5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Deciding to Cater a Wedding or Other Large Event

published Jun 16, 2014
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(Image credit: Faith Durand)

This week I’m sharing the wedding I catered for a friend last month — a big shebang with drinks and appetizers for about 200 people. It was a lot of work, and while I love catering weddings from time to time, I honestly don’t recommend it as a one-size-fits-all solution for a budget wedding. You need to make sure you have a few things in place and are up for the challenge.

To that end, I always recommend people ask these five questions — ready to take the quiz? If you’re thinking of catering a big event, check these out.

(Image credit: DSquared Photo & Video)

1. Will it be cheaper to self-cater than to hire a caterer?

One of the most surprising things about self-catering is that it isn’t automatically less expensive. It usually requires dishes and equipment that caterers have on hand but that you will have to rent, buy, or borrow — not to mention clean. Food is usually the least expensive part of the shopping list; plan on rented or disposable plates, cups, napkins, and serving pieces to take up as much as half the budget.

On the other hand, I can hire my local barbecue food truck to cater a full meal with meat, sides, drinks, plates, napkins, and full setup and cleanup for about $10/person. Self-catering this particular wedding cost more than that.

Depending on the kind of meal you want, the resources you have, and whether dishes or equipment are available to you to borrow, know that low-cost, non-traditional catering (like a food truck) is sometimes going to be cheaper. If budget is the primary issue, make sure you consider all the options.

2. Do you have an incredibly organized and detailed friend to plan, cook, shop, and manage the event?

DIY catering also requires the help of a very dedicated person or two to manage all the details, plus help in serving. Remember, when hiring a caterer, your principal cost is paying people for their time, so all of that money you’re saving has to get converted into “free” time and labor from friends or family instead when shifting to a DIY option. “Free” catering is never actually free; it’s “donated,” when friends are willing to help out and give a lot of their time. No matter how you get it, someone has to give (or rent) their time.

The most important role to fill is a head cook who knows what they’re doing and can be utterly responsible from start to finish. And this should be someone who has some experience. I don’t mean to sound self-aggrandizing, but this is just the reality: I’ve had experience doing this kind of thing. I’ve worked in restaurants and in catering; I’ve catered quite a few large events; I can plan and shop and manage massive spreadsheets. I understand the basic principles of food safety. I can take on a wedding or big catering event and know what’s involved. Ideally, this is the kind of person you want to have managing everything.

And just for the record — no, it shouldn’t be someone who has a lot of investment in your wedding, like a close family member, or a member of the wedding party. And definitely not the bride and bridegroom. Even if they do a lot of cooking leading up to the wedding (I made my own wedding cake and ice cream, for instance), you need an utterly competent manager who can run things on the day itself without a single question to you.

3. Do I have enough help to pull this off?

If you’re the one doing all the catering work for a friend or family member, it’s important to figure out who’s helping you. I’ve always had a lot of help when catering weddings, from people baking cookies a few weeks ahead of time, to helpers on the day of.

For the wedding reception itself, my rule of thumb is that there should be at least one person (besides yourself) for each food table. If you have a table of drinks, plus two tables of appetizers, then you should have at least three helpers, plus one person in back cleaning up.

This of course can vary a lot depending on the size of the crowd, the buffet or sit-down setup, and how much you can do ahead. It also really depends on how much you’re responsible for. Do you have to rent the tables and tablecloths, ensure they arrive, set them up and place all the chairs? Do you have to decorate the tables too, as well as provide the food? Or are you just bringing the food itself?

You can quickly end up needing a small army. But that’s a place to start. You certainly can’t do it all by yourself!

(Image credit: DSquared Photo & Video)

4. Do I have the time and space to do this?

The deadliest mistake in catering a wedding is to not calculate time properly. If you’re catering a wedding for 200 people, everything will take longer than you think. A recipe that can be made in an hour not only has to get multiplied out to serve more people, but you have to drag more groceries home from the store, and put more groceries away. On the day of a big event itself, I allow about 3 hours just to get the car packed up, food loaded, and then travel and food unloaded at the venue. This is not your average potluck.

I calculated that I spent about 40 hours preparing for my brother’s sit-down wedding dinner last year — planning, recipe-researching, shopping, cooking. On the day itself I spent an additional 10 hours prepping and serving, along with six other people who spent about five hours each.

The other consideration is space: I have an extra fridge in the basement but even that can get stretched with prep. And it’s not just fridge space; I had boxes and boxes of plates and napkins stacked up in the entryway! If you have a small living space, make sure you really know what all you need to store.

5. Do I think this will be fun?

Last but not least, after questions of money, time, help, and space, don’t forget the most important question. Do you think this sounds like fun? If it doesn’t, then it’s probably not a good idea for you. I absolutely killed myself over the weddings I’ve catered, and yet it’s been exhilarating. It’s such a rush to feed so many people and to watch them enjoy home cooked food.

It’s also such a pleasure to take care of the people I love and give them this gift. But it’s not for everyone; catering can be really overwhelming and physically challenging, so make sure it sounds fun. It’s kind of my idea of running a marathon; fun in the beginning, not fun in the middle, but totally exhilarating after it’s all over.

Have you ever catered a big event? Do you have other questions you’d ask yourself before taking the plunge again?