How to Hire the Perfect Private Caterer for Your Event

Tips for Planning the Event Menu and Hiring the Caterer from an Expert

A caterer at an event.
A caterer at an event. JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

While many great event venues have an executive chef or a banquet department on staff, many of the world's most beautiful and unique venues do not offer catering services. While the additional work of hiring a private caterer or catering company can be a deterrent for some, great event planners are always ready to book the perfect venue even it if means calling on their professional network to get it done.

Before you hire a caterer or catering company to work the event, it's helpful to have some initial ideas about the catering menu and to have these tips in your back pocket.

Expert Advice on Menu Planning from a Catering Expert

"Establish a good balance with your menu," suggests Stacy Ziegler, CPCE, CMP, first vice president of the National Association of Catering Executives (NACE) and director of sales at Bold American Events & Catering. Bold American offers full-service catering services to venues throughout the city of Atlanta, Georgia and organizes more than 500 corporate and social events each year.

“You can go riskier with your passed hors d’oeuvres, side dishes, and dessert, but for the main entree, you need to remember you are feeding a diverse group of people. Most people like to recognize what they are eating. This doesn’t mean everyone has to be served plain chicken, but be cautious with something very exotic.”

The season of the event also matters. And event planners frequently hold discussions about future events during a completely different season. “Though you may be discussing your menu in the dead of winter, the actual event could be in June. Short ribs and mashed potatoes in January sound fantastic, but when your June event rolls around, you will want something much lighter,” Ziegler says.

In the event, planning an event menu is about much more than the food choices themselves. But the next step is hiring the caterer to help you pull it off.

Expert Advice on Hiring a Private Catering Company

Perhaps you already have ideas for the catering menu in mind, the next step is to hire a catering company for your event. “Talk to your caterer about what they do best,” Ziegler advises. “They have a lot of experience with crowd favorites, and know what they can execute best.”

In addition to using your caterer as a food and beverage consultant as well as the catering services provider for your event, Ziegler also offers the following tips for hiring a caterer or catering company for the events:

Sample the Caterer's Food

By sampling the caterer’s food, it will give you a chance to taste the catering and also to experience how it will be presented. This is also a great time to meet with the Chef and determine how flexible he or she is. All items can be adjusted to your own tastes, so make sure your feedback is taken seriously. Ask how the food is prepared.

Catering Pro Tip: Ask whether the catering is finished on site or cooked ahead of time and left in a hot box to stay warm. These different practices will have a great impact on the quality of the food when it's served to your guests.

Check References

Even though you will most likely be given a list of very happy customers, there are still good nuggets of information you can learn if you actually take the time to check a caterer's references. It’s an excellent way to gain insights about what the caterer does best. Good questions for references include: How many times they have used the caterer? What did you like best about their catering services for events? What is one thing you would change for their next event?

Request Past Event Photos

Catering pictures will give you a good sense of the caterer's aesthetic. Photos of past events can give you insight on how their events are generally set up. Ask yourself the following questions: Do you like their service ware, use of spacing, and finishing touches? Is it the style you would like for your event?

Lastly, viewing pictures of a caterer's past work is also a great way to explain to the caterer what you like with references. What would you like to see repeated at your event?

Discuss the Available Services

Some caterers are more full-service than others, with the capability to provide linens, tables, chairs, florals, and evendécor. You can give them an idea of what you like and they can pull everything together for you and organize all the vendors. On the other hand, some caterers only provide the event food and food service, and you will be responsible for coordinating all your other items and vendors. Either way is fine, as long as the caterer's services match your needs.

Review Everything in Person

In-person meetings are not only a great way to ensure that there is no miscommunication when it comes to important matters like the planned catering menu and the catering proposal, they are also a great way to get a better feel for your chosen caterer. For instance, in-person meetings can give you a chance to see the catering operation. Is the office clean? Are you greeted in a timely manner? If you have any hesitation during this process, be sure to fix it now and it may carry over to the event day.

Make Sure They're Organized

If your proposal is timely and your sales manager is professional and flexible, that is probably a sign of good company culture. This is particularly important as those traits will most likely carry over into the team that handles your event. But beware: the opposite could also be true. If your proposal is sent to you after the date promised or there is a general sense of disorganization during the sales and planning process, it may be a sign that timeliness and organization aren't an important value for the caterer.

Read the Fine Print

When it comes to signing off on your catering proposal, it's important to review and understand every detail. Is your proposal all inclusive of everything you asked for? Is tax included? Will the price vary per person if your guest count goes up or down? How does the service charge for labor work? Will you be responsible for tipping the staff that evening? When you compare proposals from one caterer to another, it is important you are comparing apples to apples and understand all your costs associated with the proposed event.

Check with the Event Venue

Many venues have a preferred vendors list, which will likely include caterers for those venues that do not offer catering services. You may be required to work with one of the listed caterers, but even if you aren't, it can be to your advantage. If you use someone on that list, they will be familiar with your event venues and all that goes with it from the rules to room setup. You may be likely to have fewer mishaps on the day of your event. Preferred vendors may also have other privileges that they can pass on to you. Caterers who are not familiar with a venue may be cheaper at first glance, but you may have post event charges from your venue because the caterer didn’t remove the trash as required or some other penalty for not understanding the venue policies.

Ask About Special Requirements

Good caterers will work with you on special requirements. Great caterers anticipate them. Either way, be sure to ask your caterer how they handle special requirements like dietary restrictions, on site changes, and late additions. Even the best planners are usually faced with at least one on-site surprise. Will your caterer be able to pull together a gluten free meal? If the welcome speech goes 15 minutes late, will the kitchen be able to roll with a new timeline? Flexibility and a can-do attitude from everyone involved in an event are crucial.

Know Who Is in Charge

Most times the person with whom you are working with during the sales and planning processes will not be your primary contact the day of the event. If you want to make changes or have questions that day, it is important to know your contact. Depth in the team will give you some assurance that if one person is missing during your event because of sickness or a conflict, there is still a whole team behind them.