Whether you’re planning a specific event or a recurring meal, you’ll need to account for food costs. But budgeting for catering can be challenging, between the different fees involved and the attempt to “upsell.”
That said, it is absolutely possible to have an event catered to your specifications and within your budget, so don’t let any caterer or sales person tell you otherwise. Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: Think about what you want.
First, you need to identify what kind of food you’re seeking.
Do you want appetizers or a three-course meal? You don’t have to know which cuisine you want, but it helps to have a sense of how filling the food needs to be.
If you’re not sure, imagine the people attending:
- How hungry do you think they’ll be? For example, a 1:30 pm lunch after a 3-hour intensive workshop will require a heartier meal than a 4 pm birthday celebration.
- What expectations will they have for the event? For example, most people at an all-day conference will expect meals, not just beverages or snacks.
- How casual or formal are they? For example, fancy passed hors d’oeuvres may make more sense for a professional networking event than for a contract review meeting.
Answering these questions should give you a sense of what meal type and quantity of food you’ll need.
Step 2: Figure out how flexible you are.
As you’re identifying your needs, consider how set you are on them.
For example, if what you want ends up being out of budget, would you rather change the meal type or adjust your spending? You may need to make trade-offs when deciding on catering, so knowing your non-negotiables is helpful.
Step 3: Get your total, all-in budget.
Next, figure out the maximum you can spend, as the final bill.
If you’re planning a company event or meeting, you might get this number from your boss, CEO, founder, or finance department. It may come out of a monthly team-building budget or it may be a per-meal cap. If it’s a personal event, your bank account may set the budget limit.
If you don’t have a specific budget to work with, you’ll need to create one of your own.
- Don’t have any frame of reference? You can start with a few minutes of Googling. First, look up average pricing for catering in your city. You can also search for the percent of an event budget that should be devoted to food, based on the event type. For instance, an executive meeting at your office shouldn’t require decorations or entertainment, increasing the portion that can go towards food.
- Also, consider the source of the funds. For example, if it’s an office discretionary spending budget, you may have to account for the other events you plan to run, to put this event in context.
- You can also move forward to step 4, and see where the estimates come in, if that style of budgeting works for you.
Step 4: Communicate your needs.
Now, you’re ready to talk to a caterer about your event.
Make sure that you tell them all of your parameters, even if they don’t ask. That includes:
- #1 and #3, above.
- Where the event will be – either the exact address, or the venues you’re considering. Why? Because there can be surcharges for specific venues. For example, if a venue only allows the staff entry 20 minutes prior to a booking, and you’re holding a full service event, you may need to rent the space for an extra half hour to allow for setup,
- How many and what kind of people you’re feeding. Why? Because caterers know that a platter that serves 20 may not be portioned for 20 professional athletes during training. Similarly, feeding 20 vegetarians may be cheaper than feeding 20 carnivores, just as finding dishes that are gluten-free, dairy-free, and nut-free may be more expensive.
- What kind of cuisine and/or ambiance you want. Why? Because if it’s a single caterer, the chef may not be able to produce the specific menu items you want. If it’s a multi-chef caterer, it allows them to gauge the availability of chefs that specialize in your desired cuisine. That may, in turn, impact price. Remember to mention whether or not you need beverages – whether that’s alcohol, soda, or coffee.
- When your event is – or what day(s) it’s likely to be on. Why? Certain times of the day or days of the week may have surcharges, due to supply. Or, if your event is coming up soon, it may affect chef availability – and therefore pricing.
- How many options you want to see. Why? Because you’ll find the right option faster if you clearly articulate your goals. For example, if you want to see at least three different cuisine options, you can save revision rounds (and the accompanying availability issues due to delayed booking) by specifying that. If you’d like to see menus at different price points, feel free to ask for that too.
- What your all-in budget is. Why? Without guidance from you, some caterers default to very high-priced options. This can frustrate and delay you. Take advantage of your caterer’s knowledge, but don’t let them pressure you to overspend. Don’t forget to ask the caterer to back out all charges – from taxes and gratuity to booking fees and wait staff – before calculating your per-head budget. For example, if your budget for a 200-person event is $3K, you might be given menus at a $15 per-head price point. However, consider asking for $13 per-head menus, because part of your $3K total will need to account for fees, gratuity, rentals, staffing, etc.
When you work with a good catering partner, they can make all of this easy for you. Pick a partner who is looking out for your needs and respecting your budget, and you’ll get the exact catering experience you want.