What makes a special event truly special? Is it the music, the ambiance, the guests themselves? The truth is, a memorable event is made up of several elements, blended expertly together to make magic. Think of it like a symphony played by an orchestra: if one player is out of tune, or lagging behind, you can hear it. It’s almost impossible to pick out where it’s coming from, but the result is the same: something is ever so slightly off. However, when every player is perfectly syncopated with everyone around them, the result is entrancing. Events are just the same. And just as with an orchestra, only the most highly skilled players are able to pull it off.
It’s important to consider those instruments, or elements, when planning your special event. It can certainly seem overwhelming; it’s exhausting enough just sending invitations! Planning for the right venue size, the music, the food, it’s enough to just give up altogether. Of course, that’s never the right move. It’s best to break the event down into its parts, addressing one element at a time until everything is taken care of. It’s no small feat, but hiring the right people can make the job so much easier. The best people will function like a world-class orchestra; they’ll bring care, attention and expertise to your event, while providing the necessary resources to make planning (and enjoying!) your event truly pleasant.
And when it comes to special events, there’s one thing everybody remembers: the food. It’s the one thing that brings everyone together, and the one thing that sticks out in everyone’s mind. Friends and memories are made over dinner and dessert at a wedding, and nerves are calmed and quieted with passed apps at a corporate cocktail hour. Food is the great equalizer, no matter where you go, and so it is of the utmost importance that the food at your event reflects your own high standards. Perhaps more important than the music, or the venue itself, is choosing a caterer that understands how important food is, and is able to execute that vision at the highest level.
Of course, it’s definitely possible to plan for everything to be just right, and still have things go wrong. That’s where the beauty of a skilled team of trained professionals truly shines: when it all goes south. Go back to the orchestra. There’s no way that they play every night without incident, without a dropped bow, without a missed beat. But you’d never know. They are trained to keep steady, and prevent anyone from noticing that there was ever a gap or hiccup. This is how the best teams operate. This is how your dream catering team should operate – seamlessly, smoothly, like a swan over water, while paddling invisibly and intensely below.
When Should I Hire A Caterer?
The decision to hire a caterer isn’t always obvious. Of course, certain events make it a foregone conclusion. Think of it this way: would you ever want to cater your own wedding? However, there’s no need to reserve the concept of catering for once-in-a-lifetime celebrations. It’s a common assumption that catering companies operate only on a wedding or mitzvah-sized scale, when that simply isn’t true. Baby showers, birthday parties, cocktail hours, corporate get-togethers and charity events are just some examples of gatherings that would benefit from the care and attention of seasoned professionals.
A good rule of thumb is, if there are more people invited than you want to cook for, hire a caterer. And if there are more people eating than you want to be eating in your home, book a venue. Simple, right? You’ve just taken the first step in planning your event. It sure beats ordering a bunch of pizzas and crossing your fingers.
In all seriousness, planning an event worth having really comes down to one thing: the magic of the moment. Anyone who has ever hosted a party knows what that is, and anyone who’s ever hosted a party has probably missed it. The magic is found in bringing people together who may never have met, providing them with expertly selected food and drink, and letting the evening unfold. It’s found in two strangers laughing together, in a married couple beaming at each other surrounded by their closest friends, in a family toasting to another beautiful reunion.
An event is made up of so many little and large moments, that often go unseen by the one most hoping to make them. We’ve all been in the position of host, and we’ve all completely forgotten to actually enjoy the party. How can we, when someone’s drink is empty, someone is asking if there’s anything you have that’s gluten-free, and did you remember to chill the champagne and empty the garbage cans and turn off the stove?
That, in essence, is the best argument to hiring professional help. It’s so that you aren’t so overwhelmed with the million little details. It’s so you don’t miss those moments. It’s so you can bask in them with your friends, loved ones, colleagues, and soon-to-be friends. The right caterer will remove any sense of worry on your end, and will allow you to focus on what really matters.
Once you’ve decided to hire help, your search will begin in earnest. The old saying of “You can have it fast, cheap, and good, but you’ve gotta pick two” definitely applies to catering. Fast, cheap food is rarely very good, while good food served fast is rarely cheap. Of course, it’s also possible to encounter cheap, bad food that’s also expensive! Your job is to gather knowledge about your event and use it to find the best caterer for your needs. Here are some simple questions to get you started.
How Big is Your Party?
A good first step is to get a sense of your party size. That will help you determine the menu, and venue. 10-20 guests are fine for a sit-down, in-home dinner, but double that number and you may want to consider a venue. 40-50 guests make for a fine cocktail hour, or a small wedding. 50-100+ guests may necessitate both a cocktail hour with passed and/or plated appetizers, as well as a sit-down dinner.
What Time of the Day Will Food Be Served?
This is just as important as party size. Will it be appetizers for 100 from 6-8pm? Or is it a charity luncheon for 25 with speeches and an auction? Will you be celebrating a 6-year-old or 60-year-old’s birthday? Determining whether it’s brunch, lunch, dinner, cocktails, or a mix of several is the next piece of the puzzle.
What’s On The Menu?
It sounds like a question better suited for your caterer, but take some time to ponder this query solo. What food would you serve at your dream event? What foods say “memorable” and “meaningful” to you? For some, it’s a fat slice of funfetti birthday cake. For others, it’s elegant canapes and sparkling wine. For kids, it’s chicken fingers. A good caterer should welcome your suggestions and ideas, so take time to gather a few.
Also, determining the menu isn’t limited to the type of food served. It also applies to the flow of the party. For example, if it’s business drinks, passed hors d’oeuvres are far more suitable than a sit-down dinner.
And if food isn’t your thing, don’t despair! An experienced catering service will be able to work with you to devise a beautiful, memorable and delicious menu of items that will satisfy all of your guests.
Restrictions and Special Cases
Any decent caterer will not be put off by vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free guests. But you should know in advance if anyone in your party does have dietary restrictions! Another thing to keep in mind are the activity and mobility levels of your guests. If it’s a family reunion, for example, be aware that young children may tire out earlier in the evening, and older guests will need space and time to sit and rest. Knowing the needs of your guests is your job, anticipating their needs is a responsibility you and your caterer will both share.
Things To Watch Out For
Price alone does not determine quality catering. In fact, it’s often the least important variable. Look for an established catering company with experience, satisfied clients, and connections within their community. A reputable company will be respected and sought-after, and will be able to handle a variety of clients with a variety of demands. They’ll be easy to reach, will respond quickly, retain and maintain your information, and seem genuinely interested and committed not only to working with you, but to bringing your vision of your ideal event to life.
Beware of catering companies with shady reputations, a short list of less-than-satisfied clients, and a short history. If no one has heard of or has nothing good to say about a company, don’t waste your time or money with them. Less obvious signs that a company isn’t worth your time include a brusque or abrupt tone when talking with them, being strong-armed into menus you aren’t interested in or didn’t agree to, and/or being pushed to increase your guest list, menu or venue commitment. Beware also of “packages” that promise certain items you don’t necessarily want or need, as it is in their own interest to maximize the amount of money you spend on them.
A good caterer will also be able to either help source or outright provide front-of-house help. As in, the people who serve the drinks, carry the appetizers, and clear the dinner plates. Those people are just as important as the food itself, and they should carry themselves with class, grace and conscientiousness. A good catering company knows that their in-house or hired-on staff represents them, and should be held to the same high standards as the food they serve.
Steer clear of catering companies who act confused when front-of-house (or FOH) help is mentioned, or seem disinterested and unwilling to help when the topic is raised. If FOH staff is in-house, don’t be afraid to ask about their training and background; more often than not, less-than-reputable catering companies will hire individuals with no professional serving experience just to be able to say they have FOH staff. If a company refers you to a staffing agency, do your due diligence. Some are better than others, and it’s not hard to tell which.
A superlative catering company will go above and beyond to deliver not only delicious food and knowledgeable staff, but will deliver the moment. It’s no easy feat to craft an experience, but the right company will make the effort to weave together the disparate elements of food, drink and environment to make magic. It takes a highly skilled staff working together to hit all the right notes, but it’s absolutely worth every penny.
Above all, look for a company with style. The analogy bears repeating; a piece of music can be played correctly, it can be played well, but it can also be played with style. That’s what makes it unforgettable. A company with a signature style can and should bring that signature to each of its events, no matter the size. It’s a special alchemy to look over menus and photos and have it be brought to life in a way that celebrates you in inimitable style.
From Casual To Fancy: Planning the Menu
Let’s say you’re still lost in the sauce. Maybe you can’t spring for a private, out-of-home pinkies-in-the-air event. Maybe you just don’t want to. Not to fear, drop-off service is here. The idea of a drop-off or home-delivery catered menu is a beautiful thing: it allows you to be much, much more hands-off while retaining the casually intimate environment of your own home. Plus, it’s a great solution for smaller events, or if you have guests that can’t easily travel. Is everyone watching the game at your place? Drop-off service.
Forgot it was your turn to host a dinner party? Drop-off service. Want to seem like a culinary ninja? Once more, drop-off service.
Many reputable catering companies provide drop-off services that can be highly customized, or have pre-selected menus if you’re in a hurry and can’t focus. Of course, keep in mind that services like these do not operate like a restaurant; the more notice you’re able to give the company, the better for you both.
Speaking of restaurants, sometimes your favorite restaurant can and will provide in-home or on-site catering options. Usually, they’ll have a catering menu or catering staff to handle requests like this, but not always. It’s a safer bet to assume casual restaurants equipped for catering will offer large-format versions of popular sides and entrees to serve an in-home crowd, whereas higher-end eateries will have private dining rooms you can book in advance.
In rare cases, restaurants that don’t usually cater might be convinced to. Let’s say you really want a mess of wings from your favorite local spot, but they don’t cater. Well in advance of your event, visit in person and talk to the owner or manager. Explain the size of your party, the fact that you love their product, and the amount of money you’re willing to spend. They might be willing to put something together for a repeat customer, especially if the party is comprised of future customers. Be advised that this is best done at more fast-casual joints, like sandwich shops and locally-owned restaurants.
Also, don’t limit your delivered catering dreams to dinner. You can have breakfast, brunch, lunch, or even a dessert buffet sent directly to you. Some ideas for a casual, in-home catered menu include:
Ladies Who Lunch
A selection of healthy-ish sandwiches and salads served with fresh mint iced tea (or sangria!)
Bar food favorites like wings, mozzarella sticks, jalapeno poppers, pulled pork sliders, and pitchers of beer and lemonade.
Ice Cream Social
Make-your-own ice cream sandwiches with cookies from a local bakery and hand-packed pints of ice cream. Go wild with any toppings you like.
The fun part about a more relaxed, in-home menu is that it allows you to be more creative without stressing over minor details. There’s also no need to worry about having the correct amount of place settings or cutlery, as nearly everything outlined above needs, at most, a paper plate or napkin. It’s also a great solution for the warmer months, as everyone can gather outside on the patio or circulate between outdoors and in.
An intermediate step between an in-home, less structured catering menu and a full-on private event is an event held in a restaurant PDR, or private dining room. Sometimes it’s a literal separate room, in the back or downstairs, and sometimes it involves booking part of the restaurant itself. It depends on your desire for privacy – are you satisfied with/does your party fit in the private room? Or do you want to shut the whole place down?
Another feature of a PDR in a restaurant is, you’ll be getting the food from the restaurant. This can be a great thing, if you love the restaurant. Sometimes, the PDR has its own special menu, which is even more exciting, if you’ve already had every dish they serve. However, if it’s an untried restaurant, don’t book a PDR until you’ve eaten there at least once. Also, restaurants sometimes hire other chefs to work their PDR services, which means the food may be of a different (or even better) quality. Don’t hesitate to ask.
A PDR is less customizable than a delivery catering menu, which is good if you’re dealing with a bunch of dietary restrictions. You hand that information off to the restaurant, and they deal with the details. However, if you’re looking to get creative with the menu, this may not be the option for you. PDR menus are determined by what the restaurant has and is able to produce with their ingredients and equipment, and so they are limited for a reason. But if you’re just looking for a place to host a group for lunch or dinner, a PDR is a totally valid option.
Also, if you’re fine with letting the chef have control of the menu, a PDR is a chance for them to flex their muscles and wow you with some new dishes. This is especially good if you already know and love the food. Letting the chef steer the ship (once they have the proper information about dietary restrictions) can be an exciting way to discover new flavors and favorites.
PDR dinners are usually flexible when it comes to birthday celebrations, but you should always ask before bringing a cake or a case of champagne. And if you really want to be a classy hostess, send a glass or two back to the kitchen. It will be greatly appreciated. Speaking of class, remember a gratuity! If it isn’t automatically calculated with your bill, factor that in to your event planning.
Full-On Fancy: The Private Event
So you’ve decided to go all in. Congratulations! It’s time to plan your dream menu. Normally, a caterer would walk you through these steps with a professional event planner, but it doesn’t hurt to get those creative juices flowing.
Think of the foods of your childhood. Things you remember eating that made you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Things that were served at birthdays, holidays, anywhere people gathered to spend happy times together. It can be as simple as a pork roast with apples, or a warm glass of chocolate pudding. When you decide to weave in elements of your own memories into your event, that’s something your guests will be able to share with you. Bonus points if the event involves family members; seeing their faces light up at an old favorite is a feeling that can’t be put into words. A good caterer will work with you to bring your treasured memories back to life in a fresh new way.
Are you welcoming guests from around the world? Or maybe you’re a globe-trotter yourself! Foods from around the world is an especially fun theme for a buffet menu or passed-apps party. Imagine mini tacos, shrimp wontons and chicken satay skewers holding court with a spread of French charcuterie. The possibilities really are endless. Be advised it takes an above-average caterer to be able to execute authentic foreign flavors properly – schedule a tasting if you’re skeptical! More on this later.
How is this different from global? Street food is food from around the world, yes, but it’s the food of taco stands and noodle hawkers, of pretzel carts and halal meat trucks. It’s food you snag while out and about and on the road. It’s cheap, quick, and absolutely delicious. Imagine the same bright, bold flavors at a gallery reception, or even a wedding, after the formalities are over and done with. It’s the menu equivalent of slipping into something more comfortable.
Not for the faint of palate, this is the path for the serious foodie. Similar to letting the chef drive the boat at a PDR, getting a little (or a lot) experimental with your menu is one way to wow your guests and turn yourself on to new flavors. Maybe there’s a new food trend you’ve been dying to try, or you just got back from that new restaurant that’s doing that thing with smoke. Now, catering has its limits – but if you have an idea that’s a little out of the box, don’t hesitate to share it during your consultation. Chances are, the kitchen will enjoy the chance to get a bit creative.
So now that ideas are pinging around inside your head, it’s time to get them out in the open. The next logical step in the process is to schedule a consultation, which leads to one or multiple tastings, which leads to your dream event becoming a reality.
Consulting, Tasting, Planning
The first meeting with a catering company worth their salt is a consultation. This is a chance for you to bring them your information and ideas, and to see if you gel. More often than not, the company will want to work with you – so take this time to decide if you want to work with them. Here’s how to decide.
First, bring your questions. Ask them about their history, the events they normally do, their partners in the community. Are they well-respected? Organized? Eager to share information? These are all good signs. Get a sense of who they are as a company before even talking about the food. Does your consultant/event coordinator like working there? That’s often the best sign.
If all seems well, you’ll want to proceed to the literal meat and potatoes. Often, companies will have look books or catalogs containing their offerings. Use a critical eye when perusing these selections, as this is the best their food will look – it was staged precisely for a photo shoot! If it doesn’t look great there, it won’t look very good at your event.
Take a minute to see how the food itself is plated. Artful plating isn’t as subjective as you might think; there are certain standards of balance and elegance that a properly plated dish should have, and if what you see isn’t pleasing to the eye, move on.
It’s also entirely possible to encounter a gorgeous lookbook that does absolutely nothing for you. If the food feels too “stuffy”, the plating too “fancy”, or the ingredients too “weird”, move on. This event should represent you, and there’s no reason to settle for food that’s outside of your comfort zone.
If you like what you see, go ahead and schedule a tasting. This will be the chance for you to try the food that might be served at your event, and it’s the catering company’s chance to put their best foot forward. If you don’t love what you’re eating, chances are neither will your guests. Happily, the inverse is usually true as well! If you love it, so will they. Don’t be afraid to ask more questions on the day of the tasting. For example, if you love the flavor but not the way it’s presented, ask if the chef offers an alternate format or presentation.
Finally, don’t lose sight of your own ideas. If you had your heart set on certain flavors, colors, or menu items, there’s nothing wrong with advocating for them to be on the menu. Of course, sometimes a consultation starts one way and goes in a completely different direction, and that’s fine too. It can take a professional nudge to properly flesh out the ideas you have. Remember, these people are professionals. They know what works, but they should also be willing to work with you.
The Finishing Touch
You won’t know until the event itself. Not until the glasses have clinked and the music is playing, and the first bites of food are being passed around. Is it working? Is everyone enjoying themselves? You’ll think back to all of the planning you did, all the back-and-forth with the catering company, the consultation, the tasting, the other tasting, the venue walkthrough, everything. Was it all worth it? Then you’ll see the smiles on everyone’s faces. How people who have never met are standing together, talking together, dancing together. Or you’ll see one generation holding hands with another. And you’ll forget about the food, forget about the music, forget about whether or not it was the right choice to go with an open bar (pro tip: it almost always is). Because this is what it’s always about. It’s about bringing people together. It’s about the people themselves. And free from worry and responsibility, you will be able to truly enjoy your time with people you truly enjoy.
Tags: wedding catering