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Here’s the Dish on Catering

Good catering can make the difference between a room full of eager, alert attendees and crabby, unmotivated participants. 

Food is fuel, but it’s also so much more when it comes to meetings and events. A creative breakfast buffet can start the day out right, a well-thought-out snack can provide the energy to get through a tough meeting, and beautiful plated dinners can reward employees for a job well-done. Many planners are used to working with venues that have in-house catering, but some events, particularly those in unique venues, require outside caterers. 

Hiring an outside caterer can be intimidating because of all the additional moving parts it introduces, but it can also be a recipe for a rewarding and creative culinary experience for attendees. Here are some pointers from seasoned planners and industry experts to get it just right.

Venue Matters

One of the most influential factors for planners to consider when choosing a caterer is the venue of the meeting or event. This is because not all caterers are equipped for certain spaces, and some of the more interesting venues can pose a challenge for caterers. 

“When we do our site visit, we’re always looking on the caterer’s behalf about kitchen space, especially if you’re going for a unique venue,” said Whitney Butler, director of business development and event planning at Platinum XP, a full-service event planning agency in Kansas City.

It’s important to note everything of consequence to caterers. If a venue does come with kitchen space, its dimensions and appliances should be recorded. Planners should ask if they have a large enough refrigerator or oven, or if they have ice. Even parking logistics are important. If a caterer has a delivery truck that’s too large to fit into the venue’s loading dock, that may pose a problem. 

If a venue’s spaces are not sufficient for an event, the caterer will have to pick up the slack, and not all companies have the right tools or capacity to do that. For events held at venues where kitchen space is small or nonexistent, the caterer will also need to be self-contained and bring their own tools to keep food hot or cold and even reheat food if necessary. 

Another factor to consider is a venue’s table and chair rentals, or lack thereof. 

“More often than not when you hire an off-premises catering company, you’re bringing them to a venue where there are no rentals,” said Angela Bancalari, expert catering consultant and founder of Angela Bancalari Hospitality Recruitment and Consultancy.

 While it’s not a given that a catering company will provide tables, chairs, china or linens, some catering companies can, so it’s important to know what a venue offers and does not offer. 

Another challenge with interesting venues is they often lack alcohol licenses; if that’s the case, it’s good practice to hire a catering company with its own alcohol license.

Qualifying Caterers

When choosing an external caterer, a planner should be looking for a company that’s experienced, professional and high-quality. The food should look and taste great and be presented beautifully, while the caterers should be timely and professional.

To make sure the catering company is well-prepared, Bancalari recommends “making sure the company has been in business for a good amount of time as opposed to starting with a brand-new catering company, especially if it’s a sizeable event.”

Another way to vet a company is to use the internet. In the age of social media and online reviews, planners have a wide world of feedback at their disposal. A company’s website and socials give planners a glimpse at their style and the final product. Praises or complaints can let planners know what to expect or whom to avoid. 

Word of mouth is still one of the most reliable ways to tell if a caterer is up to standard. Venues may recommend companies they’ve worked with before, and sometimes other planners will personally refer you.

Finally, a taste test or trial run may be the best way for a planner to personally ensure the quality of the caterer. 

“If you’re trying to get to know someone and their brand, let them serve you the food,” said Butler. “Let them interact with you and see how the food tastes.”

However, sometimes when planning an event, it’s simply not possible to taste the food or meet with the caterers in person. This can sometimes occur with destination meetings or events. In this case, reviews, references and recommendations are essential. Destination management companies and convention and visitor bureaus can provide these.

“I don’t do it very often, but if I cannot possibly taste the food, then I lean on strong
recommendations from reputable people,” said Mel Park, founder of Melissa Park Events, a global end-to-end events management company. 

Bringing the Wow Factor

Planners often know what to expect when they use in-house caterers because some set limits to the services and products they provide. However, external caterers provide planners with opportunities for providing memorable meals to their attendees. 

“When I’m using an external caterer, I really want a partner in this; and I really want them to push their creativity into the program based on what they know works and based on the feedback,” said Park. 

Collaborating with an external planner can elevate an event because external caterers often have lots of experience and variety under their belt, meaning they’re up to date on the industry’s trends and popular foods. delicious, visually appealing food that’s infrequently served or has the potential to delight all who attend.

“Generally speaking, the uniqueness of the event is more interesting when you’re bringing in an off-premises catering company because you have the ability to be a lot more innovative and creative with the end result of the event,” said Bancalari.

According to Bancalari, this creativity can be especially important when it comes to meetings. While attendees are being shuffled from meeting to meeting, something as simple as a snack break with brightly colored, healthy and delicious options can break up the day in a positive way. Finding a caterer that presents appealing, brightly colored and creative snack bars or breakfast buffets can ensure a meeting’s success.

Bancalari said that for attendees “that creative factor really becomes a big variable, because they do go to so many meetings that aren’t memorable.”

Stay Organized

It may seem like a no-brainer, but staying organized is especially important when hiring outside catering companies because the additional factors to consider also bring countless opportunities for things to go awry. 

It’s important to keep little details in mind. Sometimes the things planners take for granted with in-house caterers can lead an event to unravel. Asking about easily overlooked items such as the uniform of a catering company’s waitstaff or whether they will provide soft drinks can keep the event from being thrown off course.

A client’s budget can determine which company or menu items to go with, but with external caterers there may be additional costs to look out for, such as delivery fees or additional waitstaff charges. Park recommends verifying the budget with the caterer up front to make sure there are no surprises. 

Timelines are important as well. Planning an event as far in advance as possible ensures that you’re able to select the caterer that’s right for the event rather than the only company that’s available. At least six months to a year out is ideal for corporate events.

To keep everything in line, Bancalari recommends checklists and color-coding, so all the responsibilities, dates and logistics are clearly outlined up front, and so the small, crucial details don’t get lost.