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Wedding Receptions

Be sure to PRINT and save this handy Wedding Planner Guide on exactly what to look for in a good caterer and how to create the wedding of your dreams!

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Where do you begin? Many people call us and ask, “I am planning a wedding and I expect to have about 150 guests. How much is it going to cost?” At this point, I have absolutely no idea! I need more information. It’s like going into a shoe store and asking the clerk how much for a pair of shoes. He doesn’t know either until he measures your feet to see what size you wear and you show him what kind of shoes you want.

To begin, you (and the Caterer) need to know the following:

  • When is the date of your event?
  • Where will your event be held?
    Will it be at home? A banquet hall? An historic mansion? A park? A winery? A bed and breakfast? A restaurant with banquet space? If you haven’t quite decided, some caterers can help you find a venue. Or you could do a search on the internet.
  • How many guests are you expecting?
    How many of those are children under 10 years old?
  • What time of day will your reception be held?
    Afternoon? Evening?
  • How long will your reception last?
    You'll need to consider the timing of your ceremony, reception, entertainment, and also food service.
  • How much will this cost?
    Always a sticky subject but an important one to nail down. There are what we call “high end” caterers (costly) and “low end” caterers (inexpensive). And then there are caterers that are somewhere in the middle who will try their best to work with you if they can.

What do you want your reception to look like?
Picture your reception. Is it Traditional in a fancy hall with all the bells and whistles? Casual like a backyard bbq? Do you have a theme? The answer to these questions will not only tell you where to look for a venue, but what kind of menu you’d like to serve and the type of service you prefer.

What kind of food would you like to serve?
Will you have a cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres? Will your hors d’oeuvres be butlered (passed by servers) or stationary (set on a table) or a both?

Now for your main meal. Are you looking for filet mignon and lobster tails? Hot dogs and hamburgers? Chicken and pasta? Not sure? Surf the internet. Lots of caterers have their menus on-line these days. Not only will this help you decide what kind of food looks tempting, it will also lead you to a caterer that can provide what you are looking for.

Dessert. My favorite part of the meal and most likely your guests favorite too. You’re probably going to have a wedding cake. But most people these days like to have a sweet table (a variety of petite sweets) too. And a little fruit.

What level of service would you prefer?

Drop off
This is where the caterer prepares your food in his/her commercial kitchen, delivers it to your venue, sets it up for you and leaves. This level of service is for those of you who need to feed your guests but don’t have a lot of money to spend.

Now, here is a word of caution. If you are planning a big wedding, this option is not a good one for you. Do you have any idea how much work is involved? Think about how you will replenish food. Who will do it? Who is going to clean up? Is it worth it in the long run to attempt this yourself? Sure, Mom, Aunt Mary, Sister Kate and the gang say they are going to help but do you really want them to do all of that work? If you do, I can assure you that not only will they NOT be able to enjoy your party, but they will need a few days to recover to boot. Sometimes, it pays to spend the extra money to have someone do it for you.

Drop off with Service Staff
This is where your food is prepared the same way as above but servers are in attendance to set up, take care of you and your guests and clean up. Why do people choose this option? Is the food fresh? How is it kept hot or cold? People choose this option because it is less costly then having a chef or chefs come to your venue to prepare your food or because your venue has no kitchen facilities.

Let me assure you right now that it is a perfectly acceptable way to handle food service and has been done since the first caterer walked the earth. Caterers have special equipment that allows them to hold your food for hours at safe temperatures both hot and cold. So when your food is served, it’s just as if it came right out of the oven or refrigerator, fresh as can be. Not all food can be served this way though.

Full Service
This is the most costly level of service because you are adding chefs into the mix. At this level of service, chefs come out and prepare your food at your venue either for a plated meal or for a stationed meal.

How would you like your meal served?

Buffet style
Guests are called up to a table where all of the food is set up and either help themselves or are served by catering staff. Usually the least costly way to serve your guests because there isn’t as much labor involved as there would be if you chose one of the options below. But not always. The kind of foods you select as well as the number of food options you prefer will affect pricing here.

It is the caterer’s job to make sure he/she gives you enough food so that you don’t run out. So, no matter how many entrée choices you want for example, your caterer should provide enough of each so that if everyone wants to try each entree, they can. The more choices you prefer to give your guests, the more it will cost you and the more you will have left over. Not sure how many entrée and side dishes you should serve for the number of guests you expect? Your caterer will tell you. Then you can make an informed decision.

Plated or Sit Down Style
Guests remain seated at their tables and are served by catering staff. This is a costly option because of the amount of staff involved in making this happen in a timely manner. You need chefs for plate up, servers to serve, runners and bussers. This is always an elegant way to serve your guests. But it is not for everyone.

Family Style
This is a lot like Plated or Sit Down style but instead of servers serving each of your guests their plated meal, big bowls of food are set on the table and guests help themselves by passing around the bowls. Kind of like a family dinner at your house. This is a little less costly then Plated service but not by much. You still need plenty of staff to pull this off in a timely manner.

Strolling Buffet or Stations
When you see different tables set up around a room with different kinds of foods on each, this is what is known as a strolling buffet or a “station.” Instead of all your food set up on one table, food is “grouped” and spread out so that your guests can walk around and sample different things. These strolling buffets or stations can be chef active (chefs cook or carve your food to order), server attended or unattended. They can be themed or ethnic. The nice part about this kind of service is that it gets your guests moving around the room and interacting with each other. The other nice thing about this kind of service is that it gives your guests a variety of foods to try and people love a selection of “little bites” as opposed to a heavy meal with just one choice.

Cocktail Style
Great if you are planning a short party or don’t have the space for everyone to sit down at once. Cocktail style involves serving a variety of hors d’oeuvres. These hors d’oeuvres are usually butlered for the length of your party. Strolling buffets or stations also work well cocktail style. Desserts are sometimes included.

Replacing dinner with an hors d'oeuvre menu will most likely cost you as much as a sit down meal. Why? Because your caterer has to provide enough "small bites" to make a complete meal. If they don't, your guests will leave hungry and head for the nearest fast food restaurant. Preparing all of these small bites is very labor intensive, and labor can be one of the most costly elements of your event.

Where do I find all the Caterers?
There are lots of ways to find a caterer. The Yellow Pages is one way. The internet is another. There are services on line that have a list of participating caterers looking for jobs. All you need to do is fill out your information, sit back and wait for responses. Once you take a look at their websites and proposals, you contact the caterers that you think can best meet your needs. But the best way to find a caterer is by referral. Perhaps you’ve attended an event where you just loved the food and service. Or you have a friend or relative that had an event catered that they were very pleased with. Call and ask them who catered their party. They will be happy to tell you.

What other things do I need to know when meeting with a caterer?
You need to ask the following questions:

Can I taste your food?
A good caterer will have no trouble allowing you to taste their food. They just do it in different ways. Some hold special events throughout the year that they will invite you to attend. Some will ask you to come to an event they are catering if this is not too intrusive. Some will ask you to come to their facility and will prepare a small sampling of their menu. Some will charge you for the tasting but if you book them for your party, will deduct the tasting from your event bill. Some will not charge you at all. Some will only allow a tasting AFTER you’ve booked them and some won’t allow a tasting at all.

Personally, if I have never had a caterers food and want to “try before I buy,” I would not use a caterer who didn’t allow a tasting. Or who only allowed a tasting after you’ve booked with them. Jeez, suppose you hate their food! Wouldn’t it be better to know that BEFORE you booked them?

How much experience do you have?
How long has the caterer been in business? Have they ever done the kind of event you are planning? Can they give you references? Know who you are dealing with before you sign on the dotted line.

Are you insured?
This is very important...There are a lot of illegal caterers out there. They work out of their homes which are not health inspected. They do not have a business license. They have not taken required Sani-Serve courses in the safe preparation, handling, storage and transport of food. And they have no insurance. If you use a “caterer” like this, you are risking the health of your guests, not to mention yourself! Trust me, if you are looking to cut costs (these “caterers” will give you a great price), this is not the place to do it.

How much of a deposit is required?
Some caterers will ask you for a 50% deposit. Some will ask you for 1/3 down. Some for a dollar amount to hold the date for you. Most deposits are not refundable. This is because while they are holding your date, they are turning down other jobs. And if you decide not to use them, they are out of luck. This compensates them somewhat. However, some caterers will refund your deposit so ask!

What happens if I have to cancel my event?
Most caterers will not refund any monies you have paid them toward your event. Some will keep your money but will allow you to use it toward a future event. And some will refund the portion of your money they haven’t used to acquire the goods they need to produce your event. The closer you come to the date of your event, the less of a refund you can expect to get. Not only because the caterer has purchased your supplies, but because they have turned down other jobs to accommodate you.

Can I bring in some of my own food?
Quite frankly, this is a caterer’s worst nightmare. It effectively nullifies their insurance. Why? Well, let’s say Aunt Millie wanted to bring in her famous casserole. And because your food is set up buffet style, everyone had some of Aunt Millie’s casserole as well as the caterer’s food. The next day everyone becomes ill. Whose food caused the problem?

Some caterer’s work around this by putting your food on a separate table with a sign that reads, “Compliments of Aunt Millie.” And they’ll ask you to sign a waiver that pretty much says you won’t sue them if anyone becomes ill. But some caterers will absolutely not budge on this issue. They feel their reputation is on the line and despite the sign and the waiver, your guests might still attribute the food to them. If your reception is being held in a hall or other venue that has it’s own caterer, this becomes a non-issue. They will refuse to allow outside food and beverages aside from your wedding cake. Off-premises caterers (they come to the venue you have chosen) are a bit more flexible. Most allow you to supply your own beverages and desserts. If this is an important issue, ask.

What happens to all the leftover food?
In Pennsylvania, it is illegal for a caterer to give you leftovers to take home. Can you believe that? I have a hard time with this myself. Caterers are no longer allowed to donate leftovers to a homeless shelter either, which is what many of them used to do. It hurts me to see perfectly good food thrown away, especially when you’ve paid for it.

That being said, many caterers will still give you the leftovers not used. They may ask you to sign a waiver saying that they are not responsible if anyone becomes ill once the food leaves the premises. Caution - never take home food that has been sitting on the buffet for a long period of time.

One other thing you should know about leftover food. Most caterers bring extra of everything. The worst thing that can happen to a good caterer is that they run out of food. So don’t expect to take home everything in sight. Not unless you actually paid for the extras they brought. And you most likely won’t know that unless you had more guests then expected and the caterer came through for you by not running out. Then you can expect to be charged for those extras.

Important note regarding guest counts. Never ever tell your caterer you are expecting less guests then you really are. Sure your friend told you the caterer provides lots of food so no matter how many people you actually expect they will not run out; and hey, you’ll save yourself some money to boot. This is not true! Don’t embarrass your caterer, but more importantly don’t embarrass yourself. Good caterers count plates anyway and will know how many guests you end up with. They will also bill you for those extra guests, and they’ll bill you for making them scramble to accommodate those extra guests. So be straight with your caterer from the very beginning.

Who supplies the liquor?
In Pennsylvania, it is illegal for an off-premises caterer to sell or transport alcoholic beverages. So that means you will be supplying this yourself. However, the caterer can supply mixers for your bar and a bartender. And some caterers can arrange for delivery for you. If your reception is being held in a hall or other venue with a liquor license, you will have to purchase all alcoholic beverages from them.

And now the big question...How much is this going to cost?
Your costs are determined by the menu you have chosen and the amount of labor you need to assure a seamless event. The amount of labor you need depends on the level of service you prefer. A sit down or plated dinner is going to cost more then a drop off, for example. Most people prefer a per person price. But some prefer a bottom line price. Ask and ye shall receive.

Now one thing you need to keep in mind is, if your guest count drops significantly, your per person pricing is going to rise. What? How can that be? Well, every caterer has what are called “fixed costs.” No matter how many people you are expecting, they still have to pay rent, insurance, phone, taxes, gas & electric, etc. While you may not be getting as much food or labor, those fixed costs never change. But now they are divided among less guests. As a result, you pay more per guest. The nice part about this is that if you have significantly more guests then you expected, your pricing per guest decreases for the same reason.

What about kids pricing?
Some caterers offer a special kids menu with special pricing. Other caterers deduct a dollar amount from your per person pricing. Ask the caterers you are interested in hiring what their policy is.

Can the caterer provide other services like the renting of tents, tables, chairs, etc.?
Some caterers can and some can’t. Many caterers these days provide rentals. Some can help you find or can provide invitations, flowers, centerpieces, wedding cake, entertainment, valet parking, and anything else you need. Planning a wedding is very time consuming and some of you just don’t have the time or inclination. If that is the case, find a caterer who also offers event planning services. It may cost you a little more, but the headaches it saves you will be well worth it.


Well, that’s about it. If you have read this far, good for you! You are now well prepared to start your quest for a caterer for your wedding.

One last thing before we’re done...Have you ever heard the expression “you get what you pay for?” Well, if you are looking for a nice wedding, and by that I mean excellent food and service, it’s not going to come cheap. Experienced caterers are worth their weight in gold. And if you don’t believe me, ask anyone who has hired a caterer just because they were less costly than everyone else. That, by the way, is a red flag. I know because I was once among their ranks and have my own horror stories to tell.

This will be the only wedding you will ever have. You have dreamed about it your whole life. If you want to be able to look back and remember a wonderful day, find yourself an experienced caterer. Pay a little more. Or have your caterer offer you suggestions on how to cut some costs without compromising too much on your dream. Most things can be done when you surround yourself with the right people. Choose wisely. And congratulations! We wish you much happiness.

Magical Theme Catering and Event Production offers beautifully themed weddings. If this is your desire, give us a call. However, if you are looking for something a little more casual, visit our sister companies:

Moose & Goose Picnic Catering offers picnic style weddings. www.moosengoose.com

Maggio’s Presents: Catering by Gina Miriam offers more traditional wedding fare. Pricing is in the mid-scale range. www.cateringbyginamiriam.com

Magical Themes 215-364-4279

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