Selecting a Caterer

Whether you are celebrating a special event with an extravagant gala or hosting business associates or clients at an informal luncheon, the difficult task of preparing for an event can be made easier with the assistance of a reliable and qualified professional caterer. The caterer is one of the pillars of a party's success. The taste and presentation of the food and the service provided will be remembered for a long time.

Checking Out The Company
There are two types of caterers to choose from: on-site caterers or off-site caterers. On-site caterers are usually exclusive to a facility like hotels and country clubs. Most of these sites will not allow off-site catering. Off-site caterers bring the food into your event location. Some of these caterers can be limited to providing the food and some can coordinate the whole event.

  • Before you interview caterers in person, spend a few minutes with one or two on the phone. Many caterers have pre-printed sample party menus that give you an idea of their style and price range.
  • Pick two or three favorites and make appointments to see them in person. With each interview, get the name of a past customer. You can contact that person to ask about the caterer's food, personality, professional skills, and ability to handle the unexpected.
  • Check for membership in trade organizations such as the National Association of Catering Executives. Companies who participate in these organizations are more likely to keep up-to-date on new regulations and the latest trends.
  • Good caterers will let you sample foods to help you decide on your menu. If you don't like what you taste, tell them. They may be willing to change the recipe.
  • You should also ask to see photos of food they've served at previous engagements to check presentation.
  • You may also want to ask about portion size; you do not want to be unpleasantly surprised by small servings.

The Conditions and Agreements

  • Discuss the terms of payment with your caterer. Typically your payments will be structured the following way: 1/3 to 1/2 down with the remaining balance due on the day of the event. (Remember: the down payment is generally non-refundable).
  • You should also review the company's cancellation and refund policies before paying any money. Make sure that you understand the deposit and refund agreements, and get a receipt for all monies paid and services performed.
  • To ensure that all services and products you need are included, insist on an itemized bill. It is the best way to verify that nothing has been overlooked. Be certain that this list includes taxes, gratuity, any decorations, all rented equipment, and even plasticware and napkins.
  • All written agreements should be signed by each party involved and include specific dates, products, and name brands. Your agreement should also itemize the number of staff involved, charges for overtime, and the starting and ending time of the event. If you reach any verbal agreements with the catering company, be sure they are included in the written agreement.
  • After signing the agreement and making initial plans, keep in touch with your caterer throughout the planning stages of your event. Any changes in your plans need to be given to your caterer as soon as possible; particularly a change in the number of guests.

Requirements for Caterers
There are two things that an informed consumer must check before choosing a caterer: the presence of a license and of insurance. The use of an unlicensed or underinsured caterer can cause you to be liable for damages if a guest is injured at your event.

  • In New York State a catering establishment is required to be licensed by the County Health Department in which the establishment is located.
  • A licensed caterer's facilities are subject to inspection by local health authorities at any time. These caterers have a strict set of regulations that govern them, and to which they must adhere if they want to continue doing business.
  • An unlicensed caterer on the other hand, is not subject to health inspections and does not have to follow health department regulations.
  • You can check if a particular catering establishment is operating under an up-to-date license by calling your local County Clerks office.

Remember that you are buying three things when you book a caterer:

  • Food: This means all ingredients along with the purchase, transportation, and preparation of the meal.
  • Equipment: This includes plates, glassware, flatware, linens, serving pieces, tables, and chairs. Most caterers will tell you before you purchase a bite of food that you to pay a minimum cost for equipment, depending on how elaborate you want things. Others will include equipment charges in the overall cost. Most caterers provide everything while some do not. If the caterer does not provide any equipment the establishment where the event is taking place can often supply what the caterer cannot.
  • Service: This is the cost for wait staff, kitchen help, and other servers. Good service has a big effect on the pace and atmosphere of the event. Check to see how many servers, busers, and bartenders will be provided then make sure the same number show up. Ideally, your caterer should be present, but if they can not be there get the name of the person who will be in charge on the day of the event. If possible, work with this person (or at least meet him or her) during the planning stages so that you will have a good working relationship when the big day arrives.

This report is general in nature and not intended as a reliability report on any company, service or product.