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10 things caterers want clients to know

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Hiring a caterer isn’t something most folks do a whole lot in their lives — usually for a wedding, maybe a baby shower or a big milestone birthday. We hospitality pros totally understand this, but I thought providing a few helpful tips could provide some much needed clarity and smooth the process out for everyone.

Chef Allie Lyttle

Now, I know we’ve only recently met one another, but I’m always going to be honest with y’all. I don’t mince words and I can be blunt. That being said, I’m never trying to embarrass or shame anyone. I am trying to share my 16+ years of experience with you so that you can have the best possible outcome with whomever you choose to cater your event.

1. Provide all necessary details in the first contact call or email

Chefs and caterers are crazy busy, all of the time. Typically we are short-staffed and only have a small window available to answer questions for clients, especially those who are just inquiring. We know odds are you’re inquiring with several other caterers at the same time, so we want to make sure that you get your questions answered efficiently.

What are those basics? Whenever you contact a caterer, make sure to provide:
• Date and time of your event;
• Location of your event;
• Approximate guest list size;
• What style of service you’d like (buffet, plated, appetizers only);
• If you need staff or a drop off;
AND
• What your budget is.

2. Share your budget in the very beginning

Listen, we know you have a budget. Everyone has a budget. There is a dollar amount in your head or in your party planning notebook; please, just share it with us.

Asking for a menu with no budget is like asking us to throw a handful of spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Maybe all of it? Maybe none of it? We need an idea of how much money you have to spend to be able to give you the best possible menu for your event. We have already established that caterers don’t have a ton of spare time, so writing menus with no parameters is really quite challenging — and, honestly, frustrating — for us.

3. Speaking of budgets, be realistic

I recently had someone contact me, and their budget was less than $6 a person — no tea, no shade, no pink lemonade — what could I possibly do for $6 a person? That’s an impossibly tight budget for any independent food service business to make something happen. I’d recommend a minimum budget of $15 per person, otherwise it may be more effective to prepare your event yourself.

When you hire a caterer you’re not only paying for the food items: you’re paying for their experience, their education, their creativity, their time planning and prepping your event, and their energy creating your menu.

4. Independently owned businesses aren’t the same as corporate ones

I know this seems fairly obvious, but the number of times I’ve had someone say to me, “But at Panera I can get this for $10 a person” or “Olive Garden doesn’t charge a delivery fee!” is remarkable. Small businesses don’t have the purchasing powers that corporations do — anything from milk to potatoes to napkins become significantly cheaper if you are purchasing by the pallet, truckload or warehouse full — and we are giving you something corporations cannot. We’re giving you ourselves, our passion, and our talent. We are going to bend over backward to help you host an amazing event, while trying to pay our staff living wages and juggle the ever-increasing costs (at least us good ones are doing that!). Small businesses aren’t synonymous with cheaper. We’re trying to make the dreams of our clients come true while keeping ours going, too.

5. COVID has caused everything to increase in price

We know everyone wants to celebrate all the occasions they missed out on in 2020 and 2021, and we want to make them happen for you. Sadly, it’s going to cost more now than it has in the past. Beef is up 72% wholesale. Chicken wings are up 100% wholesale. There are shortages and breaks in the supply chain. Wholesalers are understaffed and struggling to get us our raw product to create event masterpieces. Be mindful of this when hosting an event — no reputable caterer is trying to price gouge their guest.

6. Be clear with expectations

If you want your food out by a certain time, tell us. If you want to feature tomatoes on your menu, tell us. If you want us to stay ’til the party ends, tell us. If you want us to sweep the kitchen and Windex the counters when we are done, tell us. Again, we just want to make you happy, but we aren’t mind readers. More communication than not is always preferred.

7. With all due respect, stay out of the kitchen

Nothing is more challenging or frustrating when caterers are trying to get your food out than having folks come in and out of the prep area constantly. You know you were having an event and you know we’d need the kitchen (or other designated space) to prep. Grab whatever you need out of that area before we arrive, then just relax and let us do our thing.

Having to dance around Grandma giving everyone hugs in the middle of the kitchen, while hot pans, knives and plates are bouncing around, is chaos. Everyone would enjoy themselves more if they weren’t smack dab in the middle of the kitchen. Seriously, please, let us have our space to work.

8. Enjoy your event!

You’ve hired us because we jived. You love our food. We love to make y’all happy, so now go and enjoy your event. Don’t offer to help us plate up or clear dishes or chop the herbs for garnish. Just go enjoy your time with your guests. We promise if we have questions we will ask. We will make sure to leave your space cleaner than we find it, and we will make you laugh, too. Go have fun!

9. Gratuity is always graciously accepted

The extra acknowledgment for our work honestly makes our whole week / month / year. We’re not talking about anything major — although major would always be graciously accepted — but it’s a very kind and very much-appreciated gesture for us.

(A little side note — Have you ever tipped the kitchen when you go out to eat? Maybe bought them a round? You hear hooting and hollering in the dining room because they’re so excited to be recognized for their work. Try it sometime, even if it’s just $10 or $20 for the kitchen, I promise it’ll put a huge smile on your — and their — faces.)

10. We want to make you happy

It sounds so corny, but it’s true. No chef or caterer becomes a chef or caterer to become a millionaire (well, almost no one; there’s always an outlier). We do it because we love food, we love creating memories with people through food, we love sharing our passion with you. We want you to be happy, and we want to give you an amazing event. Nothing brings us more joy than watching life unfold with our food included in your stories. That’s the magic for us.

I hope these tips will help you feel more confident and know what to expect the next time you hire a caterer for your event. These are meant to be a little behind the curtain intel to make you feel more comfortable and confident.

Is there anything else you wish you knew about catering or ordering catering? You can always email me at : chefallielyttle@gmail.com, shoot me a DM on Instagram (@chefallielyttle) or leave a comment below. Happy eating!

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Allie Lyttle has been in the hospitality industry for the last 16 years working in every facet from bartender to restaurant manager to executive chef. She is currently building out her passion project: Ann Arbor-based restaurant, Lala's. When she isn't chasing around her 2-year-old daughter and pair of weenie dogs (Nathan & Vienna) she's trying to read the never-ending stack of cookbooks on her nightstand while her husband snores beside her.

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