April 2012

The Right Caterer Makes Entertaining A Breeze

Author: David Gignilliat

The Lowcountry is in full bloom; beaches, tennis courts and golf courses are calling, and—like it or not—company is coming. Along with the influx of visitors comes the opportunity (and obligation) to entertain. Not quite sure you can or even want to, handle the preparation, execution and cleanup that it takes to host a spring or summer party? Don’t stress. Hire a caterer!

FIND THE RIGHT CATERER
Finding a caterer can be as simple as asking around. A reference from a trusted friend, neighbor and/or respected host is a good starting point. Beyond that, a quick Google search is likely to turn up many prospects.

Any caterer with a website will regale readers with glowing testimonials from clients. In the words of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.” For a less biased opinion, you might look to your local Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and crowd-sourced online review websites such as Yelp, Urbanspoon, Angie’s List, etc.).

Naturally, you should examine your prospects’ references, testimonials, and client lists. If your caterer has served presidents, royals or celebrities, you have some assurance that he or she is well qualified to serve you. But do not allow a prestigious clientele alone to determine your choice. An eager upstart often out-performs a more established but complacent rival.

Before you spend time interviewing caterers, request sample menus to help weed out those who are not suited to your needs. For example, a caterer specializing in barbecue and hot wings may be perfect for a Heritage party, but not the best choice for your formal wedding reception.

If a competitive price is your main criteria for selecting a caterer, seek out multiple estimates. But remember that price isn’t always a proxy for quality. Many caterers are able to work within your budget and figure out ways to pull off the perfect event or party by finding cost-cutting opportunities and viable substitutions in every category.

“Don’t be afraid to say what your budget is,” said Sascha Wolhandler, owner of Sascha’s Gourmet Catering in Baltimore. “Caterers should give you suggestions, but remember, you are paying, and you are in control.”

GET EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT
This is where your vision comes in. Before you meet with the caterer, think about the details that are important to you. With a tip of the cap to Stephen Covey, begin with the end in mind. Whether you are hosting a hoedown or a black-tie ball, spend some time envisioning your party. What do you want it to look like, feel like, taste like? Don’t just rely on your descriptive powers. Use the Internet or look through magazines to find ideas that can illustrate your concept. Give the caterer as much information to work with as possible.

When you’re ready to meet with caterers, call and schedule appointments. Allow enough time to share your vision of the event and experience. If you’re hosting a party with another person, make sure he or she can attend as well.

“The first meeting with a caterer is like a first date: You want to talk about yourself, but you also want to listen,” Martha Stewart advises (marthastewart.com). “Find out what kind of style the caterer has. Think about parties you have attended, and describe what you liked and what you didn’t. Ask her to show you her ‘book,’ which should contain photographs and give you a good idea of her skills.”

For the best fit, Peter Callahan, owner and creative director of Peter Callahan Catering in New York, says, “Find out what the caterer really loves to do, because that’s what he or she will be good at.”

The best caterers have a gift for asking insightful questions and then offering proposals based on your answers. Most will offer to provide a menu tasting. This will give you an instant snapshot of a prospective caterer’s ability to deliver quality food and, at the same time, give the caterer the opportunity to adapt dishes to your liking.

DOT YOUR I’S AND CROSS YOUR T’S
Once you’ve selected your caterer and worked out a plan, 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.

ENJOY THE DAY
As they say in the building trades, measure twice, cut once. Double-check all your details before the big day. Develop a checklist and mark things off as you confirm them. Did you order flowers? Did your number of RSVPs change? Did any dietary restrictions (allergies, vegetarian, vegan, etc.) come to light since booking the caterer?

Last, but not least, relax and enjoy your event or gathering. The word party implies a festive occasion, at its heart, a group of people gathered together to have fun! So don’t be consumed with every little detail once your guests arrive. That’s why you hired a caterer in the first place.

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