By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
While the cost of a wedding can vary widely, an average price tag for getting married runs around $27,000, nearly 40 percent of that taken up by the reception alone, much of it food and drink. But how do you select a caterer?
"Word of mouth" is always a good way to choose, but just "mouth" will do quite nicely — think about meals you have eaten at other people's weddings or functions. That delicious Vietnamese fresh roll bar at your co-worker's birthday, the stunning whole salmon with cucumber scales for your uncle's retirement party. Many restaurants also provide catering, so give your favorite one a call. Once you've found a few caterers you're considering, start asking a lot of questions.
What to ask
There are the nuts and bolts questions: Is the quoted price all inclusive? Are there additional charges such as gratuities, overtime fees and sales tax? You should have a written list of these standard questions to pose to each prospective caterer, and they should all be answered in writing, with dates, times, prices and descriptions of services spelled out clearly.
But more important, the question to ask yourself is, how does this caterer's style mesh with your own; how simpatico are you?
To this end, you need to have a rough idea of what your dream reception would look like. Sit down or buffet? Heavy hors d'oeuvres? Do you want a cash bar or an open bar, premium beverages or something more budget-conscious? What do you want on the tables — flower centerpieces, linens, silverware, china, etc.? At the core of many of these variables is one word: price.
In order to keep the price down, here are some things to bear in mind:
• Saturday night is the most expensive time to schedule a reception. A weeknight or weekend afternoon event might save money on the site rental and caterer. Also, there are seasonal differences in cost. Hit a caterer off peak season and the prices reflect that.
• Ask your caterer about "guaranteed counts." Ordinarily, you have until 14 days prior to the wedding to change the guest count, which you are then obliged to pay for, regardless of who is missing on the big day. Remember to include workers (photographer, DJ) in the final head count for the caterer.
• Ask how they determine the portions for each guest. If hors d'oeuvres are planned, how many do they count on per person? The number may vary from as little as three to as many as eight.
• Generally speaking, a lunch is less expensive than a dinner; buffet is less expensive than plated meals; the more courses, the more money.
Plan the reception to satisfy your own style. Like the song — almost — says, "It's my party, I'll eat Thai if I want to." But remember that as the host, your goal is to throw a good party.
Thus, consider the guest list. How many kids? How many older people? How many known food-phobes or timid eaters? Now envision a menu that embodies the "greatest good for the greatest number."
Still, if you're a strict vegetarian, it's okay to express yourself. Substantial and hearty vegetarian food is increasingly a way to satisfy most guests (or consider serving a single vegetarian entree to which kebobs of protein — steak, shrimp, etc. — can be added). On the other hand, a dyed-in-the-wool carnivore has to understand that not everyone will share an enthusiasm for filet mignon. Give enough choices to accommodate people's food likes, aversions and allergies (gluten issues mean pasta is no longer the universal solution).
Matter of taste
Caterers will all provide references, but the best way to make a decision is to sample their wares. Most caterers will put together a formal or informal tasting of potential dishes for you and your betrothed — perhaps your only opportunity to eat your dream meal without your mother-in-law around.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.