November 02, 2010

How to Talk to a Wedding Caterer

This post has been brewing in the back of my mind since we committed to our caterer, because I found choosing a caterer to be one of the most difficult components of planning my wedding, and I want to share some tips on dealing with wedding caterers with the brides out there who, like me, are maybe not great at standing up for themselves when they get overwhelmed.

Here's a pretty picture of the head table, to lure you into reading all the way to the bottom of this post:

[DISCLAIMER: Our experience was...atypical in several ways:
  1. Our engagement lasted only four months, because:
    1. T and I dated for so long ( years) that, once we got engaged, we wanted to get married quickly (with a little prodding on my part).
    2. The first round of information the Marine Corps gave us had T deploying in December of this year. Thankfully, that has changed (for the time being).
  2. It was a military wedding, so we were getting some pretty sweet discounts. (Thanks, Berruti's Harvest House, for donating all of our flowers!)
  3. We didn't have to worry about getting a wedding cake, because T's mom co-owns Lucy and Ethel's and made it herself.
OK...I think that's more or less it.]

Negotiating: Be up front with every caterer about your food preferences and your budget. Don't feel badly about openly comparing prices and shopping around; I found myself feeling guilty when I'd mention a better deal to a caterer, but it's the best way to a) let them know that they need to get your business, and b) get them to at least talk about lowering their price. Only one of the bazillion caterers we spoke to ever actually stuck to her initial proposal cost, and we certainly didn't hire her.

A story: One caterer came to T's house and totally sweet-talked T's mother and me, to the point where all we wanted to do was lie on a chaise lounge all day and eat his food while pool boys fanned us with giant palm fronds. Then he sent us his estimate, and it was twice what we were prepared to pay. This was really our fault, because we weren't clear enough about how strict our food budget would be.

Package Deals: A lot of caterers offer package deals that include a choice of hors d'oeuvres, two or three entrées, and several sides. This is often a great way to save money, and most caterers will give you a little menu wiggle room if you explain that the thought of eating grean beans at your wedding makes you want to cry.

A story: T's mom and I went to meet with one caterer who told us that, in addition to a pasta bar, we could also add a baked potato bar (with toppings like broccoli cheese sauce and bacon) to our package. Since we were planning a wedding and not a Superbowl Party, this detail helped clue us in that maybe this caterer wasn't the right choice for us.

Tastings: DO NOT sign anything without trying the caterer's food; any good caterer will let you come taste his or her food for free. Only one caterer charged us for her tasting, and, again, we didn't hire her. Be clear about what you want to try at the tasting; if the caterer only serves you the most expensive items he or she features, you won't get a good sense of what your food will taste like. Try to narrow it down to a few choices from the menus you can usually find on a caterer's website, so that what you're tasting is food that might actually put in an appearance at your wedding. Leave the baby crocodile-encrusted filet of white dove to someone else.

A story: I found what looked like a fantastic option at a much lower price than the other caterers I'd spoken to, and went to a tasting. The caterer had only prepared hors d'oeuvres for T and me, so we had no idea what his entrées or sides would taste like. If his hors d'oeuvres were any indication, they would have tasted like country club food: pretty good, but safe and boring.

Service Options: Ask your caterer to come to your site (for us, it was T's house) and talk you through his or her thoughts on the best method of serving the food. For us, the steep hill between the garage and the backyard made a sit down meal nearly impossible, and stations quickly became the right choice.

A story: One caterer insisted that he didn't need to see our site, and then took two weeks to send us his proposal. This was a pretty good indicator of his level of interest and willingness to work with us, so we went ahead and didn't hire him.

Drink: Caterers will also offer drink packages, usually dependent on a fixed price or consumption. There are decent arguments on both sides, and another argument that it's easier to buy and supply your own alcohol and just hire some of your caterer's staff to bartend. Most caterers are happy to let you do that, but be sure that they'll allow you the use of their liquor license, or you could get in a whole mess of trouble.

Also worth noting is that caterers tend to recommend that you skip the champagne toast, which we did, with no problem. Not that many people actually like champagne (although I myself am a lover of the bubbly), and it's a colossal waste of money to pour a toast for every guest when half of them will just set their champagne down on a table somewhere after raising their glasses. We also decided to skip the hard alcohol, but that was because most of our guests were our age, and we didn't want any vomiting going on on the dance floor.

A story: We were dead set on supplying our own booze, and made sure that we found a store which would allow us to return whatever we didn't consume. And then we got overwhelmed and let our caterer talk us into letting him supply the beer and wine. We went based on consumption and were only a hundred or so dollars over his estimate. It was super.

Setup and Presentation: If you don't have the presence of mind to do it yourself, task a bridemsaid with typing up a list of very clear setup instructions for the caterer (i.e. what goes on each table, where to put favors, where to put gifts, where to put place cards, etc.). This way, you avoid any confusion or mistakes.

A story: Because I didn't put up a sign that said "PUT THESE OUT," but just left them next to all the other items to be put on tables, our caterer never put out our place card holders or the seven thousand disposable cameras we had purchased, so they sat untouched in the garage. Now T's family will have disposable cameras for every vacation they take for the next seven years, and could set up a small forest of topiary placecard holders that would have been perfect on the tables at our garden wedding. I am still angry about that.

Whew! That was a lot of advice. Please feel free to use the comment section below to ask any questions you might have about how to deal with wedding or event caterers that I neglected to answer above. The wedding industry makes its money on young, inexperienced brides, and, having been one, I see it as my duty to protect them!

Now here's a pretty picture of one of our guest tables to reward you for reading such a long post:


  1. you know, i didn't even notice the lack of cameras, and i PAINSTAKINGLY LABELED THE DAMN THINGS.

    anyway, it was a credit to the rest of the set up's aesthetic appeal.

  2. Being 2 months away from my wedding, I have to agree 100% about the shopping around and price comparison.

    You CAN make a budget work. It just takes determination and tons of sifting through vendor options. I now completely understand why wedding planners exist, dealing with vendors is a full time job.

  3. Sage advice, indeed! It’s very important to be as detailed as possible with your caterer. Let them know what you want in your menu, how much your budget is, and what you’d like the site’s setup to be (if they are also doing it). Be assertive without being antagonistic. After all, it is they who need your business and not the other way around.

  4. Your advice is important to me. it's help to reach professional wedding caterers for my wedding day celebrations. Thanks for your excellent advice and keep post like this useful message for wedding