How to Pick a Caterer for Your Corporate Meeting or Event

Having the right food and beverage options is a critical component in the success of your event – but likely the last thing you want to take care of yourself. The right caterer can help take your event from good to great.

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Having the right food and beverage options is a critical component in the success of your event – but likely the last thing you want to take care of yourself. The right caterer can help take your event from good to great.       

Have you ever been to an event that didn’t offer food and beverages? The answer is more than likely no. And that’s because food can be a make-or-break part of any event – particularly when it comes to longer sessions, like seminars, conferences, and off-site leadership meetings (if you’re planning one of these, you may also want to check out our blog article on the topic).  

There are a few reasons why food and drinks are so important at your event. The first goes back to the traditional “host and guest” dynamic – food is a great way to show hospitality to your guests. But the second is a little more literal: our food consumption is scientifically linked to our mood, physical state, and even our thoughts. You’ve probably heard the term “hangry” (a hybrid of hungry and angry, in case you hadn’t), and that’s more than just a myth. When people are hungry, they typically feel less happy and more irritable. The opposite is true of people who are well fed. An event with great food and drinks will likely produce happier and more engaged guests, while a lack thereof might result in some grumpy and disengaged attendees.  

The trouble is that food at events is often an afterthought. But considering its importance – as well as the fact that it can be among the most significant line items in an event budget – it’s critical that you plan your food and beverage needs well in advance. And since they are likely not things you want to take care of independently amidst all the other logistics and challenges of event planning, a great caterer is going to be your best bet. 

But what should you look for in a caterer? Where do you even start? Check out our top five tips for picking the right caterer for your event – sourced from our very own in-house event planning experts.  

Know Where to Start Your Search 

When you type “event caterers near me” into Google, you probably find hundreds of options. So, what’s the best way to get started in finding the one for you? Here are five considerations to get your search underway: 

  1. Venues with Preferred Vendors – Touch base with your venue about whether they have preferred vendors. If so, there’s a chance your venue may stipulate in your contract that you’re required to work with these companies. This doesn’t always happen, but it’s a possibility. In any case, preferred vendors are often a good option because they usually offer big benefits, such as having a deep understanding and experience in your particular venue, as well as being able to offer preferred rates. Alternatively, some venues have in-house catering services and will cover the cost of your event space based on a minimum food and beverage spend, so make sure you check with your venue on this as well. For more insight into how to pick the perfect venue for your corporate meeting or event, check out our blog article on the topic 
  2. Check for Reviews – The internet makes it easy to find reviews on companies you’re considering working with. Conducting a quick search on Yelp or checking the company’s Google Reviews will give you great insight into whether they’re a good potential catering partner, or if you should cross them off your list. 
  3. Ask Around for Referrals – Word of mouth is a great way of finding amazing caterers. Tap into your network with a quick email or even a post on LinkedIn or Facebook asking your peers for any catering companies they’ve had a great experience with.  
  4. Ask for Testimonials, Photos, Samples, and Past Work – Don’t feel shy about asking for testimonials, photos, and examples of past work. It’s even reasonable to ask for food samples before signing the contract on a big event. Great caterers will be proud to show off photos of their amazing menu options, positive testimonials, and work they’ve done in the past that’s similar to your event.  
  5. Check for Certifications – Check that the caterers you’re looking into are certified with professional accreditations. This can include accolades such as the Food Safety Manager Certification and culinary training accreditations from organizations like The American Culinary Federation. You should also confirm that they have all necessary food and alcohol licenses, as applicable. It’s also wise to confirm with your venue whether you’ll need to acquire a liquor license to serve alcohol on premises.  

Consider Your Catering Needs and the Size of Your Event 

In order to find the right caterer for your corporate event, you need to have a clear understanding of your event size and needs. Asking yourself these five questions will help inform the type of caterer you choose by narrowing the scope of who makes your shortlist: 

  1. What’s Your Catering Budget? – It’s important to understand how much money you’re working with when it comes to selecting catering. If you’re on a cheap and cheerful budget, you can eliminate fancy “white tablecloth” types of caterers. But on the flip side of that coin, knowing your budget will also help ensure you’re not disappointed by subpar catering on event day. The truth is that you get what you pay for, so it’s important that you don’t go for the lowest possible cost option – you’re better off compromising on quantity rather than quality. And remember, caterers want to work with you, so be transparent with your scope and your hopes. They will likely do what they can to secure your business. 
  2. What Kind of Meal Are You in the Market For? When you set out to speak with caterers for your event, you need to know what type of catering you want. This could be:  
     
    • Coffee, tea, water, and snacks 
    • Passed snacks and appetizers 
    • A plated sit-down meal 

    If you’re looking strictly for finger food, there are plenty of caterers out there that specialize specifically in non-seated meals and may be able to offer better value for your money than a traditional caterer. Vice versa, if you’re looking for a full, seated meal, you don’t want to reach out caterers that specialize in hors d’oeuvres and passed appetizers. And if you’re looking strictly for coffee, tea, water, and snacks, this may be something your venue offers or that you could take on independently – the cost of bringing on a caterer to handle this might be higher than it’s worth. 
  3. How Big is Your Group? The size of your group will massively impact the cost of catering. More people equal more food which nets out to more money. You should also keep in mind that some companies have minimums and maximums when it comes to your minimum spend. Make sure to ask caterers about any minimums they may have before diving deep into a conversation with them. 
  4. What’s Your Event Vibe? Consider the vibe of your event – this will influence the types of caterers you should connect with. Is it something ultra-fancy, like a fundraiser or a gala? Or is it a casual team get-together? The style of your event should be reflected in the catering – you don’t want finger food for a fancy event. Articulating your event vibe to your prospective caterers will help them put together a menu that’s perfectly suited to your needs. 
  5. Does Your Group Have Any Dietary Restrictions? One of the most important things to tell your caterer from early on is whether your group has any dietary restrictions. This can affect everything from what they serve to the way they prep, store, and transport the ingredients. Connect directly with your group to confirm any dietary restrictions they may have. This may include, but isn’t limited to: 
    • Lactose intolerance  
    • Vegetarianism and veganism  
    • Allergies, especially to things like nuts 
    • Celiac disease or those who choose to eat gluten-free  
    • Religious dietary restrictions such as Kosher and Halal  

Look into the Location of Your Prospective Caterers  

It might not strike you as an important detail, but the location of your prospective caterers could be a deciding factor in which provider you choose to go with. That’s because the caterer’s distance from your event could have implications on their ability to execute it effectively.  

For example, if a caterer has to travel a long way for your event, it may pose logistical challenges for them when it comes to transporting all necessary food and beverage goods, staff, and utensils and serving items. 

You should also ask potential service providers if they have previous experience with your venue. Working with a caterer who is familiar with your exact venue – or at least a similar one – can go a long way towards making the event a smooth and successful one.  

Investigate Their Capacity for Preparation and Execution  

When you enlist a caterer, remember that as much as you’re hiring them to provide food and beverages, you’re also hiring them for service. That means everything from preparation to staff, maintenance, and presentation. So, when you’re searching for the right caterer for your corporate event, keep the following two points in mind. 

  • Food and Beverage Preparation and Service – It’s one thing to know what type of food and drinks you’re going to get, but the way it’s all prepared and served will play a big part in dictating the quality your guests receive. Ask prospective caterers detailed questions, including: 
    • How is food being prepared and served? 
    • How will ingredients be transported to the venue? 
    • Is the food going to be made on-site? 
    • Does the caterer have a mobile kitchen if one isn’t available at the venue? 
    • If they don’t have a mobile kitchen and the venue doesn’t have one available, will they be cooking the food in advance and transporting it to the venue? 
    • If so, how can they guarantee it will stay fresh and appetizing?  
    • You may also want to ask if they use biodegradable, reusable, or eco-friendly cutlery 

Keep in mind that food which is pre-cooked and transported to your event may lose quality, depending on time and distance. So, if you have the choice between a caterer that will prep and cook your food fresh on-site versus one that plans to transport everything to your venue, opt for the former to be safe. 

  • Staffing Capabilities and Availability – This is where the “service” part really comes into play. Having food and drinks is great, but the second half of the equation is having staff to serve it all. Even a self-serve buffet will require somebody to refill items as they run out. Ask potential caters if they have wait staff available and, if so, how many. Your staffing needs will vary depending on your group size and the type of catering you’re after, but you can use the below as a rule of thumb: 
  • Buffet: You should aim to have two servers for every 30 guests, plus at least two additional runners to clear dishes and restock food stations 
  • Sit-Down Dinners – This calls for a more hands-on approach, especially if it’s an elevated event, so you’ll likely need one server for every two tables, with additional servers to handle drinks and runners to clear plates and glassware 
  • Passed Appetizers and Hors d’Oeuvres – Depending on how many types of food you’re offering, you’ll want to have at least two staff serving each option for every 30 guests at your event to ensure there’s a constant flow of food and drinks  

Don’t Overlook Proposals and Agreements  

You should treat the process of hiring a caterer as a formal business transaction – and professional catering companies will expect to work that way. With so many moving parts and details combined with the high-stakes nature of hosting events, it’s important to make sure both parties are covering their bases and that everyone is clear on the expectations. Here are five tips for finalizing catering proposals and agreements: 

  1. Explore Your Options - Don’t go with the first caterer you speak to. You want to make sure you’re getting the best option, but there are also potential cost savings to be achieved. As a best practice, secure three proposals and compare pricing. Once you know what each caterer is charging for similar service, you may be able to negotiate better prices from them. As we said, caterers want your business and – within reason – may be flexible in working with you to make that happen. 
  2. Speak Your Mind – As much as caterers will make the process convenient by putting together menu options that they feel would be well-suited to your event, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it. If you aren’t loving what you’re seeing, let them know. They should be happy to swap out food and drink items for replacements that you find more suitable.  
  3. Know What Should Be Covered in Your Agreement – Your catering agreement is an important document. It should outline the costs, the exact amount of each item you’ll be receiving (it should be as specific as listing that you’ll be receiving 72 crab cakes and 44 sausage rolls – since you pay per item, they should all be accounted for!), the details for preparation, as well as anything the caterer isn’t covering. This could include something as small as napkins or as big as staffing. While it’s unlikely you’ll encounter anything significant that you’re expected to take care of, it’s always better to check and make sure. 
  4. Never Pay the Full Fee Up Front – You shouldn’t expect to pay the full balance up front – nor should you be expected to. Generally, a 50% deposit should suffice, with the balance being delivered following a successful event. This is your best safeguard against any unforeseen issues, and it also provides the caterer with a degree of protection to cover any expenses outlaid in the event of a cancellation.  
  5. Familiarize Yourself with Cancellation Policies – It’s critical to review the Cancellation Policies laid out in your contract. You can almost guarantee there will be a limited timeframe in which you’re able to cancel your catering service without being penalized if your event should be cancelled or the date changes. This policy should also serve to ensure you don’t get stuck with any unexpected last-minute surprises ahead of your event.



Are You Looking for a Team Building, Training, or Coaching Solution for Your Next Corporate Meeting or Event?  

For more information about how a team building, training, or coaching solution can make the perfect addition to your next corporate meeting or event, just reach out to our Employee Engagement Consultants.    

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