How Much Do Wedding Caterers Cost?

The Christian Bible underscored one of the most interesting miracles of Jesus Christ – turning water into wine during a wedding in Cana (Galilee).

While the very act itself is incredible, the narrative’s conflict is grounded in the reality of dealing with catering shortage.

Nevertheless, the idea of providing food services for mass consumption goes back 4,000 years before Christ; in a country more than 4,000 miles east of Galilee (Ancient China).

The technology that drives production and logistics also allows the evolution of catering industry throughout its extensive timeline. 

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By 2018, IBIS World estimates the US-based catering industry revenue at $12 billion – a steady annual growth of 1.8% with weddings only tallying a portion of the entire market profit. American couples are spending an average of around $4,000.

Catering Cost Factors:

When it comes to the preparation of your wedding’s food service, both the overall spending (cost) and success (value) will depend on how well you manage the strategic and tactical aspects of your budget planning. Take note of the following factors defining the ‘bigger picture’ (strategic):

  • Guests = the cost for meals + drinks + rentals (e.g. utensils) per person.
  • Location = the cost to transport (delivery fees and/or corkage fees) the catering stations.
  • Date = the cost of specific grocery items relative to its seasonal abundance or scarcity.
  • Theme = the cost to accommodate specific cuisines relative to the wedding culture.

All four of these strategic factors have a direct huge impact on your overall budget. It’s easier to adjust these elements in order to significantly reduce your expenses. Imagine downsizing your 250 guests to 75. You have saved 175 times the average cost of wedding catering buffet per person!

Dealing with the obvious quantifiable aspects is one thing. A more in-depth ‘customization of details’ (tactical) is literally a whole new ballgame. Check out the following factors that require a greater deal of attention:

Types of Catering

The one unbreakable rule when it comes to the wedding food service is ‘to never run short of meals.’ 

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The aforementioned Wedding in Cana got off easy with wine shortage. Any wedding that leaves a dozen of guests hungry is simply disastrous. It is better to exceed in volume despite the fact that a surplus can somewhat hurt your budget’s value. Among the three conventional dining options mentioned by the wedding blog Zola, one of these may suit you best:

  • Plated: a formal multi-course meal served per guest, usually pre-ordered via RSVP.
  • Buffet: casual self-service meals requiring the guests to line up along the food stations.
  • Family: meals on large serving plates per table and passed around per seated guest.

Tip: Avoid plated dining if you have a large guest list. Each table requires up to two waiting staff and every catering employee is on your payroll. Furthermore, it is challenging to perfectly match every order per guests if there are more than 150 of them. Plated meals are only ideal for impressing a downsized guest list.

TipAvoid buffet dining if the venue you have chosen charges exorbitant overtime fees. Queuing at the buffet station is rarely an expedient process, especially for a very large guest list. While buffets usually have the lowest wedding caterer prices, the overtime fees may easily yield a bad bargain.

TipAvoid family style dining if you have a very limited venue space. Each family table with a rotating tray requires plenty of legroom, which is more suitable for semi-outdoor al-fresco reception halls. With this venue, you can marginally cut down expenses for tents since only distant tables require an extended canopy.

Dining and food by caterers

Supplier Reputation

Unless you’re hiring the services of a wedding planner for a price, examining the reputation of your prospective (and usually low-cost) catering vendor will require added stressful effort. One of the solid tell-tale signs of encountering a legit supplier is if you have a clear understanding of their basic flowchart deal. The California-based Brothers Signature underscores the following progressive phases of their proposal:

  • Initial Consultation
  • Potential Options
  • Initial Proposal
  • Tasting and Finalization

Tip: Interview your catering supplier before jumping into the deal. You’ll be able to gauge whether the potential candidate passes if they have satisfactory answers to the following questions:

  • What is your price range?
  • What is your specialty?
  • How long have you been catering?
  • How many clients do you serve at a time?
  • Are you both licensed and able to serve alcohol?
  • Do you have insurance?
  • Can we visit and observe your kitchen?
  • Can we sample your food before signing the contract?
  • What is your payment policy?
  • What is your refund or cancellation policy?
  • **Can you provide references for your satisfied clients?

Tip: Apart from simply taking their word for it, how can you be certain if they’re telling the truth? In case you’re still not satisfied, take note of the ** interview question in the previous tip. If they were generous to provide enough character references, your next move is to do a survey for these previous clients. Here is a basic outline of your simple evaluation questionnaire:

Encircle the number equal to your rating (with 5 being the highest)

  • Food quality: 1 2  3  4  5
  • Menu variety: 1 2  3  4  5
  • Bar service: 1 2  3  4  5
  • Customer service: 1 2  3  4  5
  • Price value: 1 2  3  4  5
  • Will you recommend them? Y  N

DIY Resources

There are cases when a tight budget forces couples to micromanage other parts of their wedding plan by going through the do-it-yourself (DIY) path. While it is not the most advisable alternative for those who aim to avoid stress, there are certain online testimonies claiming to reduce actual expenses in comparison to the estimated average spending.

The Internet’s Maid of Honor published an article claiming to save up to $30 per guest spending by hiring non-conventional caterers – the low-profile types that do not necessarily compete with the mainstream vendor league. The same idea was espoused in the 20 Something Finance blog post describing an exceptional catering service that costs only $14 per head.

Granted, encountering these high-value low-cost suppliers is almost a matter of sheer luck (if not the extra amount of time and patience). Nonetheless, unpredictable good fortune alone may likely push couples to go full DIY instead of just simply ‘trying the odds.’ It is possible to independently supply your own wedding catering if you have a very solid plan in place. In fact, Web Restaurant Store published its own guidelines on how to carefully execute this strategy.

Tip: If you intend to avoid wedding catering suppliers, you can instead hire independent chefs who will only handle the food preparation during the wedding day – provided that you already have the necessary ingredients prepped for use. You can find experienced professionals in your area who charges services around $10 to $30 per hour. Take note: Never risk the quality service by hiring a culinary student for such a heavy task.

Tip: You can skip the need to hire waiters by adopting a more self-service type of dining. As mentioned earlier, staffing pretty much beefs up your overall catering expenses. Backyard barbecue catering is one of the most creative examples of low-cost self-service catering for an outdoor venue with a relatively small guest list (up to 50 visitors).

Tip: Avoiding standard catering vendors means single-handedly buying the groceries for your ingredients. You need to know the required number of grocery items to feed every guest. Fortunately, there is a “recipe converter” that projects the exact volume of ingredients necessary to stretch your single serving fares and desserts according to the number of guests.

Tip: The DIY path is not only limited to the volume of food. You will also need to shop for the utensils instead of renting them. Hence, it will be advantageous for you to buy compostable tableware items. Apart from avoiding probable reimbursement for lost borrow items (e.g. missing forks, broken plates, etc.); the compostable utensils are easier to dispose of.

Beverage Options

Beverages tend to be one of the most easily overlooked aspects of the wedding catering plan. After all, couples who do not intend to serve alcoholic drinks can easily acquire non-alcoholic thirst-quenchers in every wedding caterer’s basic comprehensive package. But for the wedded hosts who believe in providing their guests with pleasurable intoxicating substances, the expenditure plan guest a bit complicated.

Most of the couples who chose a straightforward open-bar setting spent up to 25% of their overall catering budget just to conclude the final bill. They have not only paid for the bartender’s service, they also covered for the cost of all the drinks the guests ordered. A cost-efficient, but highly unpopular, idea is to let the guests pay for their own alcoholic drinks.

TipJust like in the preparation and distribution of meals, you can also go DIY by supplying your own alcoholic drinks. If you’re not familiar with the preference of every potential guest attending your wedding, it is crucial to indicate in the RSVP their fancied alcoholic drinks. This way, you can have a more accurate estimate of your spending on beverages.

TipOne of the easiest ways to accurately calculate your spending using The Alcohol Calculator system. Whether through RSVP or a more personal knowledge of their preferences, you can identify the types who prefer beer, wine, or hard liquor. For this setting, it is best to invite those who prefer beer since each guest is pretty much set with two cans of Rolling Rock ($0.60 each).

TipIf you don’t have enough time to micromanage your strategic bring-your-own alcohol yet you badly need to have your wacky guests joyfully tipsy, you can simply change your wedding venue. The greatest advantage of choosing a winery or brewery as a reception setting is these venues feature bargain prices (e.g. wholesale discounts) for your guests’ drinks.

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