Photography: Meg Smith

Source: Martha Stewart Weddings, Spring 2001

Introduction

The first meeting with a caterer is like a first date: You want to talk about yourself, but you also want to listen. You'll need to reveal how you want your wedding to feel, then find out what kind of style the caterer has. Think about weddings 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.

Then, if it seems a relationship might develop, ask the caterer about weddings she has handled, and tell her about your favorite foods, cookbooks, and restaurants. Avoid having a detailed menu discussion at this first meeting and concentrate instead on the feeling you want to create. Do you envision a casual reception with lots of dancing or an elegant seated dinner?

Discuss costs. "Don't be afraid to say what your budget is," says 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," she counsels. Also be sure to read your caterer's letters of reference, and take numbers so you can call former clients, too.

Once you're committed, the most basic decision you'll need to make is about food presentation. The four options are seated, buffet, station, and cocktail service.

The classic seated meal features several served courses, and it is usually preceded by a cocktail hour. Wedding traditions such as the formal presentation of the married couple are most fluidly incorporated into this format. The service costs are highest for a seated meal. Restricting the use of expensive ingredients such as caviar and crab to hors d'oeuvres can help to offset the price.

For a buffet meal, guests assemble their own plates of food, but most caterers will supply staff to serve at the buffet table. If your guest list grows to more than fifty, your caterer should set up duplicate buffet tables. A buffet may start with a served first course, which will offer some structure for toasts and a first dance and can provide a smooth transition from the cocktail hour to the meal as well.

The station reception features several food areas, each with a theme, and gives guests many choices. A meat-carving station that includes roasted potatoes and Caesar salad might be offered at one, while fresh pasta might be available at another. If you choose this style of service, plan on at least three stations, plus one for dessert.

At a cocktail reception, hors d'oeuvres are passed and, often, served at stations. This allows the most time for mingling but is not well suited to wedding rituals.

Once you've decided on the format, it's time to talk turkey -- or beef or fish. Most caterers encourage clients to get personal. Holly Safford of the Catered Affair in Hingham, Massachusetts, says, "Many couples become cautious when they should be assertive and show their personalities." She warns that a meal designed to appeal to everyone may end up being bland. Personalizing the menu may be as simple as serving your grandmother's treasured lace cookies with coffee at the meal's end.

To keep costs down, consider the service needs. "Serve as much room temperature food as possible," says San Francisco Bay-area caterer Paula LeDuc of Paula LeDuc Fine Catering. "Because hot foods must be plated and served within minutes, they require more staff."

Some caterers offer a tasting that allows clients to sample dishes on their menu. "A tasting lets us adjust foods, change a sauce, or refine a recipe," says Peggy Dark of the Kitchen for Exploring Foods in Pasadena, California.

Anyone who helps to pay for the reception should have initial input, but only the couple need attend the tasting. Most caterers designate an event manager to help coordinate the florist, musicians, and waitstaff; he or she should also be present. Make a plan with your event manager, listing everything that will happen from the time the caterer arrives until the last glass is packed away. Decide on a serving time for each course and a start and end time for the party.

Catering charges can vary quite a bit because each company has a different way of evaluating costs. Most caterers estimate food costs per person, which can range from $25 for a cocktail party to $100 or more for a seated dinner. To this, most caterers then add the approximate cost for the staff (either an hourly rate or a flat fee), rentals, beverages, and cake. Some caterers include some or all of these charges in the food cost; others don't. There is some latitude with beverages (you can serve just champagne and sparkling water) and rentals (silver costs more than stainless steel), but service costs are pretty much fixed.

Purchasing your own wine and liquor, though, can save you hundreds of dollars. Request a shopping list from your caterer based on the number of guests

Ask about staff overtime charges, taxes, and gratuities. Some caterers add 15 or 17 percent to cover tips as well as some overhead. This can add thousands of dollars to the bill. If your caterer does not add a gratuity, keep in mind that for an eight-hour event, the average staff person might get a tip of $30 to $50. The event coordinator would get more. Also, some companies charge a per-person fee for slicing any cake they do not provide.

Finally, get everything in writing. Most caterers will ask you to sign a letter of agreement or a contract. This contract should be very specific, detailing everything from the exact menu to the total charges for rentals and staff.

At this point, many caterers will ask for a deposit of up to 50 percent, with the remaining balance due the day of the event. Other caterers demand 80 or 90 percent of the fee when you provide the final head count. The remaining charges, which may fluctuate based on the length of the party and the amount of liquor consumed, are billed after the wedding.

One last tip: Ask your caterer to pack food for you for after the wedding. A boxed meal will be quite welcome when it's two in the morning and you realize you've been so busy greeting guests that you haven't eaten a thing all day.

Hiring a Caterer: Advice from a Caterer

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