Finding the perfect wedding caterer is tops on most couples' to-do list. Whether you're DIY or have hired a professional wedding planner, wedding timeline checklists generally recommend you reserve your wedding caterer as soon as you've put down a deposit on your venue. And rightly so, because besides coming to witness your love and see you tie the knot, guests love to come and eat. That makes the reception meal one of the most important elements of your big day. Guests will be talking about your wedding food — good or bad — for years to come, so this is one place to really shine. Depending on your wedding location, you may have a range of choices when it comes to cuisine. In recent years, wedding catering has greatly expanded to include everything from traditional buffets and carving stations to food carts and dessert trucks. Foodie towns and wedding hot spots typically have a thriving catering scene, while smaller towns may only have a few options.
Figuring out your food cost really comes down to the number of guests you're inviting, the menu you want to serve, and how the food will be served. Wedding and special event caterers typically charge per guest, so the more people you are hosting, the higher your catering costs will be. Catering prices can range anywhere from $20 to $100 or more per person. This number will cover everything from the cost of the ingredients to catering staff wages. The menu is a major factor in the per-person; premium, organic and specialty foods will necessarily cost more than standard ingredients and simple creations. Many caterers offer suggested wedding menus that include different hors d'oeuvres, entrees, and sides; you can also build a custom menu. Each menu will have a cost per person. You should be able to work with your wedding caterer to tweak menu choices to accommodate your budget. For example, swapping out a top-dollar caviar toast for mozzarella bruschetta as an appetizer could save you an average cost of $3 per person — which adds up to $450 in savings for the average wedding if you're feeding 150 people.
Food service also affects cost in a major way. The number of servers required to staff the event will increase your total bill. If your menu requires chefs onsite preparing fresh food at food stations, your costs will also increase. If you want a formal plated meal with waiters in black tie, this will also impact your total wedding catering costs. In general, the simpler the service and the fewer catering staff members needed, the lower your costs will be. Many catering companies also provide alcohol service, but the cost of the booze and the bartenders (plus any glassware rentals) will be an additional charge. Also keep in mind that sales tax will be extra.
The fanciness of your wedding menu and food service will determine your cost per person. If you're budget-minded but want to invite everyone you know, then you may have to simplify your menu. If a top-notch menu is a must but you have a set budget, you'll have to scale back on your guest count. Just remember that the more upscale your menu, the higher the cost per person, and the more people you invite, the higher the overall cost. So if you want to invite all the people and serve them the best food ever, you'll have to be prepared to pay. Per-person costs can vary based on your ingredient choices, the catering company's reputation, your geographic location and other variables. In general, you can expect to pay higher prices for wedding catering in expensive areas like Napa and New York City, as well as paying a premium for sought-after companies or celebrity chefs.
You can keep catering costs down by adding in DIY elements. You may want to provide all the food tables, set up the food and have someone oversee the buffet station, and just have the catering company drop off hot, prepared food. In this case, costs might be approximately $15-$18 per person for prepared food only, not including setup or service of any kind.
For a more traditional catering experience with a simple buffet meal and minimal service, the price will typically be around $22 per person. How the ingredients are sourced also makes a difference in cost. Choosing the same menu, but with all-organic ingredients, might raise your costs by half again. Upgrading to a moderately upscale menu with more specialty ingredients could kick cost to around $24-$34 per person. If price is no object, your per-person cost can be as high as you want. Kobe beef, toro tuna and other luxury menu items mean your food cost can range above $150 per person.
Minimum guest count
Many caterers build minimum guest counts into their pricing structure. Companies set these minimums to ensure that whenever they take a wedding catering job, their business expenses will be met and they will be able to make a profit. If catering seems expensive compared with when you grocery shop and cook at home, consider all the additional expenses that go into making your catered meal. The company has insurance costs, marketing costs, the cost of renting or owning a commercial kitchen and all the appliances therein, bills, employee wages and workers' comp, any company vehicles, and then the cost of your ingredients. For example, All Aspects Catering & Events, based in San Diego, California, offers a selection of complete wedding catering packages that range from an average of $24 to $37 per person for hors d'oeuvres, dinner and nonalcoholic beverages, and has a 40-person minimum. The wedding cake is not part of this amount; the cake is typically a separate cost.
Buffet, seated or food stations
Your wedding catering costs will also be impacted by the type of service you select. The style of food service you choose contributes to the overall vibe of your wedding reception and sets the tone for how your guests interact. Buffet style is typically more laid-back, plated meals are more formal, and family style encourages sharing. As a rule of thumb, the more servers you need to execute the meal service, the higher your wait staff costs will be — but the main factors in catering costs do revolve around your menu choices and guest count. For example, many people assume that having a buffet-style meal at a wedding always costs less than having a plated meal. In fact, buffets are not necessarily less expensive, though they do require fewer servers. If on your buffet, guests have a choice of filet mignon, salmon or vegetarian ravioli, the cost will be higher than if they can choose from chicken, tilapia or veggie pizza.
Some of the more popular food service styles include buffets, plated meals, food stations, passed hors d'oeuvres, food trucks, or some combination thereof. Food stations typically cost more than the other options because wait staff (or cooks) need to operate each station, serving or cooking dishes to order. Food stations can add anywhere from $3-$5 on average to the per-guest cost. Here is an overview of the main food service styles:
- Buffet: Guests walk up to food tables where either they serve themselves food or catering attendants dish up food for them. For a more budget-friendly buffet, caterers can drop off prepared foods and you can do the setup and service yourself. A fuller-service buffet means the caterers do food setup, stay for the duration of the event, oversee the buffet, and clean up afterward. For food only, prices per person might range around $16-$18 on average, while a service buffet may start around $20-$22 per person on average. Adding food stations can increase costs the per-person costs by $3-$5 on average, as can specialty items like crab cakes.
- Family style: Envision a laden table at a Chinese or Italian restaurant with everyone passing dishes around. Family style wedding catering means servers bring large platters of food to guest tables in courses. It's usually less formal (and less expensive) than a plated meal, but more formal and higher-cost than a buffet. Pros recommend large circular or rectangular tables to make room for platters.
- Plated meal: During plated meal service, wait staff serve your seated guests each course, fill their drinks, and attend to them in the same way a five-star restaurant would. Plated meals usually cost the most for food and service.
- Food truck service: Food trucks typically create a more laid-back and festive atmosphere at your wedding reception. Guests will have to wait in line to be served hot food from the truck, then bring it back to their seat. You can up the elegance by having formal place settings at each seat with a plated salad waiting for guests when they arrive.
- Cocktail reception: Instead of place settings and formal seats, cocktail receptions mean high-top tables and sumptuous trays of appetizers passed throughout the night. These menus will feature finger-friendly foods, but it doesn't necessarily mean lower cost (although it can) if you are providing the same volume and quality of food.
It's common to have a wedding caterer serve hors d'oeuvres during a post-ceremony cocktail hour. Wait staff bring around trays and offer them to guests. Instead — or in addition — the caterer can set up a table with cheese, crackers, fruit and other self-serve hors d'oeuvres. Some couples are opting for cocktail-party-style receptions where no formal seated meal is served. Catering staff pass a wide range of filling appetizers throughout the night, and seating is often high-top cocktail tables. This style of service typically creates a more party-like atmosphere and encourages mingling.
Many couples choose to host an open bar at their wedding reception. Alcoholic beverages and bar staff can add $10-$17 per guest for a full open bar and $8-$10 per guest for beer and wine only, but prices can run much higher depending on your alcohol choices and geographic location. For example, Mia's Martini in Los Angeles says that the starting price for an open bar in that region is usually in the low thousands. The average starting rate per guest for an open bar in Los Angeles is $20-$30. Some caterers do offer bar service, but if they do not, you can hire professional bartenders separately.
Some caterers specialize in a certain regional cuisine or food philosophy. Depending on the city or region, couples can probably find something that suits their own preferences. The Perfect SAIZ Taco in Chandler, Arizona, offers high-end Mexican food, which can be brought to clients' special events and served buffet style. Palate Catering & Events in Napa, California, specializes in farm-to-table cuisine that is varied but also fresh and in season.
Besides your personal tastes, a big part of determining the food you'll serve at your wedding is being realistic about your wedding budget. Sit down with your honey-to-be and your wedding planner (if you have one) and decide on your maximum wedding spending. This doesn't mean how much you can borrow or put on a credit card or pull out of emergency savings, but the amount you can spend on the wedding from cash on hand. This is your budget. Once you have this magic number, you can work backward from there to allocate money to each element of the wedding, including your catering costs. How you divvy the money up is entirely your choice. Some couples put a larger portion of their budget toward food, just because it's very important to them. In cities like Chicago, New York and Seattle, wedding planners are reporting majorly food-focused weddings with the couples using very personalized menus to give guests a taste of their world. In Southern states like Georgia and Florida, couples are more likely to stick to traditional wedding menus and opt for buffet or plated meals. In the end, it's your wedding and you can have your catering any way you choose.
Most wedding industry experts recommend tipping between 15 and 20 percent to your caterer. This might feel overwhelming, especially if you're already facing large wedding costs. Talk to your wedding caterer and clarify whether the gratuity will be built into the bill; some caterers structure their pricing this way. If you're not sure you can afford to tip 15-20 percent of the total catering costs, a good approach is to individually tip the service staff. You can bring cash or checks in individual envelopes for each person and give it to your wedding planner or a friend to pass out at the end of the night. If you're looking for amount guidelines, consider these suggestions:
- Servers and bartenders: Tip between $20 and $50 each, depending on how long they were onsite and how much you loved their service.
- Chefs: Experts suggest tipping $50.
- Catering manager: Industry pros recommend between $100 and $200. Not every company has a catering manager, the point-of-contact person who keeps food service running smoothly the day of your wedding. They make sure all the food looks beautiful, ensure food and drink stay well-stocked, and handle all food emergencies that may arise.
- In total: Set aside between $200 and $500 to be safe.
Food is a major factor in your wedding day. Finding the right wedding catering means research, interviews and tastings. As you start the process, find caterers who serve your area, have stellar customer reviews, and have all the proper business licensing and insurance required for your region. As you narrow down your search, determine who is available on your wedding date. There's no use falling in love if they are already booked. If the caterer is available on your date, it's time to discuss menus and prices. Don't be shy about stating exactly what your maximum budget is — good communication about costs from the very start means a better overall outcome.
Most caterers have menu templates within different price ranges that can guide your food decisions, and some catering companies may be able to create a custom menu for you. After you and the caterer have settled on a possible menu, schedule a tasting to make sure you're happy with the flavors. It's also important to put down a deposit. You don't officially have a caterer until you've reserved their services with a deposit. When everything is lined up regarding menu and date, make sure you have each detail defined. Confirm when the food will be delivered to the site, what the service will be, how many servers will be onsite and their hours, who will do setup and cleanup, etc. Make sure each detail is clearly outlined in the contract, along with cost, to prevent any problems later.
- Some wedding caterers are full-service event planning companies. All Aspects Catering & Events and Gatherings Event Planning and Catering for example offer services to help with food, decor, photography and music for your big day.
- Read client reviews and follow up with references to make sure you're choosing the right wedding caterer for your project. For more, check out our tips for smart hiring.