It's Party Time: Minimize the Fuss, Maximize the Fun
Author: Linda S. Hopkins
Thinking of throwing a spring wingding? Planning a business luncheon, family reunion or wedding reception? Whether you’re dreaming up a backyard barbecue or a black-tie gala, successful entertaining requires planning and action. If you have the time and energy for cooking, decorating, serving, cleaning and fussing, perhaps you would enjoy doing it yourself. But for most of us whose everyday lives are already bursting at the seams, it makes sense to get some help.
WHY HIRE A CATERER?
There are many reasons for hiring a caterer, including the anxiety relief that comes from knowing that someone else is responsible for executing the plan. (You may still choose to participate or have the caterer do it all.) In addition, hiring a caterer ensures that your party runs smoothly from start to finish—food is impeccably prepared, presented and served; drinks flow; spills or messes disappear as if by magic; and, in the end, you don’t inherit a vast amount of leftover food or a sink full of dirty dishes.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to hire a caterer is so that you can enjoy your party. Wouldn’t you rather mingle with your guests than be running around like a freshly beheaded chicken? A caterer will do the work for you so that you can relax and have fun.
SELECTING A CATERER
The ideal way to find a caterer is via personal recommendation. Ask family, friends and colleagues which services they have used. Other sources include consultants and party planners who can make recommendations based on the type of party you are planning. Request sample menus from caterers before you spend time interviewing them to help weed out those that are not suited to your needs. For example, a Heritage party may be very well served by a local caterer specializing in barbecue or Lowcountry boil, but your formal wedding is better served by a caterer who favors more elegant dishes.
When you’ve narrowed the selection to two or three catering companies, plan a visit with each one. Keep in mind that the good ones get booked well in advance. Make appointments early for the best chance of securing the services of your top choice.
When interviewing a caterer, ask who will be in charge of preparing the food and who will manage the catering of your event. Find out if the caterer’s staff is familiar with your chosen venue. Arrange for a tasting of menu items under consideration.
Many people don’t like to talk about money, but unless you have so much that you don’t care, establishing a spending limit is crucial. For a less formal get-together, you may determine that a buffet will cut down on service fees. You may select less expensive liquors or wines—or serve only wine and beer. Flexibility and clear communication between you and your caterer are essential to keeping the party within your budget.
KNOW WHAT’S INCLUDED
When at the tasting, ask to see photographs of the caterer’s table displays. Some caterers who provide buffets or food stations include floral arrangements and other decorations within their fees and/or range of services. Be sure you have a precise list of what is and what is not included.
Ask the caterer whether he or she will be supplying plates, silverware, glasses, trays, linens, tables, chairs, decorations, and other rentals. All top caterers have connections with reliable rental companies that can provide any equipment you need—from tents to tableware.
You may have beautiful dishes but not want to use them at a large party; on the other hand, you may want to show them off. For a theme party, you may prefer to rent plates in patterns and colors that give your event a specific look and feel. Dishes, flatware, glasses and linens are available in a myriad of styles and colors. Discuss your needs with your caterer who can help make selections to complement your home or party venue, the occasion and the food.
In addition to all the necessary equipment, quality caterers will have experienced staff. Inquire about who will be serving at your party, how many servers to expect and at what cost. Catering staff should also be properly attired so no one mistakes them for guests. Ask the caterer how staff members will be dressed at your event. If you’d like something different, feel free to suggest or provide it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You should receive a contract that states everything you have agreed upon, including a detailed breakdown of food, beverages, rentals, decoration, service fees (staff and gratuities) and other expenses (e.g. insurance) plus any sales tax. Ask the caterer if the gratuity for the staff is included in the overall fee or if they are expecting a cash tip at the end of the event.
Review the contract carefully for date, time and guaranteed number of attendees. It should specify the date(s) up until which you can add or delete guests from the contract. This is important information in terms of your RSVP date to your guests. Remember that a caterer may base an estimate on a minimum number of guests, so if you have fewer than initially anticipated, there might be an extra fee.
Make sure you understand the payment schedule. Many catering companies require as much as 50 percent of the total estimated cost to book their services, so be prepared to make a deposit with the balance due at a later date. Inquire about the cancellation policy and about a backup plan in case your caterer should become unavailable for any reason.
Parties don’t begin when the guests walk in the door. They begin in your mind and imagination. So start dreaming! Whether you are catering a casual get together for friends and family, formal dinner for the boss or blow-out event for the whole town, careful menu planning, good communication and a skilled caterer will ensure a party that everyone will enjoy and remember—including you.
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