Picking a Caterer Calls For Some Savvy Shopping

Picking a Caterer Calls For Some Savvy Shopping

The catering business can be compared to an iceberg: You know it’s out there and it’s enormous, but most of it is hidden.

If you’ve never hired a caterer, it may be hard to visualize where to start at picking a caterer for your wedding.

  • What should you know?
  • What questions do you ask?
  • How do you find the one who can make your special occasion really special?

First, you need to find one.

For starters, almost every restaurant does some form of catering. Other caterers may advertise, but in reality, catering is a word-of-mouth business. Ask everybody, “Do you know a good caterer?”

People who might have a lot of experience with caterers include:

  • church and synagogue secretaries
  • disc jockeys who work weddings
  • executive assistants who hire caterers for corporate functions
  • managers at nicer shops where caterers might trade, such as butchers, fish stores, or gourmet, wine and produce shops.

It behooves you to spend time interviewing more than one caterer and asking the right questions, Lora Brody writes in The Entertaining Survival Guide: A Handbook for the Hesitant Host (Morrow, 1994). “You don’t want any surprises,” Brody writes. “You must think of yourself as a consumer who is buying a rather expensive service (exactly what you are doing) and making every effort to get the most value for your hard-earned dollars.” Before compiling a list of four or five caterers to interview by phone, you should work out the details of your event.

Susan Levy, owner of Simply Scrumptious Co. and a specialist in kosher catering, said, “I think it’s very important from a consumer’s point of view to know exactly what they want. If they say, ‘Hi, I’m planning an event, can you send me some menus?’ . . . what do they want? They should have something formulated. You can’t give anybody a ballpark (figure) until you know fairly specifically what you’re looking at. Then you can give guidance and menu suggestions.” A more ideal call: “I’m planning a wedding on such-and-such a date. We’re doing it midafternoon. I’m thinking along the lines of appetizers or a tea. What type of ideas do you have?” If everybody in your family is a vegetarian or you prefer chicken, say so, Levy said. ‘I think people are quite horrified at the price everything else comes to, your rentals and your tents,” Levy said. “They definitely should phone a number of people to get ideas from different caterers. Caterers really do vary so much in what they charge.”

It may seem like more work, but you also should get references and call them. “That’s extremely important,” said Dave May, chief operating officer for Continental Catering, a large Valley caterer. “You should always get references, no matter what business you’re in. Ask if they did a good job. Are their desserts good? Did they clean up well? Are the employees well-trained? That’s all good feedback.” Karen Cohen, an event and party planner and owner of Karen Cohen Consulting, said, “Find out if they were on time, and if they gave you everything you asked for.” Cohen deals with many caterers in her business. “Ask how their presentation and service is. I’ve had some where the waiters look like homeless people. And while homeless people deserve a job . . .” You should also ask how problems were resolved, Cohen said. It is inevitable that details will go astray, but their resolution gives a great look at the caterer’s character.

When talking with caterers, you also can ask to attend an event the caterer is working on. “Clients come to look anytime they want,” Levy said. “And I warn them I may not be able to talk to them or give them my full attention.” Costs are a big factor, of course. Catering jobs can range from a few dollars to hundreds of dollers per person. Marc LeVell of Marc LeVell Ltd. does a lot of weddings and high-end in-home parties, where the latest trend is to have chocolates in the powder room. “You’d be amazed how many times we have to refill them,” LeVell said. He meets with clients personally to talk about parties, and if his services cost more than what they want to pay, he tries to give them other ideas and alternatives, including the names of other caterers. “I don’t just let them hang,” LeVell said. “I find I get a lot of business that way, maybe not at that particular point because they’re appreciative of my honesty upfront. They call me later, or they refer me to people looking for more of a high-stylized caterer.” LeVell’s clients don’t want a “rented” look, so he has invested in his own linens, silver and china appropriate for upscale homes. He has no preset menus. “A lot of it is educating people who want to use a catering service,” LeVell said. “I’m dealing with a gentleman right now who’s planning an event for 200 people. In reality, his home will only handle 100 people, so I’ve convinced him to do two functions back to back. He’s going to be able to talk to his guests and enjoy them. That’s always been a really good alternative, to do a Friday-Saturday or Saturday-Sunday.”

And even though he’s on the high end, LeVell has had clients from the West and East coasts who were surprised his prices were so reasonable in comparison. Catering costs in the Valley run 50 to 75 percent less, LeVell said. Labor is the main reason catering costs so much, and Continental’s Dave May said most people have no idea how much work is involved. “In a restaurant, you go into the place and sit down,” May said. “Here, it’s all transported. We have to load the truck, depreciate the equipment, drive the truck, unload the truck, set up the party and buffet, clean up the buffet and house after the party, load it all back into the truck, bring it back to the shop and unload it all again.” Some companies (including Continental) list each cost as a line item.

Others include all the costs of labor in the price per person. It’s important to compare apples to apples when choosing a caterer, said Gary Voorhees of Arizona Taste Inc. Voorhees, who has been in the Valley 30 years, spoke on his portable phone from the Verde River, where he was catering a photo shoot for Men’s Health magazine. Like every caterer interviewed for this story, Voorhees said it’s not always good to hire the caterer who is least expensive. “It’s the old thing, if you pay less, you’re probably getting less,’ said Tim O’Shea of Picnic Specialties, a company that does 90 percent of its business outdoors. “If somebody’s selling you chicken cordon bleu for $5.95 and everybody else is $9.99, there’s a reason. There are a lot of ways to cut corners on serving low grades of meat and things like that.” “Go for the one you feel suits your tastes the best,” advised Levy of Simply Scrumptious. “You can save $500 on a menu, but you can also end up with something that’s just ghastly.” Cohen advised using the same consideration with caterers as you would with any service person. “Make sure you like their personality. How compatible are you with them? If it’s a wedding, you could be working with them on your upcoming event for a year. “And be sure they’re not overpowering, that they don’t enforce their taste and style, but that they listen to you and try to achieve what you’re after.” You should also be sure that the person you deal with is going to be the person who works at your event, she said.

The main reason for hiring caterers is to let them do the work, Levy said. When the big event rolls around, relax. “People get so caught up in the details, they forget that the guests don’t know what the details were supposed to be,” Levy said. “People forget to enjoy themselves. The evening’s come and gone, and then you’re exhausted. All you got out of it was aggravation. So long as everything is reasonably wonderful, the guests are going to think it’s wonderful. Perfection is unobtainable, basically. If things go wrong, it’s nothing major, and it’s nothing to really sweat about.”

Use discretion and plenty of diligence when picking a caterer for your big day.

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