11 Things Your Wedding Caterer Really Wishes You Knew
Before your first meeting with this oh-so-important vendor, get to know the professional's POV on planning your big day.
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Listen to the Pros (Please!)
There are a lot of "firsts" that come with planning a wedding. And unless you’ve organized a major function before, it’s likely going to be your first time working with caterers. Luckily, it’s not their first time working with soon-to-be newlyweds, which is why these pros can offer a wealth of timesaving, money-saving and sanity-saving solutions. We quizzed caterers across the country on the biggest oversights and hidden challenges in wedding planning — and we got some unexpected tips that can make everything a lot easier.
Pinterest Is Not a Catering Menu
Several caterers we spoke to name-checked the site as a terrific place to get inspiration — but also a headache if you try and mimic your boards too closely.
"A lot of the things you see on Pinterest have been photographed specifically for a blog post or advertisement," says Rachel Bruzek of Minneapolis' D'Amico Catering. "These tend not to be realistic for real-world weddings and budgets." There are often food ideas that seem simple but actually involve a tremendous amount of labor — like a wedding cake decorated with many candy pearls or teeny-tiny tacos.
The solution? The same as what you’ll have to look forward to in marriage: compromise. If there’s a particular food you have your heart set on, your caterer can likely come up with a spin on it that might not be quite as photogenic, but will still be a true crowd-pleaser — and yes, affordable too.
Yes, You Can Satisfy Both Your Diet Restrictions and Your Guests
"A lot of clients will come to me and say, 'I can't eat gluten, but I don't want everyone at the wedding to suffer,'" says Simone Miller, of the Bay Area-based catering company Zenbelly. It's a legitimate concern — no couple wants their wedding food to leave guests unhappy.
Luckily, there are plenty of catering companies out there that specialize in every type of diet. Zenbelly is entirely gluten-free (but it's delicious enough that many gluten-loving clients hire the company). "I'm not interested in something being 'good for gluten-free,'" says Miller. "It has to be good, period." She advises seeking out specialty caterers who aren't just going to accommodate your dietary preference but excel at it.
Your Guests Will Drink More Than You Think
"People are at your wedding to celebrate, so plan accordingly," says Bruzek. Some clients come to her with the familiar line "Oh, this won't be a big drinking group," and then they find themselves with bar tabs thousands over budget. The solution: Be realistic about a bar budget upfront, and remember that wedding guests tend to take advantage of open bars.
"Brides can forget that guests often get a drink at the bar, stop to chat with someone at a different table, leave their drink there without noticing, and then head back to the bar for another drink," she reminds us. It adds up: Don't let that be a surprise!
You Really Do Need That Many Waiters
Think your caterer is trying to upsell you on staff? Not so: They know how many people it takes to make things run seamlessly (and make sure your future mother-in-law isn't hunting around for someone to refill her water glass). "The biggest complaint about big weddings is that half the room has finished their food by the time the other half is just starting," says Liz Earnest of Chef's Garden Catering and Events in Jacksonville, Florida. "What keeps that from happening is having enough staff."
If you do want to work with your caterer to trim staff size, you'll have to make sacrifices — but they don't necessarily have to be big ones. Chicago caterer Goddess and Grocer's Debbie Sharpe recommends skipping any "trash that comes with the appetizers." Think: toothpicks and tiny spoons. She says, "No one wants to be standing there holding trash after the server walks away!"
Be Careful Who You Invite to the Tasting
Our experts recommended capping your tasting entourage at four people beyond you and your partner. That leaves enough room for both sets of parents. "Too many opinions gets too confusing," says Sharpe. "This is not a dinner for 30."
This will also help stop you from creating a menu around a few random guests. "Sometimes, tastings start and people will start going down the guest list. 'Oh, this person is lactose-intolerant, this person is kosher, so we can't serve that.'" says Liz Earnest. Definitely alert your caterer to guests with special diets, but don’t think you have to accommodate them with the general menu; if it's just a couple of people, caterers will be happy to provide a special meal.
Don't Count on That Food Overage
"There's a statistic out there somewhere that says a caterer provides a 5 percent overage on the food," says Jen Earnest of Chef's Garden Catering and Events. "Some couples think that means it's OK to invite some last-minute guests." If you've considered extending an invite to neighbors and co-workers for this reason, keep Jen's words in mind: "That overage is to account for guests eating larger portions, any unexpected events, and, yes, a few extra meals." But it's not going to be enough to cover a large increase in guests at the eleventh hour.
"Yes Men" Aren't Doing You Any Favors
If you're envisioning a caterer who executes your vision without any question or suggestions, be prepared for some disappointment. Caterers push back because they care. For instance, D'Amico has had to tell clients that they can't serve angel hair pasta for a crowd of 300. (Can you imagine how cold and gooey angel hair pasta would get when arriving at the 300th person's seat?) "You need to choose a caterer you trust and respect, and who will point you in the right direction," he says. You don't want someone who will carry out ideas that make for a poor guest experience.
A Buffet Is Not a Money-Saver
There's a misconception out there that plated dinners are a fortune and buffets are a bargain. But because guests choose their own portion sizes from buffets (and are often quite hungry after the ceremony), they tend to overserve themselves and make for a lot of wasted food.
After 20 years in the industry, Miller has the perfect compromise if you still aren't into the idea of a plated dinner: a family-style meal. "This means less servers than a plated meal would require. It also tends to be a little more affordable than a buffet, and it gets everyone at the table interacting." That's a win-win-win if we've ever heard one.
... Nor Is It a Flavor Free-For-All
Love lobster, fondue, Mediterranean flatbreads and, oh yeah, chow mein too? Your wedding buffet is not the opportunity to offer them all up. There's no shame in thinking big, but the right caterer will steer you to a more edited selection. "Sometimes people can forget that guests will be eating all the dishes from the same plate, so we help them come up with a mix of dishes that complement each other," says Liz Earnest.
Is your heart still set on dishing out all your favorites? You may want to employ stations, which make for a more pick-and-choose experience with small plates. Or work with your caterer to translate some of your favorite flavors into passed appetizers during cocktail hour — a time when you don't need to be as concerned about dishes "going together."
Your Venue's Kitchen Situation Changes Things
Getting married in a restaurant that your caterer knows well and can navigate seamlessly? Your options are going to be greater than if your caterer is setting up a kitchen from scratch in an open field or warehouse, where she might not be able to bring in certain equipment or the cooking area is far away from guests' tables.
In those situations, Jen Earnest recommends dishes that will hold up better when sitting out — say, a breaded, stuffed chicken that will stay moist or a salmon in a buttery glaze. With these suggestions, caterers aren't attempting to make things "easy" on themselves. They're just using their experience to make suggestions they know are going to taste better — and make both of you look good.
We’ve Done This Before. A Lot.
"When I tell clients I've been in rock 'n' roll for 30 years — feeding 400 people breakfast, lunch and dinner as they travel with the Rolling Stones or the Grateful Dead, that tends to calm them down," says Sharpe. "I'm used to this."
So as the worries mount (Will we have enough ice? What if the food doesn’t arrive on time?), your best bet is to trust in the team you hired. Because even though this might be your first time working with a caterer, it is not his or her first catering job. Caterers have seen it all and solved it all, and they are there to make your life easier. So you can focus on what matters: your loved ones.