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This week’s event series topic is a big one: food and beverage! If there’s one universal event planning truth, it’s that well fed and hydrated guests are happy partygoers. People really care about food; in addition to eating it, they blog about it, snap photos of it, and wax poetic about it on every social media channel out there. If there’s one part of your event that you need to get right, it’s your menu.
With that in mind, we went straight to the experts: our favorite event caterers. We asked them for their best tips, tricks, and advice for creating a memorable culinary experience without breaking the bank. Here’s what they had to say.
Lock Down Your Budget
Before you sample even one crab cake or cream puff, clarify your needs with the potential caterer, and make sure they can meet your requirements while staying within your budget. Matthew Hawes from Nybll notes that if you’re being pursued by the caterer, you have the upper hand in all negotiations.
“Make them put their cards on the table,” he says. “Ask if they can meet your complete criteria and give them a chance to respond. During the tasting, you’ll even be able to negotiate the quote if for any reason you feel the food isn’t up to your standards. Remember, you’ve set the price based on the expectation that the food is good enough to impress you. If it doesn’t for any reason, you can get them to drop the price further. If you love it, then you’ve gotten a great deal, because the food quality exceeds what you’ve already agreed to pay for it.”
Another pro tip: always negotiate using the words “all in.” This means that the quote should include delivery, on-site services, taxes, and any other extra charges.
Shift Your Perspective
With a little imagination and creativity, even old-fashioned standbys like the ice cream sundae or donut can be gourmet. Elaine Herman from 49 Square Catering explains that by shifting her perspective, she has found ways to delight guests with traditional dishes.
“We custom fabricated what we call our ‘Suspended Animation’ station, an interactive art piece where the chocolate and caramel sauces are poured over fruits like apples and oranges suspended from a frame above containers of ice cream (or cake, marshmallows, fruit…let your imagination run wild!). The sauces drop onto whatever is in the container, and as the layers of chocolate and caramel build up the fruits become more and more like pieces of edible sculpture.”
And 49 Square’s donuts are not your grandparents’ box o’ glazed. “Our version is a savory pork belly beignet accompanied by a rich porcini broth with a dollop of cream on top,” explains Elaine. Wow, we’ll take a dozen, please.
Magic doesn’t start and end with dessert, either. Angela Denison of Kent Rathbun Catering shared her twist on the classic American grilled cheese. (Hint: add booze.) “Everyone has had the usual grilled cheese bites, but how often have they been served with a bloody mary shot?” she asks.
“The bottom line is that for a successful event,” says Elaine, “you need to keep your guests engaged and enchanted. Make them part of the experience in unexpected ways and you’ll never go wrong.”
Honor the Four Cs
Shift your perspective, mix things up, and get creative… but remember that not everyone is up for an adventure. Make sure there’s something familiar to anchor your guests’ experience and please the folks with more traditional palettes.
Sue MacKimmie from Bi-Rite Catering swears by what she calls “The Four Cs.”
“For every reception or event with alcohol, think the four Cs: crudité, cheese, charcuterie and crackers! Add wine and you have a party!” she says.
A basic spread with these elements can be assembled with minimal moolah and still feel festive and elegant.
Arrange by Color
Quinoa with toasted walnuts and hummus may taste great together, but place them side-by-side, and all you see is what Sue refers to as an unappetizing “sea of brown things.”
“Order by color. As in, plan your buffet with pops of color—carrot tartlets, berry platters, crudité etc.,” she says. Selina Ong from Ox Verte offers similar advice. “Opt for food to please the eye: it’s human nature to eat with one’s eyes, and presentation counts!”
Fresh greens, cherry tomatoes, purple cabbage, glazed carrots garnished with parsley—these simple foods can help break up the monotony of neutral-toned dishes like grilled chicken, rice, potato salad, and pastas.
Wow with Presentation
Ruffled tablecloths and standard-issue chafing dishes send only one message: “Been there, eaten that.”
Tell your guests that they’re about to taste something surprising and delicious by creating a visually stunning tablescape. Elaine encourages event planners to “reinterpret the standards” for buffet tables.
For example, source unique, unexpected vessels for both hot and cold foods. Look at seasonal flower arrangements, but also consider including fresh herbs in your design. Play with the arrangement (including the height) of your dishes.
It’s possible to throw a great party while still keeping your carbon footprint in check. And pulling off a great event that’s also environmentally friendly will only score you extra points with attendees.
Selina offers a few tips. “Some caterers may take back equipment and serving ware, but for disposables, check with the venue to see what recycling and composting options exist. Serving food to many people tends to create a lot of waste, so it’s ideal to have a plan to best handle it and reduce materials going into the waste stream.”
Looking for compostable partyware that goes with a unique theme? We happen to love Susty Party’s beautiful line of plates and cutlery.
Planning for vegetarians, vegans, and the gluten-averse can seem intimidating, but most people with restrictive diets are adept at navigating event spreads—provided they have options and all the right info. As long as you include a variety of interesting, vegetable-based sides and keep sauces and spreads labeled, most people will be happy with the food selection.
Sue says, “Order for the crowd, not for the one or two special dietary requirements. There will always be enough sides to create a meal for the special-order person.”
Balance Sweet and Savory
If you’re menu-planning for a full-day event or choosing bites for passed hors d’oeuvres, strike a balance between sweet and savory, as cravings for treats vary from person to person.
Sue recommends pairing chips and cookies or offering both Mediterranean and berry platters. “They are sitting through meetings and looking forward to a little something to tide them over to lunch. Some people may not like sweets, so also offer savory,” she says.
There’s no Such Thing as TMI
A great caterer can deconstruct the average donut and revolutionize the ice cream sundae, but very few can read minds. If you have a clear vision for what you want your event food to look and taste like, outline it for your caterer in great detail. If you don’t have a vision, spend some time thinking it through before making any decisions about the menu.
“Your caterer is only as good as the information they have,” says Matthew. “Know how you want to have your food delivered, including all parking and elevator/loading instructions. Give them the play-by-play of pans or platters, hot or cold, heavy or light apps, décor, and presentation. The more detailed a picture you paint, the better your event will turn out.”
So remember: the way to an event attendee’s heart is through their stomach! Whether you’re planning a big gala or an in-office holiday party, paying special attention to the food and beverage selection will go a long way with your guests.
What are your best tips for event catering? Share them below!