Event Planners’ Tips on Getting the Most from Your Caterer

Event Planners’ Tips on Getting the Most from Your Caterer

Say goodbye to rubber chicken.

The foodie revolution has done great things for our collective palates. We expect—and receive—better food, better service, and more innovation than ever in restaurants these days. And, jokes about rubber chicken aside, we don’t turn off those expectations when we attend a catered event.

That’s great news for diners, but can be positively anxiety-inducing for anyone with a corporate meeting or party looming on the horizon. The pressure is definitely on to find a caterer who can wow your guests.

The good news is they’re out there. Today caterers can do just about everything, from traditional banquets to chef performance stations and food trucks. The trick is finding them—and managing your relationship with your caterer well.

Where do you start? “Price is really key,” says Lauren Crandall, co-owner of Pixie Song Events, a Minneapolis event planning firm, “and the number of people—that’s your starting point. Everything relies on how much money you can spend and how many people you can have.”

Lauren Segelbaum, sales coordinator at event-planning company Event Lab in Eden Prairie, also starts with budget and size, and then she immediately starts talking cuisine. That doesn’t mean knowing exactly what you want on every plate, just a general picture.

“Is it standard Minnesota fare?” she asks every client. “Or do you want to think outside the box? Are locally sourced products important? Or maybe you just want barbecue. In that case, I’m not going to push you toward some of the fancier caterers.”

She says the next question to ask yourself is “How much work do I want to do? How convenient do I need to make this for myself?” That will help you decide whether you need a full-service caterer that provides wait staff or just someone to drop off the food.

The other absolute basics include how you want to serve (Sit-down? Buffet? Passed plates?) and whether you want to serve alcohol. Some venues carry an alcohol license, but more often it comes with the caterer.

Crandall also encourages clients to think about the impression they want to make. “Is this some whiz-bang impressive show for clients? Does it need to be over the top? Or can it be simpler?” she asks. “Knowing your audience is huge. You have to understand what kind of quality they expect.”

Crandall reminds clients not to lose sight of who they are. “You have to stick with your brand,” she says. When Pixie Song planned two 400-person dinners for the Linden Hills Co-op, she made sure everything from the food (catered by the co-op itself, of course) to the décor echoed the store’s focus on sustainability.

Ask the Right Questions

So how do you start a conversation that will help you discover the right caterer? Here are some talking points:

  • What cuisine are you known for? “Ask the caterer what their signature dish is, what they do best,” Crandall suggests. “It’s one question that will give you a lot of answers quickly.”

    That doesn’t mean that if you’ve got your heart set on a particular cuisine you should give up on a caterer who otherwise seems like a good fit. “I don’t like asking them to do Indian if they don’t do that well,” Segelbaum says. “But I will ask if they’re willing to bring in another chef who cooks Indian cuisine. A lot of times they’re willing to expand their kitchen for a big event.”

  • How many guests can you handle? Segelbaum recommends asking what size party a caterer is used to working with. “They may do a fabulous meal in someone’s home but don’t really have the operations to scale up to hundreds of people,” she cautions.
  • Who will vouch for you? You want to be sure your caterer is licensed (they are considered food service establishments and must have a license from the local health department). And always, always ask for references.

    “Don’t just ask them to hand over names,” warns Nancy Jacob, president of EDGProductions, an Eden Prairie–based event production company. “Instead, ask for referrals from several recent events.”

    While you’re talking to those references, don’t be afraid to dig deeper than just “How was the food?” Crandall says she also asks about the quality of the wait staff.

    “I like to be sure they pay their staff well and treat them well,” she says. “If you’re at an event, you can tell if the people helping you aren’t well treated. And that’s a reflection on you and how you treat your guests.”

  • When can I tour the facility? Jacob suggests keeping an eye out at the venue for good hygiene practices, as well as ample space for cooking and storing large batches of food. “That will ensure that the food does not have to be prepared long in advance,” she says. Then have a detailed conversation about how the food is transported. Caterers, she emphasizes, should be able to keep cold food cold and hot food hot at all times, for food safety reasons. She also likes to ask what will be done with leftovers. Properly handled food can be repackaged and given away rather than going to waste.
  • What will it cost? We haven’t talked money yet, and that’s a good thing, Jacob says. “Too often, asking to see the bottom-line price is the first step in hiring a caterer, when in fact it should be the last,” she says. Only after you’ve gone over the particulars of your event with potential caterers can they give you an honest quote—one that you can expect not to change too much as your event approaches.
  • What will you serve at the tasting? “A tasting is very important,” says Julie DuRose, corporate director of catering at Eagan-based Lancer Catering. “People should take it very seriously and be critical. But this can be very hard for Midwestern clients. You need to be able to say, ‘I don’t like this sauce. Can we have it on the side?’”

    Something many clients don’t think about, she says, is the length of time between their tasting and the event itself. “A caprese salad tastes very different in August than it does in December,” she warns.

    If you’re serving wine, she says, the tasting should include wine pairings, and it’s perfectly OK to ask your caterer to recommend wines.

    To make the most of a tasting, Segelbaum suggests starting big and narrowing down—say, tasting seven appetizers and selecting three to five. And be sure to taste the vegetarian or other alternative meal options, as well.

    Crandall advises bringing in reinforcement taste buds: “Take someone who is pickier than you are,” she says. “Especially if you’re serving foodies.”

A Package Deal

Sometimes, once you’ve got your heart set on a location you don’t have your choice of caterers at all. Museums and other cultural attractions often have an exclusive contract with a single vendor. Lancer Catering, for example, caters all events at the Science Museum of Minnesota, Minnesota Zoo, and Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, among others.

DuRose says there are advantages to this arrangement. “It streamlines the process,” she says. “At a larger event, you’re going to be working with so many different people, and it can get complicated.”

Jacob suggests exploring the boundaries of a caterer’s exclusive contract: Can they offer a wider variety of menu choices or other upgrades? How willing are they to bring in additional kitchen staff or outside vendors? (Lancer has hired food trucks to come to events they cater.)

Crandall says she often avoids such venues because “it can make your event less special,” she says. “You’re at the same venue, and they’re serving the same passed hors d’oeuvres they served at the last event. You do have to work harder to come up with something to make your event unique.”

But, she says, with a very big event you can prevail upon locations to bend their rules. Crandall persuaded the House of Blues in Chicago (which, naturally, normally caters its own events) to host a reception with desserts made off-site. “They didn’t have desserts I wanted, but I said, ‘I’m bringing in 2,000 people and a lot of alcohol.’”

Communication Is Key

Once you’ve settled on a caterer you feel good about, it’s time to put your event in their hands. “If you hire good people you trust and allow them to help you, the results are so much better than if you just give orders and expect them to do what you want,” Crandall says. “You want to allow them to be creative. If someone can offer you something you never would have thought of, that’s an amazing thing.”

That kind of partnership can only work if you follow the three rules of event planning: Communicate, communicate, and communicate.

“Be really clear about what your needs are,” DuRose says. “Are you a person who needs to be pestered to get the details done, or do you want to be the person driving it? If at any time you feel like you’re not connecting well with your catering sales manager, it’s important to be able to say, ‘I’m not sure we’re on the same page. Here’s what I’m asking. Here’s what I need from you.’”

While you’re at it, she adds, pick up the phone. “I see a lot of time wasted on e-mail. It can be very inefficient when planning an event,” she says.

Make sure you have a single point of contact with the caterer and a single contact person in your organization. Most caterers provide a site manager who will be the person actively managing your event on the day-of. (If they don’t, consider hiring someone to fulfill this role.) Make sure you meet this person ahead of time and review every detail.

DuRose says this personal contact is crucial to building client confidence. “Clients want to know, if something does go wrong that day, how flexible and adaptable will that person be?” she says. “Is this someone I want to trust my fate with?”

Get Your Ducks in a Row

Agree to a planning timeline in your early meetings with your caterer. This will vary greatly from event to event. “I have an event in July, and I did the tasting in December,” says Segelbaum, who works with a wide variety of corporate clients. “And I have another event this coming Monday and the menu was set last Monday.”

For large events, Jacob urges clients to pick a caterer six months to a year ahead of time and confirm the menu three to six months out. While an estimated guest count is an important part of your first conversation with caterers, the exact count can be confirmed as little as a week before your event.

“If you need flexibility,” DuRose says, “let us know up front. There are some people who just aren’t going to know their final guest count until three days beforehand. And we can work with that.”

That is your job as a client, Crandall says: to know as much about your needs and your audience as possible and communicate that to your caterer. “When you do that, they can make you look like an absolute star,” she says. “And that’s what they want to do.”

Tricia Cornell is a food columnist for Twin Cities Business.