Last updated in September 2018
Though most of us don’t hire caterers on a regular basis, at some point you might need to pay someone else to cook, serve, and (best of all) clean up after a meal for guests at a wedding, a nice-round-number-year anniversary, or even a fancy dinner party. But with a feast of options—from expensive-yet-convenient on-site hotel chefs to restaurants that will whip up (and deliver) dinners wherever you like—how do you choose? And what’s it all going to cost? Here are some dos and don’ts for hiring a caterer.
Do have a budget.
Catered meals can cost less than $20 a person (e.g., pulled pork with a few sides at a self-serve station in your yard) to $150+ a plate at a ritzy wedding venue. In general, simple foods guests dish up themselves (barbecue, pastas) run less than plated or passed fare.
Don’t commit without tasting.
Many caterers offer free taste tests; some charge a small amount to prepare samples. They might even invite you to drop by someone else’s large corporate function or somewhere a few extra guests will go unnoticed. And if you’re thinking of having a restaurant cater (or considering hosting a party at a restaurant), try a meal there. It sounds like a no-brainer, but you don’t want to shell out for crummy food.
Do ask for references.
Word of mouth from friends or family is terrific, but so are testimonials from previous customers we’ve surveyed.
Ask caterers under consideration for contact info for customers who recently had bashes similar to yours, and ask what they liked or disliked. Ask about the company’s promptness, friendliness, communication, responsiveness, and overall value—judgments you can’t make by simply tasting sample dishes.
Don’t rule out restaurants.
Your favorite taco place/steakhouse/Victorian tearoom might host your event or do off-site catering. The advantages: You like the food and, if you decide to throw a fete in Chez Whatever’s party room, it likely will cost less than organizing off-site catering, which requires paying separately for things like linen rental, servers, and transportation. Bonus: You don’t run the risk of your college roommate passing out on your sofa after too many mai tais!
Do think about prices of food options.
Hey, even if you want to go all out and spend a bundle, consider a few basics of catering pricing. The highest-priced items tend to require a lot of labor to create (lamb chop lollipops!) or feature costly materials (lobster! foie gras! caviar!). Faster-to-assemble dishes (pastas, stews) cost less, as do serve-yourself appetizers and salads. A good caterer will offer lower-priced options (strip steak or chicken).
Don’t forget about service.
Whether you’re partying at your place or at a hotel or restaurant, full-service catering entails a lot of additional costs. Waiters and bartenders man buffet stations and a bar; pass canapés, drinks and whatnot on trays; or serve dinner at tables. Because fewer servers mean lower costs, ask caterers to provide prices for options from the bare minimum on up. You’ll find that buffets are a lot cheaper than passed food or seated, plated meals. And picking up food and letting guests dish it out themselves during a casual affair eliminates most service costs.
Do check what’s allowed and included at your venue.
If you’re hosting an event at a hotel, museum, or other site, get a detailed written description of what it allows and what is forbidden—from whether or not you can bring in outside caterers (many wedding reception venues work exclusively with a short list of approved companies; hotels almost always require you use their catering services, even including birthday cakes) to issues like bartenders, parking, and how long your event can last.
Do get at least a few price quotes.
Catering is an industry with wildly varying quality, prices, and offerings. Get three written quotes with prices, and if one company is offering a much better deal, don’t hesitate to bargain with the other ones.
Don’t assume higher prices mean better food or service.
After studying local service providers for more than 40 years, we find over and over that the saying “You get what you pay for” is a myth.
Do keep in mind guests’ food issues.
Unless you’re hosting a soiree for the ranchers’ association, consider options for both meat-eaters and vegetarians. And if it’s a large party, or you’ll be offering several appetizers or multiple buffet dishes, order vegan and gluten-free options and label them as such.
Don’t buy booze from a caterer if you don’t have to.
At some venues—hotels, country clubs, restaurants—you’ll have to both use their bartenders and pay their marked-up prices for beer, wine, and spirits. But at a party at your own house or at many other rental sites, you can purchase your own lagers, liquors, and vino, and have a bartender (or guests) pour. Since restaurants and hotels price booze at least two to three times retail, you can save a ton of money by BYOBing.
Do think about rental items.
Ask the caterer if chafing dishes, plates and napkins, tablecloths, glassware, and other serving or decor items are included in their price. Many catering companies include them in their services, but some require you to provide your own or reach out to a separate rental company. To save money, consider using disposable napkins, plates, and glassware.
Do get it all in writing and seek favorable payment terms.
Get all details outlined in a contract before putting any money down, and—as we recommend for any transaction—put down as small a deposit as you can. And make all payments by credit card, if you can. That way if something goes wrong or—holy mother of the bride, no!—the caterer doesn’t show up at all, you can dispute any charges with credit card company.