Falling in love — with your caterer

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Hiring a caterer can be one of the most challenging missions when planning a wedding. After all, as the seasons come and go, it may slip guests' minds that the DJ played "Celebration" by Kool & the Gang multiple times, but they'll remember the food — for better or worse. Read on to make sure you're not setting yourself up for any catering bloopers. 1. Research the venue There are two styles of wedding venues: All-inclusive ones with on-site caterers, and those that allow for outside vendors to handle the food. If you have your heart set on a specific independent caterer and a banquet hall that doesn't allow outside food, you've got a dilemma. Some venues will allow couples to "buy out" the on-site catering and hire their choice, but let's be realistic: Most couples aren't working with that kind of budget. Venues may have a list of preferred suppliers, including caterers. 2. Availability First and foremost you need to see if your caterer is available on your preferred date. It is also imperative to inquire matter about the booking and payment process. Be sure to understand at what point your date becomes set in stone and when payments are expected. The last thing you want is a sudden setback and an unexpected bill just before the wedding. Ideally, you should start researching and meeting with caterers at least nine months before your ceremony. It’s a great time to start contacting catering companies once your date is set and the venue is booked. 3. First impressions carry weight A glossy brochure describing delectable cuisine can easily get your attention, but it takes a lot more than pretty pictures and good writing — someone has to actually cook it. What should seal the deal is an initial meeting with the caterer. It isn't until you get face (or phone) time with the caterer that you can really know what he or she is all about, and vice-versa. When selecting a caterer, you are not only seeking excellent fare, but also exemplary service and the ability to work with the enormity of the details involved in your big day. If your caterer doesn't offer food at the meeting, take note because this is the first opportunity to express their style. In short, beware of getting swept up by polished pamphlets and beautiful websites. What matters most is how you feel when you actually speak to the caterer and taste his/her creations. 4. Establish an honest budget Creating and understanding your budget before seeking a caterer can help you steer clear of major disappointment and stress. Based on your means, a caterer will help you determine what's doable and what's outside the realm of possibility. Ask about available options — the caterer should be able to provide a menu to suit your needs. Educate yourself on what is and what isn’t included in the price as this can often vary from one caterer to the next.
The big things to look out for are whether your quote includes VAT — an acronym for value-added tax — a type of consumption tax placed on goods and services at their final value or purchase price. You really don’t want to get burned by VAT being overlooked. Also, caterers may or may not include tableware and linen hire within their quotes, so make sure you run this past them as it’s not something you want to have to find extra money for right before the wedding. 5. Let your Gluten-Soy-Vegan-Paleo flag fly high … but don't make Grandpa wave it The time to let your caterer know about special dietary needs or restrictions is the sooner the better. The sooner he or she knows about your peanut allergy or dislike of cilantro, the more seamlessly your caterer can work around it. Besides, such information can help create a menu that's a nice reflection of you and your partner's personal style, whether quirky or traditional. This is not, however, a time or excuse to push your beliefs or restrictions on the rest of your family and friends. Thankfully, there's a happy medium that falls between gluten-free wedding cake and well-done filet mignon for 300: Skilled caterers will work to make the food reflective of the couples' tastes and style, while ensuring it's also widely palatable. 6. Conduct the tasting in season Many caterers won't conduct a formal tasting until they've been booked and the contract is signed —this is less a chance for them to woo you than it is for you both to create the menu of your dreams. And don't be shocked if your caterer charges for the tasting. Conducting a full-scale tasting without cutting corners is one of the most important parts of the process, so both the customer and the caterer should take it seriously.
It's also a good idea to conduct the tasting in or as close to the season in which the wedding will take place. Your caterer's to-die-for heirloom tomato salad may be the best thing on the menu, but you'd never know it if you taste it in December. If that's not possible, at least try the basic elements of a dish. The fresh basil pesto may not be as good as it will be on the day of your wedding, but at least you'll know if he or she can roast a chicken thigh to perfection. 7. Don't settle A good caterer will listen and thereby should just get you. Seriously, you waited for years to find your spouse-to-be, so don't settle on the first caterer you meet (unless it's true love at first taste). Sure, any caterer worth their weight in prime rib will do their best to win you over, but it should never feel force-fed. No, you won't be growing old with the caterer, but you will be working closely with him or her for months.

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