Ballpark Estimate: $50 to $350 a person for a complete dinner reception
If you’re planning a wedding or other large-scale special event, you may want to call on a full-service caterer to help pull it all together. In addition to providing great food, full-service caterers can also help to coordinate a range of important details, including meal presentation, table settings, serving, and centerpieces so your big day will live up to all of your high expectations.
In the past, catering services used to specialize in providing the meals for guests at special events. But today, some catering services have gone way beyond the basics to offer a one-stop shopping approach to make sure all of the pieces of your party will flow smoothly. This means that instead of you needing to contract with multiple vendors to handle different areas, you may be able to go to just one person who offers a full-service approach and let him or her do all of the work for you to be sure your party goes off without a hitch.
Planning Your Event
You can think of a modern caterer as a form of a wedding planner. If you’re hosting a wedding, bar or bat mitzvah, christening, corporate function or other large party, once you know the scale of your event and your budget, you can shop around for a full-service caterer to find one who is a good fit for your needs and your vision.
Many caterers today can handle as much (or as little) as you require, from helping to select the site, overseeing the decorations and floral arrangements, coordinating lighting, setting the menu and seating plan, servicing the bar, serving guests and working with the musicians or DJ to ensure that the timing of the meal and music flow well. But keep in mind that each company is different, so you will want to ask lots of questions to find the best match for your preferences.
Whether you want to hand over all of the control or want to handle some of the details yourself, having a good caterer by your side is essential to ensuring a successful event. A good rule of thumb is to start looking for your caterer early, at least eight or nine months before your big day if you can, to give yourself enough time to find the right person for the job and to negotiate the details so you will know who will handle what.
Generally, you will want to look for a caterer who excels at the type of function and food you desire. For instance, if you have your heart set on a Hawaiian luau, you should seek out someone who has planned these before and knows what works well. Or if you want to serve a vegetarian dinner, select a caterer who is known for his or her excellent gourmet vegetarian fare. Also keep in mind that a caterer who is a regular at the venue you choose will be a real asset in helping you to navigate the landscape. Some function sites have fully-operational kitchens, while others have only minimal equipment. A caterer who knows these things up front will be able to make some important decisions about where and how the food will be prepared.
Selecting a Good Fit
A good full-service catering service will be known for its food, presentation and its outstanding service. But don’t go on word or reputation alone. Always ask for references and photos of previous jobs, so you will have all of the facts to see if the caterer is a good fit for your circumstances. You will want to know how long your caterer has been in business, if he or she has handled events that are similar in size and feel to yours, and whether the company has liability insurance in case any problems occur on the job.
You will also need to know how much the caterer charges. If you have a firm budget, many caterers will be willing to work within your price range to come up with some sample menus to show you what you can get for your money. Whether you want a seated meal or a buffet made up of individual stations will make a difference (to some people’s surprise, the stations can actually cost more than a plated dinner, since there is more food, preparation and manpower involved), so talk about these options right from the beginning and see what will work with your guest list, tastes and the setup of your venue. In addition, whether you plan to serve alcohol is a big factor in cost and should be considered right from the start.
Always ask for a complete proposal, including a suggested menu with all prices, so you know what you are agreeing to up front. Some caterers will provide an all-inclusive price, while others will charge for different items and services ala carte. In addition, some may do a combination of both, offering a pay-one-price but then adding on some additional charges as well. All of these scenarios are acceptable. Once you review the contract, be sure to ask if there any additional expenses that are not included so you know what you are getting into.
You will also need to know if there is a minimum guaranteed number of guests required, and when the cut off is to provide a final number of meals that will be needed. In addition, ask how deposits and final payment is handled, and what the cancellation policy is. Other things to consider include how many staff members and servers will be provided and what the ratio of staff to guests will be, if beverages (including alcohol and coffee service) is included, if cleanup is provided, and what (if any) type of equipment, linens, china service and other details the caterer handles. Also find out if the catering service offers a tasting so you can sample the menu choices and make some important selections as the process progresses.
Finally, one important point that many people contracting with caterers often overlook is to ask how many events the caterer handles per day. Ideally, you would want to hire someone who has only one event on a given date. However, if you are dealing with a very large catering service, this expectation may be unrealistic. If the company has multiple commitments at the same time, ask how they are handled to avoid conflict and make sure each event goes perfectly.
What It Costs
When you hire a caterer to handle your event, you can expect to be charged on a per person basis. This means that there is a flat rate for each guest that attends your reception. Some of the items that will be often be included in the cost include: hors d’oeuvres (passed or stationary), the meal (plated or stations), beverages (bar, served wine or non-alcoholic options, plus coffee service), labor and rental products (tables, chairs, dance floor, bar items, linen and china).
The price you are quoted can encompass a wide range, since the number of guests, formality of your event, type and quality of food and presentation, the complexity of your theme and choices and whether you offer an open bar can all make a big difference. The part of the country you live in can also play a factor, as big cities such as New York, Boston and Los Angeles can be much more expensive than more rural areas.
The cost to cater a dinner reception can be anywhere from $50 and $350 a person with food, drinks and service included.
If money is tight, remember that you can shave costs by planning a less formal event, such as a brunch, cocktail or dessert reception, luncheon, barbeque or clambake. All of these options are apt to be less expensive, depending on where you live and what you choose for your menu. You can expect these variations to start at about $30 to $40 a person and go on up from there.
Some caterers incorporate a tip (the going rate is usually about 18 percent) into their bill, while others leave it to the customer’s discretion. Always ask your caterer if this is included in the final price.
Other factors that some caterers don’t include in their per person rate are:
- Bartender: $15 to $40 an hour with a four-hour minimum
- Serving Staff: $25 to $40 an hour per person with a four-hour minimum
- Cake-Cutting Fee: $1 and up per slice
- Corking Fee: $1 and up for each opened bottle of wine and champagne
It is also important to note that catering prices can suddenly change based on increases in food and beverage costs. This is standard in the industry. Therefore, always ask your caterer how long the prices quoted are guaranteed.
When comparing different caterer’s proposals, make sure to look at all of the variables included to be sure you know what you are getting. For instance, if one caterer is providing organic ingredients, understand that this will be more expensive than another caterer’s proposal that relies on less expensive produce and meat. Therefore, you will want to compare apples to apples, or prime rib to prime rib. In addition, it may just help to tell a few of your top catering picks that you are meeting with several companies to select the one who you like best. This just may spur them to give you their most competitive price.