The dress, the flowers, the venue — yes, those are important decisions when planning a wedding, but for food-lovers, the biggest question is: What will we eat? Most couples are looking for a wedding caterer who provides great food, covers all the services they need, and is open to their feedback, but assessing potential caterers can be confusing. How do you know what you need if you've never planned a wedding before?
I talked to a longtime, top-rated wedding caterer to find out what questions she thinks couples should ask when meeting with potential caterers, as well as what they should be asking about when planning the menu and doing a tasting.
Dawn White is co-owner and business manager of Pacific Harvest Catering, a catering company based in the Central Coast region of California. They have been catering weddings and other events since 2005 — including my own San Luis Obispo wedding in 2011. My husband and I loved our wedding meal, and Dawn was such a smart, communicative vendor that I knew she was the right person to talk to about finding a great wedding caterer. (Bonus: All the photos in this post are from our wedding dinner!)
Questions to Ask When Choosing a Caterer
The most important questions are those you ask before choosing a caterer, since you don't want to lose time or deposit money by making the wrong choice. While the food might seem like the most important consideration, there are many other aspects to a successful wedding meal, and finding out the answers to the following questions will make sure you fully understand what a potential caterer will provide on the big day.
1. What services are included?
When you are looking at the caterer's quote, it is important to know what you are getting for the price. Beyond the food, what services are you paying for? Things like table-side water service, wine pouring, and tray-passed appetizers are aspects of the meal you might not think about, but they contribute to the overall experience of your wedding meal.
2. What services are not included?
Just as important as knowing what you are paying for is knowing what you are not getting in the quoted price. Services like cutting and serving the cake, pouring champagne for the toast, providing coffee service, and taking care of set-up and break-down might or might not be included, so before meeting with caterers, think about what services you will need on the big day. Maybe you don't want a champagne toast or you want a spread of homemade desserts instead of a cake, in which case it won't matter if a caterer doesn't include those services.
Having a clear understanding of what the quoted price covers will also help you compare caterers. If you have to add the cost of coffee service and cake-cutting to the least expensive caterer's quote, it may end up being comparable in price to the most expensive.
3. Where do you source your ingredients?
Speaking of price, before you start meeting with caterers, decide if you are willing to pay extra for premium ingredients. Local and seasonal ingredients are not necessarily more expensive, but caterers who make an effort to carefully source their ingredients often cost more. Is this important to you? If so, ask about it. Your caterer's answer should leave you satisfied that the extra cost is worth it.
4. What is the server-to-guest ratio?
Dawn uses the following ratios of servers to guests for various types of wedding meals. (These numbers do not include chefs, cooks, bussers, or bartenders.)
- Buffet: One server to 18 to 25 guests
- Family-style: One server to 15 to 20 guests
- Plated: One server to 12 to 15 guests
But you shouldn't automatically cross off caterers who use a different ratio of servers to guests. "It isn't necessarily bad, but it is a different level of service," says Dawn. That ratio determines things like whether or not servers are pouring water at the table or guests are getting it on their own, or how quickly plates are being cleared from tables. If you are planning a more casual, budget wedding, a less expensive caterer who uses fewer servers might be the right choice for you.
5. Have you ever catered an event at my venue?
Having experience at your venue is definitely a plus, but even if a potential caterer has never done an event at your wedding venue, they should have a plan for how they will execute your meal in a new space. Dawn typically speaks with the venue to learn more about the set-up and will visit beforehand if there is anything unusually complicated.
One thing to remember is that the configuration of your wedding venue can determine what type of meal will work best, so you want a caterer who will have some understanding of the space before the big day. "Not every menu is suitable for every venue," Dawn points out. "We don't want to offer a plated menu at a venue where our servers have to walk the length of a football field."
6. How will the food be prepared at my wedding?
Will the food be fully cooked at their kitchen and brought to your venue, or will it be prepped at the kitchen and cooked on-site just before serving? Again, you and your partner will have to decide if you are willing to pay more for a caterer who prepares your food on-site rather than transporting it from an off-site kitchen in warming boxes. "It isn't bad for all menus," says Dawn. "But it only works for certain items." So mac and cheese or lasagna might be a good choice for a budget-friendly caterer who cooks off-site; fried chicken would not.
7. Who is handling rentals?
Before meeting with caterers, find out what the venue provides — such as tables, chairs, linens, tableware, barware, and heaters — and if needed, ask potential caterers if they will be handling the rental order. If a rental charge is included in your quote, what does it include?
8. How many weddings have you catered before?
A caterer who is new to the wedding world is not necessarily a bad choice — Dawn points out that they can bring a fresh energy to your event and typically at a lower cost. But this is also a good question to ask if you are thinking about asking your favorite restaurant to cater your big day. Wedding catering is very different from sending out great meals in a restaurant setting, so it is a good idea to find out if they have ever done it before.
9. How many events will you cater on my wedding day?
The fewer events the caterer books on the same day as your wedding, the more personal the service and experience will be for you and your partner. Another question you may want to ask: Will the same staff you communicate with beforehand and meet at the tasting be present at the wedding? "Knowing that may help put you at ease that your tasting will be the same as the event," says Dawn.
Questions to Ask When Creating the Menu
Once you choose a caterer, you can get to work on the fun part: figuring out the food! But coming up with your wedding menu can be trickier than you might think. How to choose food that feels special, works for a large group, and tastes delicious? Your caterer probably has the answers.
10. What are you making that you are excited about?
Everyone gets a little tired of making the same thing over and over again, including your caterer's chefs. So instead of choosing a dish from their past menus, ask if there is anything new they are particularly excited about making lately. Choosing a fresh idea means a happier, more enthusiastic kitchen staff and a more interesting meal for you and your guests.
11. What do you suggest?
As you are shaping the wedding meal, remember that your caterer is an important resource when you aren't sure what will work. "Trusting your caterer's suggestions on menu items or service style is important," says Dawn. "The reasons we suggest what we do and how we do it is from experience and what works well."
If you are getting resistance to one of your ideas, remember that while it may seem simple, your caterer may have good reasons why it won't work. And even if they can pull it off, if executing your idea requires complicated work-arounds, they won't be as excited about cooking for your event.
Questions to Ask at the Tasting
If you are able to do a tasting with your caterer, you should! There is no better way to get a sense of what your wedding meal will be like, and it will give you the opportunity to offer feedback on anything that isn't working for you or your partner. The most important questions to ask involve the differences between your tasting meal and what will be served on the day of the wedding.
12. Is this what the portion size will be?
You might receive a plate piled high with meat at the tasting, but what will your guests actually receive on the day of the event?
13. Is this what the dish will look like?
There is more time to style plates beautifully at a tasting for two than an event for 200, so if you love the look of your meal at the tasting, ask if everything will be presented in the same way on your wedding day.
14. Will you be preparing this dish any differently on the day of the wedding?
"A lot of people can make a tasting really good, but how is it actually executed at the event?" says Dawn. If the fish that was freshly seared at the tasting will actually be sitting in a warming tray for an hour before serving at the wedding, you should know about it, as it might make you reconsider that choice.
Dawn points out that not all food is better at a tasting. At a wedding, where preparation time is usually longer and more elaborate, sauces can have more depth and items like beef cooked over a wood-burning grill will taste better.
15. Are you open to changing X,Y or Z?
If there is an aspect of the meal you would like to change, you should certainly ask about it. Although your caterer might have a good explanation for why they would prefer to stick with their version — see Question #11 — more often than not, they will be happy to make adjustments.
After all, hosting a memorable, meaningful, and tasty wedding meal is a collaborative process between you, your partner, and your caterer. The more you work together, the happier you'll be at the end of the (long, unforgettable, magical) day.
Are there any questions you wish you had asked your wedding caterer?