With You All the Way

by Sharron Campbell,

Certified Meeting Professional, 30 years experience

Food & Beverage Catering Details

Working with caterers -

Food and beverage preparation, presentation and service is an art form in which caterers and chefs take great pride.  The printed menus included in catering packets describe only standard choices available and will give you an idea of whether the caterer is within your price range, but printed menus never tell the whole story of what your caterer is capable of creating for you within your budget. 

Selecting Menus
Policies vary from caterer to caterer, venue to venue, but the time for finalizing menus for an event will usually not occur until you are within 3 months of your event.  If you made preliminary choices earlier when you first booked your event, some menu items may no longer be available or the price may have changed due to current market prices.  Ask for a new set of menus and review them before you meet with the caterer to make final selections.  When you are ready to discuss current choices or substitutions, be perfectly candid about your budget and let your caterer know where you have flexibility and where you must stay firm.  If you allow your caterer to be creative, you may be pleasantly surprised to learn of possibilities that are not on the printed menus or combinations of food items that will cut cost and still create a beautiful and delicious presentation for your guests.  It will make the caterer's job more pleasant and the menus more impressive.  A win-win.  Some caterers will prepare a tasting of various menu items for you and a colleague to sample before making a final selection. 

Choosing items that are in season will help with food cost.  If the caterer is serving another group on the same day as your event, you may also save cost by choosing some of the same food items chosen by the other group.  This practice is referred to as "ganging menus," which enables the caterer to order in greater quantity at a lower price.  See more tips in link below. 

Alcoholic Beverages -
One of the more sensitive issues you will encounter when planning receptions and events will be alcoholic beverages.  The liquor license requirements for caterers and venues that serve food and beverage are very rigid in almost every state.  If you are accustomed to furnishing your own liquor in one city or state, you may find it restricted in others.  Policies may vary from venue-to-venue within a city, also, based on the different types of liquor licenses acquired.  Be sure to check with your caterer before every function even if you have worked with them in the past.  Laws and license requirements can change and food and beverage contractors must abide by them to the letter or risk having their businesses shut down.  Your organization may be liable, too, if a minor should be served unintentionally.  Be knowledgeable about that and take the necessary precautions to protect yourself.  

How much F&B to order?

F&B catering display Ridge Tahoe 

Your caterer will recommend how much food and beverage to order per person for each type of function you are planning and will help you select items to stay within your budget.  This is particularly important when you are planning a reception with hors d’oeuvres or a buffet rather than a plated dinner for a banquet.  You should rely heavily on their recommendations if you have little experience with ordering for a catered function or if you are unfamiliar with the group who will be attending.  But if you know your group very well and have a good history from previous events about what menu items are popular and which are not, you may be able to save money by ordering a specific amount to be served of each item rather than paying a flat rate per person.  This can be tricky, so give it careful thought.  There will always be a F&B minimum in your contract that requires you to pay a certain amount if your attendance is less than anticipated.  A guideline about quantities to order for food and beverage is available in the links below.

Within 30 days in advance of your functions –

The original food and beverage contract for your catered meal functions may have been finalized years or months before your event, but it is the Banquet Event Order prepared within 30 days of your event that will be distributed by the caterer to kitchen staff, equipment rental companies, set-up and service personnel, food and beverage purchasing agents, and others who will be involved in producing your event.  

Caterers and venues refer to the final food and beverage order differently, but a widely used terms would be Banquet Event Order (BEO), Group Detail Report (GDR), Private Event Order (PEO) and so on.  The BEO is considered an addendum to your contract and, once you sign your approval, it is just as binding. When you receive the BEO from your caterer, compare each item carefully against your function specifications or Request for Proposal.  Be absolutely certain that everything needed to satisfy your every need has been included and described correctly.   

The Food & Beverage Guarantee -
The caterer will specify a deadline, usually three or four working days prior to your function, when you must commit to a guarantee of how many people will attend and be served.  This guarantee must be equal to or greater than the food and beverage minimum specified in the catering contract.  After your guarantee has been given, you must pay for that number of people to be served whether they arrive or not.  You can increase your guarantee up to the day prior of the function, but you cannot decrease it.  The caterer will prepare a percentage of meals, usually 3%, over the amount guaranteed to provide for last minute walk-ins or unexpected guests at your function.  You will not be charged for the 3% extra meals prepared unless they are served.  At this point, it is important to advise your caterer the number of special plates to prepare for guests who are on restricted diets. 

Adjust the figures in the expense matrix discussed in Food & Beverage Guidelines, a tool that will help you stay abreast on the fluctuation of your expenses based on the number of people registered for your planned meal functions.  When the deadline for giving a guarantee is reached, you should be able to give a realistic number.  If you have previous history from similar functions for the same group, you will have a good idea of the no-show factor of those who registered but did not attend.  Typically, your guarantee should be reduced by the percentage of the typical no-show factor unless there is credible justification for decreasing the number of expected no-shows, such as mandatory attendance required by a company rather than voluntary attendance for a social event.  Remember, you will have to pay for whatever you guarantee whether the meals are consumed or not AND the caterer will not be prepared to serve more than 3% over your guarantee for those who show-up unexpectedly.  Your guarantee will require careful thought.  

Catering Equipment Rentals - 

 Elegant white table setting for grou

If your food functions are to be held in venues that do not provide their own linens, silver, glassware, china, utensils, tables, chairs, etc., you will need to make arrangements with an equipment rental company to deliver and setup for you.  Most caterers will provide their own equipment for a portable kitchen such as portable stoves, food warmers, and refrigeration, but they will need adequate space available to them for set-up and service.  You should always know to expect the unexpected in equipment needs.  You may encounter such things as inadequate electrical hook-ups available for an outdoor portable kitchen area that would require rental of a generator – a costly item! 

NOTE about space requirements -
Food stations and catering equipment to be set-up inside your function room can be very space intensive and can result in a loss of seating capacity or standing room for your guests.  Determine early from your caterer the space requirements anticipated based on your planned food function then decide if it is feasible.  You may need to make adjustments to ensure that the capacity of the space for guests and seating will not be reduced to an unacceptable number in order to accommodate catering, audio visual equipment, staging and decoration set-ups.  You may find that a simple adjustment to your program or menu will resolve a space issue.

Caterers may be able to assist you with referrals for florists, banners and signage, balloons, centerpieces, and other props, or they may want to include all arrangements in one package price.  Check this out.  You may find that a packaged arrangement will be more convenient for you and actually cut cost if you do not have to use your valuable time to coordinate for these services.  But if the package price is high, you may want to check into contracting independently with various vendors and service providers.  There may be restrictions on what can be brought into the venue or facility you will be using and who will have authorized access, so verify with your contacts before making any commitments.  For security reasons, you will be asked to provide a list of all vendors and service providers who will be working your event.

Audio Visual (AV) Enhancements
Most food functions will require some type of audio visual enhancements whether it be for a formal or informal presentation, entertainment, or just specialty lighting and recorded music to create a relaxed ambience or to generate high energy.    Arrangements for audiovisual equipment and technical support will always be handled separately from the food and beverage portion unless the needs are so basic that in-house systems at the chosen venue will suffice.

Food & Beverage Tools: Sample checklist, time line, budget, spreadsheets ...
 bluebullet More about Food & Beverage Catering Contracts
 bluebullet About Food & Beverage Quantities to serve
 bluebullet 15 tips on how to cut F&B cost without sacrificing quality
 bluebullet Go to Set-Up Guidelines for related info about space requirements
 bluebullet Back to Choosing Your Caterer
 bluebullet Back to Food & Beverage Catering Guidelines
 bluebullet Back to Food & Beverage Catering Overview
 bluebullet View all Planning Helper Topics about meetings, events, social functions