Planning the menu for your event is extremely important. Whether it’s an elaborate wedding reception, a casual corporate Christmas party, or a small client appreciation reception, food can turn your event into a smashing success or a total disaster.

Choosing the right catering company for your function is a key element in your event planning process. A knowledgeable and experience caterer can make your life a lot easier, so it’s worth the effort finding a catering company with which you can rely on, enjoy working with, and trust.

1. Have a budget

Before you start looking for a caterer, you need to define your budget. As in any other industry, catering companies come in all shapes and forms and cater to different markets. You don’t want to waste your time on a catering company that you won’t be able to afford. Nor do you want to settle for a neighbourhood take-out, if you have the budget for something a bit more sophisticated.

2. Do your research

The catering business is extremely competitive. There are tons of catering companies, each having their own speciality. Take some time to search through the caterers in your area to find the ones that you think might work for your event. Look through their websites, menus, and prices. Usually you can get a feel of what the company is all about. Ask your friends, family members, colleagues – there’s a good chance that someone in your social network used a catering company in the past and might have some recommendations for you. There’s nothing better than a referral from someone you know and trust.

3. Compare apples to apples

Different catering companies set their prices differently. Some tend to have a basic price displayed and all “bells and whistles” will be extra. Others will operate on a more inclusive basis. When you do your research make sure that you compare apples to apples. Don’t be fooled by low prices. If it sounds too good to be true – it usually is. Make sure that you compare the food of the same quality, the same portion sizes and similar inclusions in the price.

4. Schedule a consultation

Any respected catering company should offer you a complimentary consultation to discuss your particular needs and requirements. This is a good opportunity to get an idea of the company and people you will be dealing with. You will get a feeling of the level of knowledge and expertise they provide and how comfortable you are dealing with them.

5. Sample the food

It is sort of obvious – before spending $20,000 on your wedding reception, you want to make sure that the food is exactly what you expect. Different catering companies might have different policies when it comes to food tastings. Some caterers will charge you a nominal fee to eliminate people who are not serious, others will do it for free.

6. Ask for references

There’s nothing wrong about asking a catering company for references. It might also be a good idea to read through the customer testimonials – and not just on the company website but in other sources as well. In this day and age, where social media defines the rules of how we conduct business, organizations can’t hide anything anymore. So, do you home work, read about the caterer you consider doing business with.

7. Understand terms and conditions

When reviewing a contract, make sure you read and understand terms and conditions. There are 3 main questions you need to ask:

  1. Payment schedule. Most catering companies will ask you for a deposit. It might be a fixed amount or a percentage of the total invoice. Sometimes they will charge another portion 2 weeks prior to the event, and the remaining balance right after the function when all the charges are finalized.
  2. Cancellation policy. What happens if your need to cancel your event? Will you lose the deposit? What is the cut-off time when you can cancel without any penalties? Be very clear of the cancellation policy and get everything in writing.
  3. Changes to the guest count and menu. When is cut-off date for making the changes to the menu and number of guests? Normally a catering company will require all the information 72 hours prior to the event. At that point you‘ll need to confirm “guaranteed numbers”. So if your guaranteed number is 200 people, and 8 hours prior to the event your attendee numbers drop to 180, it will be too late to make the adjustment, and you will have to pay for 200 people.

8. Be aware of extra charges

Having a budget is important. Sticking to your budget is very important. Being aware of the real price for the catering services is extremely important. That’s where you can get yourself in trouble. First of all, you need to know about all mandatory fees, such as taxes and gratuities. If you live in the area with 12% tax (like we do, here in Vancouver, BC) and then add the industry standard 15% gratuity – you’re looking at an almost additional 30% on top of the food prices. You also need to know what is included in your catering company services. If you are planning a sit down dinner, you will need service staff (usually 1 server per 8-10 people). Normally, it’s not included in the price but that could be your negotiation tool. For big functions you might be able to work out a deal. Does the dinner price include linens, china, cutlery, and glassware or will it be extra charge? There’s really no standard – it depends on how a catering company structures the prices. Basic white linens and napkins might be provided but if you need a particular colour, most likely you will have to rent them. That leads to the next point…

9. Ask what additional services your catering company can provide

Will your catering company arrange flowers for your event? Will they take care of all rental needs – linens, napkins, chair covers, etc.? Keep in mind that it might be cheaper to do it yourself though.

10. Don’t assume. Ask questions

You don’t want to annoy your catering company by calling them 5 times a day with various questions, but you don’t want to assume things either. It’s better to ask if china and silverware are included in the price than make that assumption. Diligent, detailed oriented caterers will appreciate you asking the questions, providing them with all the necessary information, and re-confirming everything– it actually makes their job easier.

Whatever your function is, choosing the right caterer is an important and sometimes not an easy task. Do your homework, be prepared. Don’t get fooled by cheap prices and shady companies that promise you the world and deliver nothing. Ask the right questions. Be demanding but reasonable and professional.