The options for catering your wedding reception can feel daunting. Full bar or wine and beer? Buffet or sit-down dinner? The decision-making becomes even more fraught once you realize your catering budget will be one of the biggest line items of your wedding.
“Most people start off with a ‘how much is it?’ mentality, but in the grand scheme of things you should begin by focusing on the big picture and how you want your day to be, look and feel,” advises Loren Michelle, Founder and CEO of Naturally Delicious in Brooklyn.
“Once you’ve figured that out, she says, then consider which options are in line with your vision and go from there. Your caterer can help you navigate the landscape and guide you towards the best ways to spend smart.”
Before the bill drives you to elope, we asked Loren and two other caterers, Ryan Brown of Ryan Brown Catering New York and Monica Byrne, Chef & Co-Owner of Homemade Hudson and Atelier Roquette in Brooklyn, to provide an in-depth look at what goes into their pricing and how to make the most of your budget.
Choosing the Best Dinner Service For Your Style and Your Wallet
When it comes to meals, there are three options to consider. Keep in mind the type of food service, menu items and the amount of required labor can all play a part in pricing.
A Sit-down meal is the most formal and requires the most staffing, typically, one waiter per 10-15 guests. Caterers can work with clients to choose a menu with lower cost food items such as chicken or salmon versus beef tenderloin and halibut according to Brown. Michelle points out that there is a premium charge when guests are allowed to choose between entrée options the day of the affair as opposed to selecting the entire menu in advance.
A Buffet requires less staffing, however you tend to incur more rental costs.
A Cocktail Party relies on heavy passed hors d’oeuvres and requires one waiter per 20-25 guests and fewer rental costs. Ryan Brown encourages people on a tighter budget to consider this option because food costs are lower by about 40%. “While it isn’t a meal per se, we try to do heavier items and have them passed constantly and abundantly so people get filled up.”
Kitchen Rental Costs
Michelle cautions you to take into account the cost of kitchen rentals, pointing out that caterers literally have to bring in an entire restaurant to cater an event.
“Unless you are getting married in an actual restaurant, nine out of ten times a venue doesn’t have a kitchen so everything from the equipment to the utensils all the way down to the salt and pepper shakers has to be brought in,” she explains.
According to Michelle, kitchen equipment and rentals combined can cost between $3500 to $6500 depending on what the caterer uses. “If it’s just proofing boxes to reheat, it’s nominal, but if they are bringing in ovens or refrigerations, it can be a whole lot more,” she says, adding that “rentals are probably the biggest hidden expense in creating a special event from scratch, but they are also what allow you to create something unique and individual, not cookie cutter or generic.”
Each rental item on its own is not necessarily cost prohibitive; the challenge comes in adding it all up. Monica Byrne of Roquette catering offers the example of glassware on their site: “For a 100-person event you don’t need one hundred glasses, you need approximately one glass per guest per hour of the event. So in a wedding, you need at least 600 glasses, more if you want a full bar with a variety of different glasses, then it can be up to 900 or 1,000 glasses to guarantee you have enough on hand. So a glass that rents for .80-$1.20/piece means around $750-$1500 in glassware alone!”
If a venue will allow you to bring in your own alcohol, it is almost always a cost savings, however the caterers we spoke to don’t suggest it and offer other ways to save in this area.
Michelle says it’s not worth the hassle unless you are in the liquor business or are buying directly from a distributor. Adds Brown, “It’s the usual DIY trade-off, of course, more work for the client but less expensive overall. Just please don’t try to deal with ice yourself and leave that to the caterer since it’s a last-minute thing!”
To cut down on your bar bill, Michelle suggests eliminating sparkling wine which is often used for wedding toasts, steering away from signature cocktails which can get pricey in terms of labor and ingredients, or simply limiting the selection to beer and wine only.
Bar packages run between $35-$55 per person when offered through the caterers we spoke with.
Dessert Options: Let Them Eat Cake or Donuts or Cupcakes!
Dessert is an area where couples can show off their personalities. While wedding cakes cost between $7-15+ per person, caterers can work with you to offer different options at a variety of different prices. Michelle says she can go as simple as three passed petit fours ($5 per person) to a complete ice cream and pie bar with a selection of passed sweets ($12 per person). Alternatively, this might be a DIY area where you remove desserts from your catering contract and bring in your own favorite desserts.
Hidden Costs to Consider
When most of us think about wedding costs, we tend to think about the areas we’ve already covered but according to our experts there are other costs that take some couples by surprise. Here are a few areas to consider and budget for:
Labor It’s important to understand when you are presented with a catering estimate for your menu it typically does not include labor. Labor covers everyone from the Chefs to the waiters/servers to the bartenders to everyone behind the scenes working to create your wedding. According to Monica Byrne of Home/Made Hudson, a typical workday for a seated dinner wedding for one hundred takes 12-14 hours and a team of fourteen to unload, build out, set up, decorate, work the actual event, clean up, tear down, pack and load out. At $45 an hour, that’s nearly $9,000.
Furniture and Linen Rentals Some venues include a bit of furniture, however most of the time you’ll need to rent tables, chairs, coat racks, etc. Be sure to ask your venue if any furniture is included in the venue fee and if it is, be sure to have it listed in the contract. Also, don’t forget about linen tablecloths and napkins that you’ll need to rent which can run anywhere from $16-$70 per table depending on whether or not it’s premium linen.
Delivery Fees These are one of the most overlooked costs according to Michelle, and can range from $350-$1000 depending on the size of your rental order. If your venue requires same day pick up, it will increase your delivery costs.
Administrative Fees and Gratuity These are the fees that caterers charge for managing your event and cover operating costs, insurance and license fees and other related services. Michelle estimates that fees can cost between 12-22% of your total catering bill. This is not to be confused with gratuity which is typically left to the sole discretion of the client. A generous gratuity starts at $50 per staff member and can go up to $100 per staff member for exceptional service.
“Caveat Emptor if you get a proposal from a caterer significantly lower than what you’ve seen with your other proposals,” warns Brown. “They are almost certainly underestimating and you are going to be surprised later on when you get the actual rental bill,” he advises.
Michelle agrees. “You don’t want to go with a caterer simply because they are cheap because you may end up short-staffed with an inexperienced staff serving frozen hors d'oeuvres to your guests on your Big Day.”
“You wouldn’t show up to your surgery with your own scalpel or provide your own anesthesia to your doctor,” she only half-jokes. “You wouldn’t dream of your fiancé walking into a jeweler and asking for the cheapest engagement right, would you? It’s the same thing with caterers—you never want to ask anyone to compromise their quality of service, so it’s important to know your budget and work with your caterer to create the best experience for everyone.”