Some brides get lucky and choose a wedding venue that provides onsite catering. Other brides need to add caterers to the vendor list — and the hunt can get tricky. From picking a company before trying their food to making sure the service is top notch, the caterer can be the most overwhelming hire on your wedding to-do list. And it should be — food and drink will most likely be the largest portion of your wedding budget. So if you're struggling to figure out exactly how to feed your guests, consider these tips for finding a wedding caterer that's right for you.
1. Figure out your budget before you even begin.
Don't email caterers until you know what you're willing to spend. Coming up with a food and drink budget early not only helps you figure out which companies you can afford to hire, it also allows those companies to cater — pun intended — their proposal to your needs. A budget allows a caterer to realistically pull together options — seated, family-style, or buffet — within your means. That means no reviewing mouthwatering menu items you'll wish you could break the piggy bank out for!
2. Ask your venue for suggestions and requirements.
Most venues will have a list of preferred vendors, which is a great starting point in your search. It's comforting to know that the caterers have worked at the venue before and have lived up to their high standards. But that doesn't mean you have to go with a preferred vendor. If none of the caterers on their list feel right, ask your venue if they have requirements for other caterers. Many venues will want approval of the caterer, and may also require proof of various certificates or licenses that they need to perform their services on the property. You'll want to know what these are as you interview companies.
3. Get multiple proposals.
Get multiple proposals from companies so you can compare and contrast the cost, service, and menu options. And ask for specifics! It's your job to tell the caterer how many guests your are expecting and what style affair you're having, but it's their job to propose the number of appetizers, courses, waiters, bartenders, coordinators, and chefs. This headcount is important when you're comparing proposals — you don't want anyone stuck waiting 15 minutes for a drink! Another thing to keep in mind when reviewing proposals: Alcohol. Review the cost of alcohol to decide if you should get your bar supplies elsewhere. Many catering companies also allow you to buy the alcohol separately, and still provide a bartender. Keep in mind, in certain states you may be required to by a temporary liquor license if you go this route.
4. Ask about linens and dinnerware.
If your venue doesn't provide tables, chairs, linens, or dinnerware, find out if the caterers do. Most do, or partner with a rental company that does. While this may be an extra fee, coordinating these essential rentals through one company will be a lot easier than balancing two or three companies to set your tables.
5. Pay attention to their communication.
How the food tastes is a key component to any catering company, but how they treat their clients is even more telling. If a company is slow to get back to you, gets details like your names, your wedding date, or the number of guests wrong in their proposal, or is bad at getting back to you with questions, consider crossing them off your list. Attention to detail will be a key factor on your wedding day, and if they can't impress you now, they won't impress you then.
6. Arrange for tastings with your top 3 choices.
Here's where things get tricky! A lot of catering companies do not provide tastings until you've signed the dotted line — but what if you've never had their food?! There are a few ways to get around this rule. First, see if the company attends expos or holds special events. Oftentimes, caterers host dinners or serve food at bridal expos to drum up business. Get the catering companies schedule of events and see what you can attend. Trust us, it's worth the attendance fee. Some caterers even host a monthly free, or low-cost dinner for prospective clients, find out if yours does. If your caterer doesn't hold events, offer to pay a small fee for a mini tasting. A reasonable price would be $40-$50 per person to try 3-5 dishes (keep in mind, that money goes towards buying and prepping that food!). If the caterer still insists on being hired before a tasting, and you really love their menu, include a clause in the contract that allows you to dissolve the agreement if the tasting doesn't meet your standards — and schedule that tasting early! Just keep in mind you may lose your deposit.
7. Read reviews.
So you've picked a caterer and want to sign the dotted line. Great! Before you do, read reviews from previous clients or talk to friends and family who have used their services before. Quality of the wait staff, attention to detail, and making sure the bride and groom are fed are details that can make or break a wedding — and you wouldn't know how they stack up without the experience of other brides and grooms.
8. Sign the contract and choose your menu.
Sign the contract after creating a finalized proposal, which outlines the total cost of your food and drink, including the menu, the catering staff, linens and party rentals, and any additional fees. Set up a time for a tasting of your full menu. Pro tip: If you changed your mind about a menu item, replace it before your actual tasting. You should be trying all of the food you expect to see at the wedding then and may not have another chance to try swaps after your final tasting.
And the rest is easy: Bon appetite!