“The ceremony was lovely—so heartfelt!” “And the bride was beautiful. That dress—gorgeous!” “But the food—”
The words to follow could be an exclamation of delight or a groan of despair, depending on the kind of culinary experience your guests had. You want your special day to be memorable—in a good way!—and great food is a big part of making great memories. The good news? There are no rules, so the options are unlimited—it’s all up to you!
Where to begin?
The first question: How important is food to you on your big day? Are you and your beloved the foodies in your circle who visit the newest restaurants and try the latest in food trends? Maybe you’re into comfort foods and want to serve up some childhood favorites. Or perhaps you’re all about appetizers and desserts and want a wide variety of each. You might even decide you’d like to have brunch.
“Planning the menu for your wedding can be so much fun but also overwhelming for a wedding couple,” says Food Gallery Catering’s director of sales and marketing Karin Jasnoch. “It’s our goal to make this an easy and enjoyable experience for everyone involved. Unique, gorgeous food is what we love to create, and we want the wedding couple to be able to provide a menu that is a reflection of them.”
Once the two of you have an idea of what you want, it’s time to start the quest for a caterer. Some venues have a specific caterer they work with; if so, the choice has been made for you. Otherwise, a good first step is to consult a wedding planner who can help you from start to finish.
“We strive to develop a personalized experience for each couple we work with,” says Cheryl Wortman, Lake Elmo Inn event coordinator. “We work one-on-one with clients throughout the planning process, and work to make sure every last detail is taken care of, either by our staff or other vendors we work closely with.”
A good planner can also help you determine your catering budget. It may be a matter of priorities: Do you plan to invite everyone from Great Aunt Sally to your second cousin’s daughter’s boyfriend? If so, you might opt for economy over quantity. Or is a sumptuous repast something you really want to share with your guests? Then to make that dream come true you might be looking at a smaller guest list and a bigger food budget.
Other budget considerations when choosing a caterer might include “quality of ingredients, presentation, innovation and service,” says Christie Altendorf, D’Amico Catering’s director of marketing and senior event planner. “Couples who want to get creative with their menu and feature fun, original fare should ask about what customization options are available. Those who prioritize high levels of service should get more information on the ratio of service staff to guest.”
It’s about the food, but not only about the food. “One person’s top priority may be plate presentation, while another’s passion may be the amount of options provided at their event, and another’s may be the style of service or budget. This is why our sales team really likes to engage and get to know a couple so that we are able to personalize the overall experience with Food Gallery,” Jasnoch says.
Quality of service also matters, says Josephine Stafford, owner of Sixpence Events and Planning. “Couples should be most concerned about service when it comes to booking a caterer,” she says. “Nothing kills a vibe more than messy tables … Hiring a catering company that adequately staffs for your event is a must! Don’t scrunch your nose at the number of servers, or try to haggle the number of chefs assigned to your guest count. Those numbers matter just as much as the ability to accommodate nondairy or gluten-sensitive guests.”
Concern for the environment is increasingly a quality couples look at when making their choice of caterer, too.
“Couples wanting a sustainable wedding menu should look at four aspects: local, seasonal, environmental impact and plant-based,” says Katherine Pardue, owner of Hark! Café, a plant-based and gluten-free eatery in Minneapolis. “Focus on more than what the food consists of and ask, where does the food come from? Who produces it? What are they paid and what are their working conditions? A sustainable menu might cost more up front but will help offset the long-term environmental costs as well as support a sustainable and just agricultural industry.”
D’Amico has made sustainability a key element of their day-to-day operations, Altendorf says. Among their efforts, she cites “composting, using food scraps to support local agriculture, and consistently connecting with Minnesota farmers to use their products within our menus.”
Some caterers extend their concern beyond food. “We offer compostable tableware, and are finding more and more couples looking for these options,” Wortman says about Lake Elmo Inn. “In addition, we recycle 87 percent of our trash, including food waste.” Similarly, “All of our disposable items are compostable,” says Food Gallery Catering’s Jasnoch.
Next, decide how you’d like to serve your guests. Maybe you and your crowd have a go-with-the-flow style, so trays of passed hors’ d’oeuvres, a buffet table or food stations are the answer. Last summer, as COVID concerns eased and couples cautiously started returning to larger gatherings and plated sit-down dinners, Wortman saw an uptick in food stations, which she foresees as the trend in 2023. Stafford also likes food stations for the option to have multiple entrees and sides. Jasnoch agrees, and notes that it is more informal and allows guests to easily mingle.
Upscale ambience is another trend. “We’re seeing a heavy focus right now in designing menus and bar offerings that are simultaneously a true reflection of the couple and beautifully styled to enhance the overall aesthetic of the wedding,” Altendorf says.
The Search Continues
If you don’t go with a planner’s recommendation, do your research and narrow down your candidates. Ask friends for their ideas, especially those who’ve recently attended or had weddings themselves. Scour the web to find caterers who check the right boxes. Obviously, if you want French cuisine you can cross off those who specialize in barbecue and burgers, but also consider whether their food presentation on social media looks delicious and inspired, and, of course, check out reviews of their services.
Once you’ve winnowed down the list—five to seven is a manageable number—it’s time to start making calls. This is likely to take longer than you expect; caterers have been inundated now that weddings and events are flourishing once again, so start early. Determine immediately whether they can accommodate your wedding date and venue, and how far in advance you have to book. Also keep in mind that your caterer will be an integral part of your wedding day, so the relationship you build together is crucial. That means good planning and, in particular, effective communication.
The Final Countdown
Once you’ve got a shortlist of caterers—three is a good number—it’s time to meet and talk details. When you start talking dollars and cents, you’ll want to get some idea of cost per person. Among questions to ask:
- Do they serve a specific geographic area?
- Do they have a minimum or maximum guest requirement?
- Do they offer a menu tasting?
- Do they provide beverage and bar service?
- Can your venue accommodate the caterer’s needs for food prep and staffing?
- Do they provide their own kitchen equipment, servingware and servers?
- Do they furnish table linens and placesettings, tables and chairs, or do they have rental companies they can recommend?
- Do they use locally sourced meat, dairy or produce?
- Do they use environmentally sound practices such as recycling, composting, eco-friendly tableware?
- Can they accommodate special dietary needs, create custom menus or follow a special family recipe?
- Will they assist the venue in room turnover or in set-up and take-down?
- Do they have an on-site coordinator or day-of captain who can assist with any unexpected issues?
Choosing the right caterer might seem like a lot of work, but it’s time well spent. Knowing that your guests enjoyed the fare you curated will add to the good memories of the day. And amid all the meeting and mingling, don’t forget to take a moment and enjoy it for yourself, too. *
photo courtesy of: Lake Elmo Inn.
photos by: Julia Mary Photography.
photos by: Carly Milbrath Photography.
photos by: Carly Milbrath Photography