A stylish holiday affair should be smooth, graceful and pleasing to the senses with the caterer acting as choreographer, carefully planning every step. The trick is finding the perfect professional to create an elegant, seemingly effortless evening.
Look first for reputation — an established caterer with a professional website featuring prices and menus.
"If their prices are very inexpensive, you'll probably get what you pay for," confides Marie Louderback, operations manager at Kaspars Special Events and Catering in Seattle. Prepare a head count, general budget, house layout and type of party desired. This information will help the caterer determine the evening's menu and flow.
"A plated dinner is going to be the most formal where people take a chair and stay there," says Louderback. "Buffet dinners are a little less formal, but people still stay at their own table."
For more mingling, a reception with different food and beverage stations is recommended. Elbow-height bistro tables assure guests are comfortable and have a place to set food and drinks.
A baseline cost per plate for a high-end buffet is $35 to $50; plated dinners generally run $40 to $80.
"We offer five courses for $55 and a three-course chef's tasting dinner for $63," says Louderback. "But we're happy to customize a menu, adding or subtracting items to fit a budget."
An appetizer reception might run $25 to $35 per plate, depending on the number of hors d'oeuvres. "For light hors d'oeuvres, plan on 10 to 12 pieces per person," Louderback advises. "For heavy hors d'oeuvres, plan on 16 to 18 pieces."
Inform the caterer of a desired menu theme, such as Asian Fusion or traditional turkey, and alert them if there will be guests who have special dietary concerns.
When you find a caterer you like, ask for a tasting menu. (You may get charged.) If presentation is important, ask to see a portfolio.
For optimum cost, quantity and quality control, it's advisable to buy your own alcohol rather than going through a caterer. "Bring your menu and ask the wine buyer at an upmarket place, a microbrewer or liquor store for recommendations," suggests Jesse Longhurst, owner of Red Letter Event Planning in Ashland.
Hire a bartender for formal affairs, making sure the caterer has provided all the necessary equipment and mapped out a staging area. If it's a large party, have the wine or signature drink passed at the beginning of the evening, alleviating a line at the bar.
"If the party is a fundraiser or charity event where money is changing hands, definitely look into your state's licensing requirements," says Longhurst.
Hiring a local restaurant that caters is a great option, especially if you like their food. "They probably won't have all the equipment you'll need, so you will still need to rent tables, chairs and other things," says Longhurst.
However, a full-service caterer should be able to supply all necessary staff and equipment, from bartenders and servers to extra ovens, chairs, tableware and linens. If not, ask if they can organize supplies with a rental company — most of them will be happy to serve as event planner.
Ascertain how setup, serving, cleaning and breakdown will be handled and get clear on how many staff will be on hand and what roles they will play.
Also plan a staging area for the caterers. "They don't typically need a full kitchen, but they do need someplace to work and they need to know where it is ahead of time," says Louderback. A parking spot with easy access to the staging area is also required.
Finally, ask how the caterer deals with staff gratuities. Customarily, the client tips the caterer; sometimes, though, the gratuity is included in the bill.
"It's not impolite to ask — it's a business arrangement," stresses Longhurst. "Knowing what to do will cut down on confusion."
In the end, customers should expect utmost professionalism from their caterer. "The staff should treat your guests as their own and your home as their own home," says Louderback.