Food may not leap to mind as a top priority when planning an event, but guests are just as likely to remember a bad meal as they are a good speaker. Hidden costs and unforeseen allergies are only two elements that can make choosing your event food an unnecessary source of stress if you’re unprepared. Follow these five tips to find a reliable vendor, stick to your budget, and plan a menu that everyone is likely to enjoy.
1. Start with the details
Before you dive in and pick a catering company, create a list of known event details, including the date and location, the number of guests, and anything else relevant to your overall vision. This will help you to narrow down possible options once you start researching vendors. “It helps if a client has a theme in mind that I can work with to create a realistic menu in their budget,” explains Alexa Lemley, executive chef and co-owner of Artisan Foodworks.
Familiarize yourself with the venue to see if there’s anything your vendors should know about ahead of time. “Think about location,” recommends wedding planner Kristy Kiviaof Black Licorice Weddings. “Will your event take place outdoors? How far from the preparation location will it be? Will hot food be able to stay hot, or will it get cold?”
2. Do your research
With a list of event needs in hand, start researching catering companies. Once you’ve found a few contenders, check their references. Dig into online reviews, and talk to some of the vendors’ previous clients to get an idea of their experiences.
Trying the food ahead of time is important, as well. “Find a vendor who can make the food, and request a tasting so you can confirm you like their cooking style,” Kivia advises.
3. Stick to your budget
Be sure to ask your potential catering company about any additional costs, such as labor charges or service charges. Knowing all of your costs upfront will help to eliminate headaches down the road. “The client should always ask potential caterers for an itemized estimate of all costs,” Lemley says. “A professional can provide this in a pretty quick manner.”
And what if you fall in love with a vendor that doesn’t quite fit your budget? It’s all about communication, says Kivia: “Most vendors want your service. If you find they are out of your budget range, let them know what you’re working with to see if they can offer solutions to try and fit inside that budget or get pretty close.”
4. Accommodate all your guests
Catering-company menu options are typically flexible, and the key to everyone’s satisfaction is a variety of choices. Familiarity with your event attendees’ general background can help when narrowing down your menu. Younger guests may be more adventurous, for example, whereas a group of health and fitness professionals may prefer vegetarian or seafood options.
Food allergies, religious requirements, and other dietary restrictions are also important to keep in mind. “I always suggest having both a meat and vegan entree,” Lemley says. She recommends pulled pork barbecue and jackfruit barbecue as entrees for casual events—and both options are free of gluten and dairy.
Always add an allergy or dietary-restriction section to your event invite. You don’t want to neglect giving this vital information to your caterer.
5. Consider the big picture
While food is an important aspect of any event, it is just that—one aspect of the overall event. Think about how your food plan fits into the event as a whole. Consider if the menu will be presented as passed appetizers, a buffet, or plated service. This will dictate your menu as well as your event timeline; a cocktail reception before a main speaking event will take much less time than will a seated meal with courses served between different presenters.
Most importantly, keep in mind that the caterers you choose are experienced professionals. If you’re unsure about what to include on the menu, don’t hesitate to rely on them for ideas and support. “Ask the caterer about their specialty—maybe they’re awesome at making a dish you never even thought to consider,” Kivia says. “Have them go over your menu, and be open to the suggestions. They know their business, and they want their food to be a big hit just as much as you do.”