When you’re looking for a caterer, it’s best to inquire with multiple parties to determine the best fit for your event. As a standard practice, caterers share proposals with prospective clients that lay out their plan of action for your event, based on your initial consultation with them.

It’s important to know that you shouldn’t take these proposals at face value. Some catering companies work hard to address every detail, down to the number of cocktail napkins on hand. Others bulldoze through the details, which could result in a bit of chaos when necessary items are missing on the day of your event (or a higher budget to compensate!).

Because of this, it’s best to ask all the catering companies you’re considering some questions before signing a contract. The right questions (and catering proposal comparisons) will help you to avoid last-minute emergencies like not having enough food, or not having linen ready on the day of the event.

Here are five important things to look for when comparing catering proposals:

#1 The Menu

Even when comparing similar menus across multiple catering companies, the execution will undoubtedly be different in terms of ingredients used, serving size, taste, cost, and quality. There are caterers that offer cheap but quality food but compromise when it comes to the serving size and others that compromise size for quality.

When you initial consult with your caterer, be ready and straight up about your event non-negotiables: quality, quantity, or cost—or are you sparing no expense to get the absolute best food?

Some things to consider:

  • Flexibility of menu options. Some catering companies only offer a fixed menu, while others, like Catering by Michaels, will work to accommodate your requests (including certain dietary concerns for guests).
  • Included beverages. Are they included in the package? What type of drinks will be served? Well drinks or top shelf? Which mixers will be included? Ask about all the drinks that will be included in the package, and make your special requests known as well.
  • Can you bring your own drinks? If so, will there be an additional charge per person? When it comes to bringing in outside beverages, there is usually a small charge for insurance purposes. And if you’re planning to have alcoholic beverages, don’t forget to ensure your caterer has a liquor license in the county where you’re holding the event.

If you aren’t sure about the taste and quality of the caterer’s food and/or beverages, you can ask about tastings, but usually, this is not covered until after the proposal is accepted.

#2 Payment and Extra Charges

Let’s be real—cost is a big factor in choosing a caterer. Fortunately, there are options for every budget. But here’s where it gets tricky: some include all charges with their final proposal, while some incorporate sneaky hidden charges to make it seem like they are an affordable alternative. Because of this, it’s imperative to be aware of and ask about any possible costs that may be billed to you.

A few examples:

    • Setup or breakdown costs. This is usually included at off-premise venues. Are there extra charges, such as cake cutting fees (if you bring in your own cake)?
    • Sales tax. Depending on where your caterer is based, that can add a huge expense. Know which items will be taxed and where service charge will be applied. Tax & service charge alone can be between 20-35% of the total.
    • Service charge. Catering companies can have different names or purposes for their service charges. You might hear it being referred to as a “gratuity” or “production fee”, among others. Clarifying what exactly the service charge is (and if the caterer has one) is a preventive measure against being charged twice for the same thing. As a general rule, the service charge covers the cost of the staff’s wages, while gratuity refers to tips.

Finally, ask about the payment policy. How much downpayment is needed upfront? Does the caterer accept credit cards? What is the deposit schedule? When is the final bill due? What is the cancellation policy?

Also, ask what happens to revisions in the proposal with less than 30 days to the event—some caterers charge for that but Catering by Michaels doesn’t.

#3 The Personnel

Extend to your catering company transparency in the same way you want the catering company to be clear with you when it comes to their proposal. Spare no detail when describing your event so that the caterers know how to approach it.

Though some may not be upfront unless pressed, some caterers just don’t have enough in-house staff to handle large events. That said, being upfront and ahead of time might mean that they can bridge the gap by hiring extra hands to help. Let the caterer know the estimated number of guests you’re expecting so that they can prepare accordingly.

Some catering companies follow a ratio of servers to guests. At Catering by Michaels, it’s 15:1 for servers, while some catering companies push it a bit more with a ratio of 20:1. The number that works best for your event is partially a function of your venue and flow of people.

At a wedding for example, with the same venue for the ceremony and the reception, you’ll have to deal with hundreds of people exiting the ceremony at once. Having enough servers with passed appetizers, passed drinks, and bartenders will ensure a smooth transition.

Besides helping to cut down on lines for drinks post-ceremony, having enough servers is just as necessary during a sit down dinner. Having the ideal ratio of servers to guests ensures that everyone gets to eat at the same time and that water glasses are never empty.

If you’re holding a large event, your caterer might send over a function director (what Catering by Michaels calls them) or an event manager (how you might see them described when comparing other catering proposals) to oversee all catering staff.

#4 The Venue

You’ll want to discuss these questions with your caterer during the initial consultation stage so that it’s all spelled out in your catering proposal:

  • Will your event be held indoors or outdoors? If outdoors, who will bring the tents, rentals, and lights? If it’s indoors, who will set it up?
  • What time should the caterers arrive to set up their wares?
  • Is the caterer affiliated with the venue? Have they catered at this venue previously?

In general, working with a caterer who’s familiar with your venue will help your event run much smoother because they already know where to setup and may even have some suggestions on how to make your event more efficient.

#5 All the Little Extras

Perhaps one of the most important things to look for when comparing catering proposals is attention to detail. Specifically, are all those little details spelled out in terms of line items and quantities that will be available on the day of the event?

Catering by Michaels is perhaps infamous for catering proposals that span 15-20 pages. While this might be annoying to go through, it puts our customers at ease. They don’t have to worry about the little things—they can just enjoy their event the way it’s supposed to be!

Without further ado, look for mentions of these little things when comparing catering proposals:

    • Linens. Most caterers just mention them with some high level details but think there’s no need to itemize each type, individually. Make sure that your catering proposal includes mention of linens down to the floor.
    • Disposables. Do you have to get your own cocktail or hors d’oeuvres napkins, or are they included?
    • Trash. Ask if you have to take the trash with you, which is something you have to do at certain venues.
    • Food preparation. Is the food going to be prepared on-site or is the food just going to be warmed up there? Very little catering food is completely raw going into an event. Will they bring in fryers onsite? Ovens? Caterers have to be good at creating a kitchen in the most random venues. Make sure you ask about your caterer’s venue connections for the best possible experience.
    • Other meals. What are the offerings for the kids meals? Will there be meals for vendors and personnel? How many are included in the proposal?
    • Parking and permits. Know the local rules and regulations for the place you’re holding the event in, and if it requires permits. Who will take care of these permits? Are you on the hook for covering catering staff parking fees?

5 Things to Look for When Comparing Catering Proposals

Part of preparing for an event is to ensure that all bases are covered to avoid any last minute mishaps. To do this, one must clarify and re-clarify all inclusions in a catering proposal. The more details you cover ahead of time, the less surprises you’ll have when the event is all said and done!

Ready to get the process started? Get in touch for an initial consultation to plan the catering for your next event!