Yes, it’s the caterer’s job to provide tasty and well-presented food at an event. But a caterer has many other behind-the-scenes tasks to take care of, too. Here are the 10 questions to ask before an event to make sure you’re communicating exactly what you need.
1. What is your signature fare?
Mary Micucci of Along Came Mary in Los Angeles notes that every catering company has its own specialty, so it’s important to ask about each caterer’s expertise and defining style. By doing so, you’ll know which company meets your specific needs—and you won’t miss out on a caterer’s signature, crowd-pleasing menu items. Ask, “How do you describe your food? What distinguishes you from other caterers?” says Rita Gutekanst of Limelight in Chicago.
2. What can you do for guests with allergies and dietary restrictions?
Special diets—like kosher, vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free—are a major concern for some guests, so make sure your caterer is prepared to handle food requests, advises Jennifer Perlaki of Mary Giuliani Catering & Events in New York. It’s always smart to ask how exactly the company approaches the issue, especially when it comes to last-minute requests.
3. Where does the food come from?
With the popularity of the locavore food movement, planners need to know where the food being served comes from—because guests are going to be interested, as well. Ask your caterer if local farms, vendors, and purveyors factor into the equation, suggests Gutekanst. If they do, consider noting it on the menus.
4. Are you licensed, with health permits and liability insurance?
Don’t get sidetracked by the look and taste of the food your caterer presents, and remember to verify that the company has all its necessary health and safety bona fides, says Pauline Parry of Good Gracious Events in Los Angeles.
5. What are your water and electrical needs?
No, it’s not a glamorous or creative question, but knowing these details is critical to event catering success, Parry says, since a caterer can’t prepare food without adequate water and electrical provisions. It’s an especially pertinent question if the venue is an outdoor or a raw space.
6. Which rentals does your proposal include?
Carla Ruben of Creative Edge Parties reminds planners to ask this question in advance—because rental inclusions or exclusions can represent a huge difference in the budget’s bottom line. Perlaki also suggests asking, “Are there any additional expenses that are not included [in the current proposal]?”
7. How will your staff dress?
While checking every decor detail to create your event’s aesthetic, don’t forget to ask how the catering staff will dress, as that too affects the event’s overall look and feel, Parry says. Alan Dunn of Tres L.A. adds: “If [the default is] normal bistro attire—black slacks, white button-down shirt, and black tie—you may want to consider requesting something a bit different. Maybe simple T-shirts and aprons with a flower in the hair—something that might better suit the event.”
8. How do you handle tips for your staff?
Micucci recommends asking about tipping up front to clarify this critical issue, which can also be a sensitive one. Communication on the topic also helps avoid embarrassment or an etiquette misstep, says Dunn, who also suggests asking if the company allows tip jars for bartenders. “To us, it’s inappropriate at any event to solicit tips.”
9. Can you accommodate vendor meals, and, if so, what is the cost?
Don’t forget your on-site vendors need to eat—and don’t forget to ask what that will cost you, Micucci says.
10. What do you do with leftovers?
Ask if the caterer has a procedure in place for dealing with any significant amount of food waste after an event, Dunn says. Whether the desired result is sending qualified uneaten food to a nonprofit for folks in need, or bringing to-go boxes to distribute to staffers, this is an important issue of communication between planner and caterer.