes and dislikes of your group.


If the group is mostly men and they enjoy wine, it is usually safer to order more red than white.  A mix of domestic and imported beer is recommended, and don’t overlook ordering a soda and bottled water for those who prefer non-alcoholic beverages.

Alert the bartenders

At the beginning of the evening, ask the catering manager to alert the bartenders that you will want an accounting of the type of drinks that are served along with your liquor bill at the end of the evening.   Keep an accurate record of the number of drinks and the percentage of the various types consumed.  This will be invaluable information when you begin planning and budgeting for the next function for the same group, and it will be helpful if you are planning for another group that is similar in style.


 Food Item   Portions per Person Comments
 Hors-d’oeuvres if meal to follow Total of 2 to 3 pieces per person per hour
 Heavy hors d’oeuvres as a meal Total of 5 to 6 pieces per person per hour Less after 2nd hour
 Chilled salads 4 ounces per person
 Hot side dishes 3 to 4 ounces per person Less if more side dishes served
 Pasta as an entrée 6 to 8 ounces per person Less if side dishes also served
 Pasta as a side dish 3 to 4 ounces per person
 Lunch entrée 4 to 6 ounces per person
 Dinner entrée 6 to 8 ounces per person
 Dessert 3 to 4 ounces per person
 Dinner Rolls or Bread 2 per person


If heavy hors-d’oeuvres are to be served as a meal and a substantial food station such as pasta or a mashed potato cocktail will also be available, you can safely reduce the number of cold and hot hors-d’oeuvres you order to be passed or set out.  Calculate the number of 3- to 4-ounce servings, the pasta station will provide and include it as part of your count of 5 to 6 hors d’oeuvres per person.  It is a good idea to have a food item that is filling served in addition to other hors d’oeuvres so you can control your budget while making sure that no one walks away hungry.

Calculate the number of hours d’houevres to order using history from past events –

Look at the total number registered for your event and order one serving of the most filling item (such as pasta) for each person registered.  Then as a general rule (every group is different with unique needs and preferences), decrease the number you order for all other appetizer items to the number of people actually served at previous events for the same group per recorded history. Work with percentages rather than actual numbers to keep it simple.  In other words, if 500 registered but only 250 attended a previous event and your current registration is 300, order one serving of pasta for 100% of registration (300) but only 50% (150) of other hors d’oeuvre items. The count given in the chart above for the dessert order may be high.  Everyone seems to be on a diet these days, and many dessert stations are left nearly untouched.  Expensive!

Best advice

Know your group!  Study its history.  If history has not been recorded from previous events but the group has held similar functions in the past, contact the venues that hosted the functions and ask for history.  They can usually tell you how many were expected and how many were actually served.  Past invoices can also help.  History is Golden.

If a first-time event

Order conservatively. It is highly unusual for first-time events to be successful at drawing the attendance expected unless it is mandatory. Do not order for the full number of people registered. It is wise to arrange for substitute menu items available for quick preparation if attendance should exceed expectations.

15 tips that will save food and beverage cost without sacrificing quality

There is an art to cutting cost without changing the quality of the food or the level of service for your planned meal functions, and it doesn’t have to be difficult.  There are simple adjustments you can make during the planning process that will result in a significant difference in your final bill.  Some of them will also contribute to the public relations benefit that your organization will enjoy for being environmentally friendly, which is something that you can promote in your promotional materials.

  1. Water has become a very hot issue.
    Bottled water prices have skyrocketed to become a significant expense to your food and beverage budget. The cost per bottle may be negotiable so discuss it with your caterer. Better yet, drop bottled water from your menus and beverage stations completely and serve water from refillable pitchers. There are lovely water containers that will enhance the appearance of water stations instead of using standard pitchers that can drip from cold water condensation on the outside. It will reduce or eliminate the cost of water and the need
    to recycle plastic bottles. For informal or outdoor gatherings, water coolers would be a better option if recyclable plastic cups are used.
  2. Coffee has also skyrocketed in price
    The amount you offer for consumption must be carefully considered.  Request that coffee is served in smaller cups.  If that is not possible, request that a less expensive coffee be served.  Order by the ½ gallon with more frequent refills so you pay for what is needed rather than paying for full gallons that may not be consumed.
  3. Use the “mixed” method when selecting menus.  Example, for a continental breakfast order the least expensive, bare-bones option offered, then add yoghurt and small, boxed cereals to be charged based on consumption rather than on a per person basis.
  4. Ask for suggestions from the chef about seasonal food items
    Check seasonal food that are currently available in the region at a lower cost.  The quality will be better and the ingredients fresher than if you order something out-of-season that has to be shipped from greater distances.
  5. Ask the chef or your caterer about other groups they will be serving within a day or two of your event.
    You may be able to choose a menu using the same food items that could then be ordered in bulk at significant savings.
  6. Consider serving plated meals.
    Buffets can be more expensive.
  7. If you go for a buffet, serve from fewer chafing dishes.
    If four different items are served in four chafing dishes, people will typically take two items from each chafing dish for a total of eight pieces.  If five different items are served from five chafing dishes, guests will take ten pieces instead of eight from four.
  8. “Action” food stations can be more cost-effective
    Because portions served will be smaller.  You will have to pay for a station attendant, but the cost will be less than what you will pay if guests are able to serve themselves.
  9. Serving passed hors-d’oeuvres at a reception
    More cost-effective than setting out food stations so mix it up or delete the food stations altogether when serving smaller groups.  Offer only 1 food item per tray so the hors-d’oeuvres being passed are rotated frequently and don’t get boring.
  10. Verify that iced tea and coffee are included in catering menus offered.
  11. Present a price that includes iced tea, coffee, taxes and service charges
    (also referred to as “all inclusive”) to your caterer or the chef and sees what he or she can do for that price.  You may be very pleasantly surprised!
  12. Inquire about purchasing your alcoholic beverages from “dead stock” at a lower price
    Which means that the F&B Department or caterer will pull from stock left over from another group rather than order new stock with additional shipping and delivery charges.
  13. Ask your caterer to define the different levels of liquor
    Different levels of liquor that can be served and specify your choices such as a house, call, well, premium, top shelf.  Caterers may use different terminology, but “house” is usually the least expensive and “top shelf” the most expensive.
  14. If table wine is to be served with a meal, place only one wine glass on the table
    Also schedule wine to be served after the salad plates have been cleared.
  15. Do not announce “last call” for beverages to be served before the bar closes.

Food and Beverage Catering Timeline

When planning for a conference, the food and beverage (F&B) component must be added to the timeline months or years in advance so that the desired function space can be reserved.  This won’t be a problem if you are booking a conference that requires overnight guest rooms in a proportionate number to the number of attendees you expect for the meal functions.  But for a special event that does not require a significant number of sleeping rooms, you may have difficulty confirming space at hotels more than 90 days in advance.  There will be more flexibility if you are booking a free-standing venue that does not also provide overnight sleeping rooms.

Regardless, the time to begin finalizing the actual details with a caterer would be closer to the time of your planned meal functions – six months in advance or less.  The timeline may be relatively simple if the function you are planning is small and uncomplicated.  If it is complex, regardless of the size, the timeline will have to be extended to accommodate special arrangements that can be very time consuming.  Meal prices may not be quoted more than 90 days in advance due to the unpredictable market conditions that affect food prices, but a firm quote can be given earlier if you are willing to be flexible about the menu choices within that price range as you get closer to the event.  Good caterers can always suggest wonderful alternatives if the particular menu item you prefer is too pricey for your budget at the time of your function.

Timeline setup instructions and sample documents –

The F&B timeline sample that is available for you here is incomplete and pertains only to some of the tasks required when making arrangements for a planned meal function.  It is meant for use as a guideline for the set-up of your own timeline that addresses the specific needs of your meeting or event.

If you are also involved in other aspects of the planning process, it will be important for you to review the intro and sample of the Overall Event Timeline that includes both main and sub-categories.  Sub-categories may not always be required in timelines for smaller events or single areas of responsibility within a large event.  Your F&B checklist will serve as a reminder for many tasks that must be included in your timeline.

Pay close attention to the formulas in spreadsheets – 

When spreadsheets are available, take painstaking care to check all formulas after making entries and changes to ensure that calculations remain accurate.  If you are not experienced with Excel formulas, have your work checked by someone who has expertise working with spreadsheets and can verify that the information is presented properly and that formulas are set up to calculate accurately.

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