Hiring a caterer for your party need not be a total food drama! There are some key questions that you can ask and ways to experience their work before putting down a deposit that will make you feel comfortable about your decision during the party planning process and help you have a stress-free event.
The Search: Finding a Caterer
You don't need the seal of approval from your BFF to hire a caterer, but you should have a word of mouth reference from someone you know or a trusted source.
Call around and ask your friends if they have a caterer they'd recommend.
Then, think about the catered food and service you've enjoyed at a friend's party, work function, even a wedding.
Don't forget about restaurants! Many restaurants have catering services and chances are you've eaten there and know the quality of their food.
Ask your venue if they have a caterer they commonly work with - they may even be able to offer you a discount if you book through them!
The Interview: Questions to Ask Your Potential Caterer
Write down your questions and bring them with you when meeting the caterer so you feel prepared during the interview process.
Consider asking these questions along with any other questions that you have in mind:
What is the cost per head and what does that include (i.e. food, bar, decor or tabletop props for the buffet display)?
What are their specialties and what menu would they suggest based on your party?
Can they prepare something different for guests with allergies? Or you may have certain dietary needs that you wish to inquire about (i.e. vegetarian or kosher dishes).
Can they provide recommendations with phone numbers that you can call?
Can they think of extra-anticipated costs based on the location from permits to equipment to rentals?
Can they handle the rentals (i.e. tables and chairs) if need be or do you have to take care of setting that up?
Do they have all the necessary paperwork for your event such as insurance or a liquor license? And, can they obtain any permits you may need, such as a liquor license for an event that is not in your home or fire permits if necessary for lit candles?
Can they recommend any other vendors or party peeps such as a deejay or entertainment? For more info read Top 5 Party Tips for Hiring A Deejay or Band.
Do they have an "in-house" waiter staff or do they hire from a staffing agency?
Can you sample their work including tasting their food and perhaps seeing them in action?
Keep the conversation casual but businesslike, as you don't want this to feel like an interrogation but you do want to know that you're going to be taken care of. Some people ask more questions than others, and I'm a big believer in "there are no stupid questions" especially when it comes to spending money.
The Contract : Avoid Unexpected Fees or Surprises
Clear communication is key! Writing down details that are important to you or outlining your understanding should a "what if" situation occur is a must! Everyone hears information differently but there is little debate over "what you discussed vs. what you got" when it is in writing.
Most caterers have a standard contract or simple agreement. This could be as basic as the proposed menu from the caterer with your signature and date at the bottom.
You may want to make sure that these points are in writing or consider adding them:
The cost per head or the pricing structure that you have discussed and agreed upon for all items and services.
Overtime if applicable or if the caterer is providing the staff.
Vendor logistics and their costs if the caterer is making those arrangements and hence, should take some responsibility as a liaison for them.
Any anticipated costs that may be set when you agree upon your terms or a good faith "ballpark" figure for services or items yet to be decided upon.
Their cancellation policy or procedure for any unforeseen circumstances, natural or otherwise, on the day or leading up to the day of the party which makes it impossible for the event to take place.
The Event: Make your List and Check it Twice
After you've made your decision and put down the deposit, your work's not over yet! You still have some last minute prep work and day-of tasks to help you new food friend deliver your dream menu.
A couple of weeks before the event you'll typically give the caterer a final guest count.
A week before the event you should touch base with them about arrival time and set up (or this can be accomplished when you give them the final count).
Make sure you exchange all contact information including cell phone numbers at least a day before the event. In fact, especially for big events, it's a good idea to make a Vendor Contact Sheet that has all necessary contact info for each vendor and includes the party location address, arrival times for set up, and the event start time.
Know who to you call if they are late and have a back-up contact as well!
Make sure that your "communication" chain is clear. Who do they go to for any issues? (Just because you're paying the bill doesn't mean you have to be the go-to person for questions on the night of the party.) There may be a party manager, if your event is large enough, or you may wish to tell the caterer to "handle" things as best they can, within reason, so you can enjoy the party.
Make all necessary introductions so the "communication" can be clear - this is especially important if you have planned events happening like a deejay announcing that all gather to sing Happy Birthday and the caterer needs to bring out the cake.
Create a timetable if necessary and distribute it to all who will be "running" the party or check in with the caterer before the party starts to get an idea of the timing for cocktails, dinner, etc...
The caterer should leave their "workspace" in your home in the same condition as they found it. Don't expect them to wash your windows, but they should sweep the kitchen floor or the place where they've prepared the food. Plates, glasses, and trash should be picked up in the party space and taken to your trash bins outside, but don't expect them to clean the rooms from top to bottom!
If you did get rentals, find out how these items need to be situated for pick up. Sometimes this is the caterer's responsibility and sometimes it isn't. For example, tablecloths are usually put in a pile somewhere or in a large bag kept open so they don't mildew.
Remember to treat the caterer and staff courteously and your party should be a success. Don't be a host-zilla. And, a verbal "thank-you" is always appreciated!
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