Event catering includes everything from fully prepared, ready-to-eat food that is dropped off for hosts to serve themselves to full-service, multicourse plated meals, including rental of linens, glassware and other items and service staff organized by the catering company. Caterers can help out at celebrations for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, holiday parties, corporate events, baby or bridal showers, funerals, weddings, fundraisers, and everything in between. Most professionals offer breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea, cocktails, dinner, dessert—or some combination of these.
Catering companies specialize in making custom menus for events. The chef helps clients choose appetizers, entrees, side dishes, desserts and an array of beverages to define the flavor and aesthetic of a gathering. Many caterers offer menu tastings for larger events such as weddings or big corporate events. The first step in working with a caterer to determine the guest list and budget so the professional can help create a realistic menu.
Catering companies either provide staff members to set up, oversee, restock and breakdown a buffet, or they drop off food for a buffet and customers set up and serve the food as they like. Prices for catered buffets vary based on ingredients, the menu and the number of guests. Red Dot Cuisine in Spring, Texas, charges $23 per person for a buffet. This price could more than double for special requests, such as an all-organic menu.
Professional caterers can help plan a meal for a corporate event, arrange for rentals and deliver food or serve it on-site as needed. Prices vary greatly, depending on how much service is needed. Red Dot Cuisine charges $70 per person per day during a two-day seminar for an all-day catering package that includes breakfast, a morning snack, lunch and an afternoon snack.
Plated dinners at a catered event provide similar service to what customers would receive in an upscale restaurant—a set table, all the linens and plateware provided, and a multicourse meal served by staff. "A true plated meal runs about double in staffing costs than the price of a staff-assisted buffet," says Marylyn Schwartz of Juste Hors D'oeuvres and Much More in Bethel, Connecticut. Her company catered over 30 weddings in 2016 but only three had plated dinners. “For most brides and grooms today, it is too costly and more formal than they would prefer,” she says. Plated dinners aren’t just for weddings though. Often clients want to throw a dinner party and be a guest in their own home. Pricing varies depending on the menu, the number of guests, and the linen and china selections. Red Dot Cuisine charges $145 per person for a five-course plated meal for 20 people. For this price, the company provides a high-end meal with multiple courses and champagne. At private dinners, Red Dot Cuisine chefs cook tableside or in an open kitchen and offer a lot of interaction with the guests if they want it. Meals typically last three or three-and-a-half hours.
Graduation and other backyard parties are more informal. Red Dot Cuisine caters a lot of high school graduation parties so the guest list features a younger crowd. The company charges $25–$45 per person, depending on how elaborate the food is. Examples of this kind of menu from Red Dot Cuisine might include a hamburger—or slider—station, a fajita station, a carving station, chips and dips, and a grad cake. The guest list in this price might be between 40 and 120 people.
Many catering companies provide tables, chairs, linens, tableware and table decor, which increases the total bill. Schwartz of Juste Hors D'oeuvres and Much More says, "If a client needs rentals, staffing, alcohol, food and service, it truly cannot come in under $100 a guest, and it is usually $125–$150. That’s with a great menu and dessert for about $60 a person."
Many catering companies charge minimum fees for jobs on high-season weekends and nights such as New Year’s Eve. Red Dot Cuisine has a minimum fee of $1,500 with a higher minimum for big days and weekends—although the company always makes exceptions for regular clients.
Real cost of catering
The cost of catering is not just the food on the plate. A catering company has to cover staffing, the time spent shopping for and preparing the food, the time spent setting up at a venue, and business overhead, such as insurance and marketing. "All of these components are rolled into cost," explains AJ of Red Dot Cuisine, “and often customers don’t understand why catering costs what it does—since it is more than the cost of the meal if they were to cook it themselves. But we have three permanent cooks, four support staff and on average 12–20 people working bigger events.” By necessity, the cost per head for catered events has to reflect these other costs.