How to choose an event or wedding caterer

Finding a reputable caterer is easy, but ensuring they are the best match for your event or wedding can be a little trickier. There are a lot of fantastic caterers around (many of them listed here on Event Birdie!), but they all offer something different. Whether it be menu style, extra services or simply how they deliver an event, deciding on the best fit for your event or wedding needs some consideration.
 
Most of the time it is how you interpret the quote and making sure the caterer can deliver on your key requirements that can cause the most confusion. To help, we have put together some tips that should guide you through the selection process and ensure you choose the best caterer for your special event.

Set a realistic budget

Before you start collecting quotes from caterers be sure to establish a realistic budget. We’ve all heard the saying “they want champagne on a beer budget” – don’t be fooled into thinking this is possible when planning an event. Sure there are ways you can be savvy with a budget, but don’t expect fantastic results without the funds to match. 
 
Be clear up front with your estimated budget. A professional caterer will tailor their quote to meet your requirements, showing you honestly what they can offer for your budget – this will help you tremendously when it comes to comparing the quotes later on.
 

Create a detailed brief

When you have decided on the budget, put together an event brief to send to your shortlist of caterers*. 
 
There is no point hiding details that will surprise the supplier later. The minimum details your caterer will need in order to quote accurately include:
  • type of event
  • type of menu (e.g. alternate entrée and main with a roving dessert)
  • style of catering you prefer (e.g. hearty, fine dining, casual…)
  • timing of the event (including the duration)
  • number of guests (adding further details about the guests if you have them is always useful. Male to Female ratio, large numbers of dietary requirements, children attending, etc.)
  • details of the kitchen facilities that are available at the venue of your choice. 

*An extra little tip – do not get too many quotes, it just makes the decision process confusing. Do some research online first, narrow it down to your top three caterers and work from there.
 

Interpreting the quote – compare like for like

Once you have received a few quotes from different caterers it can be very tricky to compare, as many caterers do not format their quotes in the same way. 
 
Comparing on price: 
Some suppliers will package everything up and give you a per person rate, while others will itemise every little detail and give you a grand total at the end. Either way, it is a good idea to compare like for like. To do this, add all the elements together (staffing, food, equipment) and divide by the same amount of minimum guests. Make sure you are comparing figures that include all the same details – i.e. if one caterer has mentioned that additional costs for staffing or equipment might apply, gather all the costs together first before comparing.
 
Comparing on other values:
Choosing a caterer based on budget alone is not a good idea.  Outlined below are a few extra points you should consider when choosing your caterer.
 
What extra services can they offer?
Caterers don’t always just provide the food and beverage. They can often be an instrumental resource in helping you produce an amazing event. Some caterers will also provide assistance with styling and décor or offer complete event management, so make sure you ask what extra services they offer.  
 
Logistics and experience
Hosting an event with a caterer at your home, unique venue or marquee location is a lot different to using an in-house team at a function centre. The caterer needs to have the skills and experience to set-up a temporary kitchen or work from a kitchen they have never used before. Choosing a caterer who has worked at your venue of choice before is always a huge bonus. As is choosing a caterer who has experience working in marquees over one that does not. 
 
Food quality & quantity
Comparing catering menus can be tricky when looking for quality, but if you take the time to read the menus carefully there are a few things that can point towards the quality on offer. 
Ask yourself these questions when reviewing the menus:
  • Are most of the items deep fried? This suggests they may bulk order frozen goods.
  • Are the menus featuring seasonal produce? 
  • Are the menus featuring local produce?

*If a menu is featuring out of season produce or produce not from your local area, you can often assume the items are coming in frozen ready for reheating. Frozen isn’t terrible, but fresh is always best.
 
Quantity is easier to compare. For example, when you request a quote for a 3 hour cocktail package be sure to check how many items each caterer suggests. Also ask the caterer how many ‘bites’ their canapes are – for some caterers a canape is one to two bites, but for others, they might be larger items that will be three bites. More menu items doesn’t always mean more food.
 
Menus – Bespoke vs standard?
For many, choosing to work with a caterer means they expect to have a menu custom designed for their event. However, this is not always the case with some caterers, so be sure to ask ahead of confirming if they will create a bespoke menu.
 
Bespoke menus do take time and most caterers will not produce a full menu for you unless you put down a deposit. So instead ask for examples of menus they have created in the past to make sure they are capable of the style of catering you are looking for.
 
A word of warning – do not push your caterer to produce something they are not comfortable with. While you can demand all you want and they may agree to try, it is best to let a caterer stick to what they do best. If they appear nervous about producing a wedding cake for you having never done one before… think again about requesting it.
 
Beverages – BYO or catered?
When hiring a caterer, you may decide to supply all the booze yourself – it will save you money, right? Maybe. 
 
While you may supply the wine, you will not want to be responsible for providing all the glassware and ice, let alone be responsible for chilling, serving and washing up post event. For this reason, caterers will charge a corkage or beverage management fee that covers this service. But be sure to add up those fees in addition to your beverages – you might find getting everything from the caterer is a better option.

If you do decide to supply the beverages yourself, ask your caterer for advice on quantities required – there is nothing worse than running out of booze before the end of your event!
 
Menu tastings
Not every caterer offers a menu tasting and not every event requires one. However, for weddings or VIP gala events a menu tasting is a great idea. This allows you to not only taste the food, but also discuss in detail service and logistics of the event. Do not go to a menu tasting thinking it’s a free feed – it is an important element of the planning process (it just also happens to be an enjoyable one!) Do take notes and ask lots of questions.  
 
How much staff do you really need?
Staffing can seem like a large expense when planning your event, but you need to rely on the advice of your caterer and be guided by them on the ratio of staff required. There is nothing worse than attending an event where there is delicious food but not enough staff to get it to the guest efficiently. Wait staff are just as important as the food itself!
 
Reviews and referrals
If you are not having a menu tasting and want assurance the caterer is suitable for your event, read some reviews from past clients (check out the qualified reviews on Event Birdie!). If these are not readily available, don’t be afraid to ask for the contact details of a previous client for you to contact for a reference. 
 

Conclusion

Choosing the best caterer for your event or wedding is an important decision and needs to be approached with logic and research. Be clear and transparent when requesting quotes from caterers and take the time to compare like for like. 
 
For a list of Sydney’s best event caterers check out Event Birdie!