Do you know what the most important questions to ask your caterer? If not, don’t worry! The Chef & I, recently published a great article on our blog.
Without further delay, here’s Chef Chris!
Below is a list of questions for you to ask as you interview you caterers for you upcoming special event. Have these questions handy when you call or meet with them and take notes. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions and put them on the spot.
Know this: The majority of catering companies in your area may not be all they are cracked up to be. Just because a caterer is listed as the best in your area, largest or longest in business should not make them your first choice.
You should know that many caterers, especially large ones use pre-made foods, appetizers and canned ingredients. This allows them to prepare your food fast and cut costs for their company. Just because a caterer is preparing and serving food for hundreds or more does not mean they are allowed to cut corners. Caterers should use fresh ingredients whenever possible, prepare each item from scratch with raw ingredients (Love should be the first and most important one) and present to you the freshest and highest quality products. I mean c’mon! Since when should caterers be allowed to act like chain restaurants?
Enjoy the list, and seriously – let’s talk food when you are done!
1. What is included with my menu package?
You need to know what you are getting with the per person price. Some caterers include everything from plates, napkins, silverware, staffing etc. Find out exactly what you are getting for that price. Other caterers will charge you for all those items separately which will raise your bill substantially. So for instance if the menu price is $35.95 per person from the caterer that includes all these items vs. a caterer that gives you a per person menu at $28.95 but charges you for those items separately. Watch for hidden charges that will make up the difference between the two.
2. Where do you get your food products from and who prepares it?
This for me is an important question. You want and need to know what you will be paying for. Look for a caterer that has knowledge of their food and can communicate that to you with ease. If they are stumped or are not able to speak at length about their product then that should be a red flag for you.
Also ask questions specifically about your food choices. For instance, if you want an appetizer of spanakopita (Puff pastry triangles stuffed with spinach and feta cheese), ask them if they prepare these in their kitchen or if they use the catering standard fare.
Insider tip: Appetizers Inc. is a company that sells pre-made hors d’oeuvres to supply companies that distribute them to caterers and restaurants alike. They make every standard item that you see at a lot of catered parties. The quality is O.K. at best and if your caterer uses these items, they are heating up boxed food for you and your guests. This tells me a couple things.
First, they cut corners, so ask yourself where else are they cutting corners? Is it with sanitation, with food quality or repurposing leftovers etc.? Second, it tells me that the talent level and the love of food are not there in their kitchens. You want a caterer that loves to cook and create each and every item from scratch. Think no preservatives, fresh ingredients and the quality food that is unique and flavorful.
3. Do you bring all your food prepared to the event? (This does not pertain to all events).
If you are looking for a caterer that is not on site of the venue you have chosen, then ask that question and see what they say. What you want to hear is that they prepare your food items fresh and on site right before your event.
There are exceptions to the rule of course. Whole roasted meats and mashed potatoes are things that would have to be prepared in an oven and transported via hot holding boxes. But, mixed vegetables, pastas, appetizers, salads, any cold foods, etc. should not come already prepared to your event. If that is the case, then the quality and freshness of your food is extremely compromised.
Insider tip: Most event venues have a list of preferred caterers. This does not mean that you have to use one of those. All it means is that they have had a relationship with this caterer for an extended time. They may feel comfortable with the caterer and know that they do a good job for them. This takes the worry and heat off of the event space/planner and lightens the workload for them. That does not mean they do a great job and is some cases do an o.k. job at best. There are kickbacks in this business like any other and be aware that your event space or even wedding and party planner may push you to use a certain caterer that they have a relationship with for more reasons than “they always do a great job”.
4. What were you last two health department scores?
Nobody ever asks this, but why? You want a caterer that has good scores so that you can feel safe for you and your guests. Low scores tell you that they do not take sanitation seriously and that is in their own kitchen, think about the fact that they are transporting your food and there are serious things to be on top of such as temperatures, hand washing and cross contamination.
Insider tip: In Nashville they inspect most caterers by appointment. This is because caterers work when there are parties to cater and are not always in the kitchen to be inspected. Also, most caterers like us rent a kitchen for just our events. So, what that tells you is that caterers know when the health department is coming to inspect them and should be 100% compliant. If they are not, then you can imagine what the place looked like before the inspector came.
5. Can I have a list of your references?
This is a simple request and they should be able to provide you with individuals that you can call and get information about their services.
Make sure there are a wide variety of sources. You want wedding planners, corporate clients and individuals so you can get well rounded feedback.
Now call them all, seriously it is in your best interest.
6. When was the last time you updated your menu?
This is another question that tells you about the way they do business at the root level. If they are always changing their menu then most likely they have creativity and a love for food. They stay on top of the trends and are striving to be better each and every event. If they don’t change their menus regularly then, I would dare to say they are stuck in a rut, last year’s news and are doing the bare minimum. Is that the catering company you want executing your big day?
7. Can I meet your chef?
How long have you been in business and who were your past chefs?
You want to talk with the person in charge of your event. They may not be taking care of all the little details in the event room but they are taking care of the most important part which is the food. Yeah the ambiance, table decor, music etc. are important and should be spot on but what really leaves an impression is your guests talking about the food you had at your event. People love food and when they have a great meal they remember it for years to come and will talk about it to everyone.
So, talk to the chef, ask them questions about the food, where they have worked and what they love about cooking. If your caterer has had a lot of chefs in their past then that could be a concern for you to consider when choosing your caterer.
8. How many service staff will you have present for my event?
You want to know this upfront and know what to expect. As a rule you want to have 1 person per 20 guests in a buffet or reception style event and 1 per 10 guests in a sit down type dinner/lunch. As for the kitchen staff you want to make sure there is 2-3 staff minimum to execute your food properly and respectfully.
Insider tip: As I pointed out in question 1, be wary of extra charges for staffing. Many caterers will charge you with a per hour charge for service and kitchen staff, this won’t hit your per person menu charge. Do the math and ask questions. Also, ask about their staff. Who are they? Where do they get them? Do they use a staffing company?
9. How long will the food be out for my event and will it be serviced?
Simple to ask and you will get many responses that you will have to consider. But know that some caterers may just show up, place the food down on a flat table and then walk out the door. No love. Others will tell you two hours is the maximum the food can be out and some will tell you until the food runs out. All things to consider and it is up to you to decide what is best for your event.
Insider tip: This is actually my opinion as someone who understands the nuances. You want a caterer that will service the event from start to finish, that will always have enough food to feed your guests and that knows how to set up an attractive table set up with decor, multiple levels and with love. Gone should be the days of silver platters laid atop a red napkin on a flat table repeated over and over. What else should be gone in my opinion? Rectangle chaffing dishes all in a row, dressing served on the side of a salad and cascades of rolls.
10. How close to the event can I make changes?
Leading up to number 10 I am sure you have seen a pattern by my suggested questions. This one is more basic but one you need to ask. You want a caterer that is flexible and will make changes for you event up to 4 days before the event.
If you have guest count changes, a special request for a guest or anything else, you want to have the confidence that your caterer will handle these last minute changes with ease.
As caterers we should all understand that life happens and things can get overlooked in your planning. We should be here for you.
Do you have any other questions about catering? Leave us a comment and our Wedding 101 caterers will be happy to help!