Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Real Simple's "What to Ask Your Caterer" List

Along with Miss Glen Echo, I am also a huge fan of Real Simple magazine, especially their wedding issues. I have a meeting on Monday with my caterer (The Purple Onion - ask for Bernadette, she's awesome!) and thought I should prepare myself by looking into what Real Simple thinks I should be sure to ask. Some of these questions were covered in our initial meeting, and some of them don't apply to our wedding, but I thought I'd share them with you all anyway since they're generally good advice. (image: Debra McClinton via RealSimple.com)

1. How will you handle last-minute requests? It happens to the most careful couples: A whole family who didn’t RSVP on time shows up anyway. Or the opposite: A handful of guests are MIA. Is your caterer prepared to adjust the food and the table setup accordingly?
  • This is a great question for us because it's a near definite possibility that there will be a few unexpected guests at our wedding. Also you just never know, sometimes people have last-minute emergencies that keep them from attending.
2. Will you be there? You want the point person you’ve dealt with to be present from start to finish.
  • I really love the woman I've been working with so I would be disappointed if she wasn't going to be there!
3. What’s your waitstaff-to-table ratio? The most elegant service is one or more servers per table. The fewer you have, the more erratic or slow the food service will be. Find out how many staff members are included in the per person cost and how much extra staff might cost.
  • This isn't actually relevant for us because we're doing a buffet, we don't need as many staff per table. Also I've already got the staff requirements listed out from them, so I know exactly how many staff will be there.
4. What’s included in your per-person price? Is it just the food and beverages, with things like linens, waitstaff, and coat-room attendants separate?
  • Again we've already worked this out with our caterer, I made sure to ask at the beginning for the full cost including the food/service/rentals/taxes/etc.
5. What’s the difference between a gratuity and a service charge? Many catering facilities tack on a service charge of 20 percent, and couples think that this covers the staff tips, but it doesn’t. It is often used to cover things like fuel costs, overhead, and wear and tear. You’ll probably have to bring a stash of cash to tip the staff. Most brides tip 15 to 20 percent of the total bill and give that amount, in cash, to the maître d’ or the wedding planner, who will then distribute it.
  • Definitely good to know! Our caterer explained this to us, and advised us on the amount that is generally recommended for the gratuity - she also said the 15 - 20 percent rule, but she was sure to emphasize that it's dependent on the service we actually receive.
6. What happens to leftover food? Health-department rules vary, but most on-site caterers cannot allow food to be taken off the premises. If this is allowed, arrange for the food to be donated to a local soup kitchen or charity.
  • Hadn't occurred to me to ask this! I would definitely like to arrange to have the food donated, if that's possible.
7. How often do you renovate your facility? You may fall in love with the decor of the room you book a year in advance. Are they at all likely to change the carpet? Replace the chandeliers you admired? Ask the venue to put it in writing that the decor won’t change.
  • This isn't relevant to us for the caterer, since they are independent of the venue. Would be a good question to ask the venue - I don't think we have to worry about that, since it's a historic building they probably won't be changing it too much.
8. How often do you clean your facility? The venue should be cleaned every three to six months (otherwise the carpets will start to smell).
  • Probably a good question to ask your venue, not something I would ever really bother asking. Unless there is something apparent when you view the space that seems unclean, to me it seems like you'd risk insulting the staff if you asked them something like that. Although certainly it is reasonable to want to be sure that the space will be clean for your wedding, alienating them from the beginning is not the best idea.
9. Can we tour the kitchen? A facility might look gorgeous enough to win you over, but any cracks in the organization or the cleanliness of a place will show in the kitchen.
  • This is another one that is probably a great thing to do but didn't occur to me and I don't mind that I didn't ask. I suppose I still could ask to tour our caterer's kitchen but I know I don't feel like trekking out to Centreville just for that, and I trust them.
10. Have you worked at our location before? If you’re having the reception off-site, you’ll want to know how familiar your caterer is with the venue―and what he needs to know if he’s never been there. (How big is the kitchen? When can deliveries be dropped off?) Once you’ve settled on a caterer, put him or her in touch with the site’s manager so they can work out the details without using you as a middleman.
  • This is definitely a good question, although I already know our caterer has worked at Old Town Hall before because she recommended the venue to me!
11. How does your staff dress? Find out if they will dress in a specific way if you ask them to―say, in Hawaiian shirts for a luau wedding.
  • Great question - although we're not really doing a theme so I don't care what they wear, as long as it's professional looking (and clean!).
12. Can we see the banquet event order? This is a list of all the information the caterer has gone over with you about your party. It’s given to the person who orders the food; the chef who’ll cook the food; the person responsible for setting up the room at the venue; and the director of the waitstaff. Review the details carefully so you know that, say, your request to have a separate table for two is on the list.
  • I will put this on my list to ask - I definitely want to make sure the venue, caterer and I are all on the same page about room set-ups, menu, time table, etc.
What do you think? Did they leave anything out? Are you all on the same page with your caterers?

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Blogger KarenDZachary said...

I work for a large, extremely experienced, successful caterer, and I have for seven years. This is a pretty good list. Brides sure can use all the help they can get...there are a lot of shabby/dishonest/greenwashing/inexperienced/illegal/inexperienced caterers out there! So kudos for helping brides find the good apples. =)

Just couple of minor disagreements or points of clarification:
If your caterer is really on their game, your point person can leave after dinner service. In fact, the point person shouldn't be needed at all. A planner/organizer/salesperson is not an event manager...totally different skill set.

I would never invite anyone into the kitchen. No one should ever be in a prep space unless they're prepping food. Period.

I also don't think I'd want everyone seeing the banquet event order. We know how many cups of aioli are needed, but do I really need to open our order up to second-guessing from a client? We are the professionals. So no. But I would let the client see a list of the crew instructions and of course the table setup diagram.

I think this is a supremely important question to add to the list: how much prep do you do at your (presumably properly licensed, insured) kitchen versus how much is done onsite? Prep should be done offsite, final cooking must be done onsite for primo food quality.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010 12:55:00 AM  

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