Wedding Catering and Venues – 101

Posted on May 1, 2014 in Planning

You’ve gotten the ring! Maybe you’ve even looked at a few dresses, but ultimately you’re about to stumble upon one of the most difficult, costly and important components of your wedding. The right venue and caterer can make or break the design of your day.

Quality venues cost money – anywhere from $1000. – $7500. in the Lehigh Valley. Here comes the confusion! No two venues include the same things. Some are a blank pallet with nothing included. Others include tables, chairs and maybe a dance floor. Most do not include the china, linens, table wares and accessories needed to create a proper reception. Many caterers are capable of providing those items, usually at a fee.

Often a “free” item, like chairs that don’t match you’re design, aren’t usually worth trying to work into your plan. Replacing that chair with a nicer chair is worth doing rather than losing sight of your vision. Chair covers are an option but can create an overwhelming amount of fabric quickly.

Keep in mind that the venue of your choosing may have limitations for cooking or even heating that will limit some of the options you will be able to choose from your caterer. This is rare, but it can happen. Some venues don’t permit open flame whereby canned heat under a chafing dish might not be permitted at a buffet or hors d’Oeuvre station. Also ask the venue about the possibility of candles on your tables or in centerpieces. Some caterers offer a mobile catering kitchen which can eliminate some of these issues.

Choosing linens, china and a table top design are all done with the caterer. Employing a separate rental company is an option, although frequently those third parties offer more than a caterer might need or would suggest. Also, no caterer wants to be in the middle of someone else’s rentals. A good caterer or event planner is able to help you design a look, select the right rentals to achieve that look and then take care of all the rest! The choices should always be yours, but don’t hesitate to ask for guidance if you are questioning your thoughts. An honest banter back and forth is good for so many reasons and may give you piece of mind with your decisions later! Keep in mind that the venue you choose should somewhat match your vision – it can become extremely costly to drape and cover things that you don’t really like or a carpet whose color isn’t complimentary to your color scheme.

Lighting can make a world of difference! Many DJ’s and bands offer LED uplights which have hundreds of color options – either at a reasonable cost or as part of their package. Uplighting in a venue will make a world of difference and comes at a reasonable cost. The lighting in a tented situation is also important. A frame tent offers more options for lighting than a pole tent will and it doesn’t have any poles in the way of your design. Clear span tenting also offers many lighting choices and can be created with a clear top for evening receptions.

Ah yes catering…. Where to begin!

So much rests on your choice here. One of the most memorable things that guests take away from a reception is the food.

Whether with some constraints or with a sizable budget building a creative menu that suits your personality is a must! A simple chicken dish or a creative stack or duet entrée are all memorable if the quality and presentation are all there in the final product. Reputable caterers care about a budget, but aren’t there to waste your precious dollars on lack luster items that are profit based only. Fresh not frozen food, handmade, custom produced, sustainable, eco-friendly, organic and uniquely designed plates are all factors in determining value at any caterer you might meet.

If you can purchase the same foods in a club store, you’re probably not willing to pay good money to a caterer for your wedding menu! On the other hand, if the items are handmade, interesting and yummy… it’s not just about money any more – now you can hire a caterer who your guests will want the name of as well! What better compliment could a guest pay than to ask who your caterer was after your wedding because they are having a party and loved what you did? Caterers are experts in pulling off your wishes, and a caterer worth their salt won’t over promise and underperform!

Most clients are starting on the web to locate a caterer. It’s important that you can see some sample menus, pricing, etc. so that you have an idea of the foods a prospective company is capable of creating for your special day.

Next, make the phone call or send an email. First and foremost, is the company you’re considering even available on your date? Has the company catered for a group of your size before? What does this caterer do best? A barbeque caterer rarely produces a high end white linen affair with the attention to detail some others might be able to. Do you have a venue in mind? It’s always useful if the caterer has experience in the venue you’re considering or is at least willing to do a site visit to your special place. Ask some questions in this first phone call but don’t expect an immediate price! A wedding is composed of hundreds of details and more information and choices are needed than what can usually be done on a phone call.

If the phone call goes well proceed with a scheduling a time to meet. A site visit may or may not cost money depending on the caterers fee structure.

Communication and honest are imperative! If the caterer takes weeks to get back to you, doesn’t return your calls and emails or doesn’t respond to you in a timely manner – MOVE ON! A lack of interest in you as a client doesn’t leave most people

with a warm fuzzy feeling when you’re trying to spend thousands of dollars with this company. You should never have to beg to spend your money at any business!

If you are calling from a distance, or are planning a wedding from out of town, most caterers will diligently work to obtain details from you over the phone or via email, creating a menu and pricing (which may have some gaps in pricing to allow for choices later) and then you can get a fairly good idea of the costs associated with your wedding. This proposal, if done in good faith and with good information, should be fairly close to reality. Then, hopefully around an upcoming holiday or a time when you might be in town, you can meet and finalize many more details in a short period of time. You might want to book the caterer on a contingency of meeting in person or based on a sampling later. Get the details of that contingency in writing before placing a “save the date” deposit!

If you have a creative mind or a specific vision, a caterer who doesn’t want to work with you in creating a menu of your choosing is probably someone you want to leave behind. When you’re creating a menu for 50, 100 or more of your nearest and dearest there’s no reason why the menu shouldn’t be a custom menu rather than being forced into a packaged menu. Cookie cutter menus where you pick two from column “A” and 3 from column “B” don’t fit every client. Maybe you find that you love a menu package from a caterer, but you want to tweak it a bit to match your tastes, most caterers will gladly allow that to happen with whatever cost differences associated with your changes.

An initial meeting with a caterer will leave you with the right knowledge to decide if this company is one you’d like to consider on the short list for your wedding. No two companies build an invoice handle samplings or even do consultations the same way. Initially, a budget of sorts should be considered. Knowing what might be affordable is useful and saves both parties some time. This isn’t a car buying experience, so the “test drive” is more verbal and visual than pedal to the metal!

The initial meeting should be to gather details, preview additional images other than those on the website, maybe select a menu and rentals, ask about staffing, fees and charges. Some caterers will now be able to finalize pricing at the initial meeting – either due to time restraints or needing additional details. Asking approximately how long it will be before you can expect a proposal isn’t unreasonable – after all, you have a wedding to plan! More than a few days is not reasonable, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

So now you have a menu and some pricing! Is it affordable? Did you like the experience you had meeting the company representative? If all of these things make sense and you’ve narrowed to your favorite foodies – have a taste! Tastings are the last step before you sign the contract, as a final assurance that this is the right choice for you.

Some caterers don’t charge for samplings while others do but credit you later for those fees if you book their services down the road for the same date and time. Most caterers will accommodate an item or two that might be questionable to you or something specific that you might be undecided about like a specific sauce or something. Many caterers won’t sample a complete menu from start to finish due to price constraint. The sampling is a good idea of the quality that’s been shown, flavor profiles and presentation you can expect at your reception. Most caterers won’t offer, paid or not, to make a full prime rib for a sampling as the cost on an item like this is prohibitive. There does need to be some level of trust in your decision of who to hire for this important service and after a phone call, a face to face meeting and seeing how this company performed thus far, you should be able to make an educated decision.

Whether an upscale reception with china, floor length linens and flatware or a more casual affair with plastics, bamboo or other eco-friendly products – let the caterer do their job! They will understand the needs on site, have adequate quantities without overages and will make your life much easier and the day enjoyable. Caterers are responsible for rentals very day and know the ins and outs of your specific menu and the exact items you will require.

The caterer will also usually supply you with non-alcoholic beverages, ice, fruits, garnishes and juices – at a reasonable cost. If you are having signature cocktails, please be sure to let the caterer know as there may be special ingredients or a fun glass to serve that fun ‘tini in that shouldn’t be forgotten! Anyone serving alcohol should also have liquor liability insurance, RAMP certified bartenders and be able to prove all of those items! No one should engage in alcohol service with being properly insured! Be sure to ask if the caterer has liquor liability insurance specifically – as this does not get covered under general liability coverage. The caterer will be able to assist you with a beer/wine/liquor purchasing list as well.
You and only you know your guests tastes, so remember that the list is a guideline only! One bartender per 75 guests is a maximum spread for quality service, two for up to 140 guests and a backup runner for multiple bars, etc. Wait staff will vary based on the style of service but a good rule of thumb is 1 staff person per 15-18 guests. What is the attire of the wait staff? It’s not rude to ask!

So everything else worked, right? Now for the fun part – GET IT ALL IN WRITING! Do not place a deposit with any caterer of facility without a written agreement and a signed contract! If the menu isn’t complete, at least get as much as you can and the pricing for those items finalized in writing before you place a deposit. A fair deposit is usually either a flat fee or a percentage of the estimate total up to about 20%. A later deposit, possibly 30 days before your reception, of an amount up to 50% can be customary. Most caterers require final payment in full up to 2 weeks prior to your reception date. Follow your contracted payment schedule and all should be fine!

All the way through your process, follow your instincts – they tend to be right! Happy Planning!

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