Wedding Wednesday: Finding a Caterer

This week’s “Tying the Knot without Breaking the Bank ” post is a piggyback onto last week’s post where I offered money saving tips when picking a wedding venue.

I recommend checking out the previous posts first, before deciding on anything food related.  It’s key to first know the date and what time of day your wedding will be — this can help you make some food decisions right off the bat. 

So, you’ve picked a date and hopefully a venue at this point (or venues: ceremony and reception).  Now it’s time to focus on that whole feeding-your-wedding guests thing — reception food!  Depending on the limitations of your venue, you may be forced to use one of their preferred vendors.  Such was the case with Josh and I when using the Foundry at Puritan Mill in Atlanta.  And this fact almost made me walk away from this venue.

However, I was super honest with the representative at the Foundry, and that made all the difference.  I asked her right up front which of her preferred caterers she thought would be the most reasonable, price-wise.  She gave me two recommendations, one of which I ended up using (Carole Parks Catering — and they did an excellent job).

photo by jk Dallas Photography

photo by jk Dallas Photography

photo by jk Dallas Photography

Faced with a morning wedding, we decided on 11:00.  Not too early, but not so late that we were getting married in the middle of lunch time.  Our ceremony was about 45 minutes long, so by the time the chair/table transition happened, everyone was enjoying brunch around 12:00.  Ok, so maybe that’s more of a lunch hour, but I didn’t notice anyone complaining — in fact, we got enough food for about 300 people, about 250 showed up, and there were no leftovers.  So, lots of food that everyone seemed to love and still extremely affordable — because I explained up front that price was one of the most important factors and if they couldn’t work with me, I could work with someone else.  I wasn’t rude about it, but honest.  This polite honesty helped me get an even better price than I anticipated (though I never let on), and it also helped lay the groundwork for a positive rapport between the account executive and I (and this rapport helped us get a few freebies along the way!)

Fortunately, the catering company had an in-house bakery that we were able to take advantage of in the form of a delicious wedding cake with a small price tag (comparatively).

(Picture Time, Part 3!)

photo by jk Dallas Photography

photo by jk Dallas Photography

photo by jk Dallas Photography

However, some catering companies don’t have an in-house bakery or they charge a cake cutting fee or some other such nonsense.  Make sure when making an honest and reasonable budget for food that you consider the cost of a cake and any other dessert you may want (a groom’s cake, for example).

Ok, so aside from getting married on a Sunday morning in January, having a brunch (arguably the lest expensive meal), and using pluck, kindess, and honesty with the caterer, there are additional ways to save money with a wedding:

  • If you’re hosting a backyard wedding (or one at the home of a friend or family member), there’s no reason in the world why you can’t take care of the food yourself!  Go to a warehouse club like Sam’s or Costco (borrow someone’s card if you don’t have your own) and buy whatever you’re wanting in bulk.  The Petersiks over at Young House Love hosted their own backyard barbecue to much success and spent less than $1,000 on food, drinks, and cake (check out their wedding post here).
  • If you’re looking for even bigger savings, perhaps enlist the help of friends and family, potluck style.  Figure out a menu, then approach each individual requesting their help in lieu of a gift.  It’s definitely non-traditional, but it would certainly make for a unique reception, and if you’re clear with your request (“Please make 1 tray of macaroni and cheese?”), then it can still have the finished feel that other catered  receptions have.  However, bear in mind that without a caterer, you also are without a waitstaff, so consider seeking volunteers for this as well (or hire your own) — this is definitely not something you or your parents (and future in-laws) should have to worry about on the big day.
  • It really should go without saying, but a sit down dinner will always cost more than a buffet.  Of course.  And if you’re really seeking to save money, this couldn’t be a more obvious first step to make.  I understand that it’s a regional thing (buffet style is more prevalent in the South, sit down dinners are more prevalent in the North), but I honestly don’t see the harm (or tacky-ness) in allowing people to get food for themselves.  (In fact, I prefer it as a wedding guest.)  This way the guests actually get what they want, and a buffet encourages a more relaxed and social environment (versus sitting in chairs at tables that have been assigned to them).  And if you didn’t want to socialize with friends and family on your wedding day, you would’ve just done the justice of the peace thing, right?
  • It’s a common misconception that hors d’oevres are cheaper than an actual meal (and I mean buffet style, in this instance).  Sometimes hors d’oevres are cheaper, however in the ever evolving foodie world, hors d’oevres are becoming less about tapas/appetizer/small bites o’ food and more about works of art  (those mini grilled cheeses probably took twice as much time to make as that tray of macaroni cheese and probably feed half as many people).  This added labor can up the price quickly… and we don’t like that.  Again, this is not a black and white thing, but don’t assume that hors d’oevres are always the thriftiest option; explore various options with your caterer until you get the price you want.  Which leads me to my next point:
  • Most caterers will do a free estimate for you, which means a sample menu of what you can expect if you choose them (along with a personalized price list based on the size of your event, i.e., the number of guests you expect).  Until you’ve given them a deposit, don’t feel you have some sort of allegiance to anyone, and if they cannot meet your needs in the price range that works for you, don’t feel guilty about walking away.  Be realistic, but be thorough in your search for a good product at a good price.
  • Negotiate.  Don’t be scared.  I didn’t settle with the first estimate I received, however delicious it sounded.  I went through the menu and realized there were some unnecessary things (or foods that most people would probably pass on, therefore potential waste).  I responded with specific suggestions and requests, until we figured out an affordable menu that I thought would actually be enjoyed (much less, eaten).  These little tweaks also helped bring the price down a wee bit… which is always good.
  • Be true to who you are as a couple.  Do you actually like the food you’re serving?  If you were going to celebrate a major accomplishment, would you go out for steak or order a pizza?  I’m not saying call Domino’s to cater your wedding (though that would be undeniably fun), but be honest with your own personal style (and budget limitations) and make food choices that actually make sense with you as a couple.  You will enjoy the day more, and it will be a celebration that’s authentically you. Not to mention your guests will appreciate this and enjoy themselves more.  (Except for Aunt Frances who won’t be able to stop clutching her pearls over… something scandalous.  Who knows what.)
  • Have a tea!  Scones, finger sandwiches, pastries… and tea, of course.  This would be inexpensive, and you wouldn’t have to apologize for it as long as you pick a time of day that’s appropriate to this type of food (so a reception some time between 1:00 and 4:00).  And of course, it’s even better if you give your guests a heads up on the invitation (“Tea reception to follow”), that way they know exactly what to expect and are prepared.
  • Chicken is cheaper than steak or seafood.  And pasta is cheaper than most anything, not to mention it can stretch more.
  • Skip the cocktail hour.  Yes, as the bride and groom (or bride and bride or groom and groom), you may want a minute to yourselves to relax, take pictures, bask in newly-wed-ness, but your guests will be perfectly fine without the passed plates and martinis.  They can wait.  And in the mean time, you can provide them with something to do until the food comes out.  We had a wish jar where everyone could write “wishes” for us to read after the wedding (and these “wishes” proved both lovely and humorous).  You could also do a photo booth or an interactive guest book (a videographer interviews your guests).  There are endless possibilities to occupy your guests, so don’t worry about a little extra food that they probably won’t notice anyway (not to mention a cocktail hour requires more waitstaff, i.e., hundreds of more dollars).
  • Consider what foods will be in season when you are getting married, especially certain fruits, which may cost more at different times of the year (as well as flowers — more on that in a few weeks).
  • We had a dry wedding.  Gasp!  Was this our first choice?  Not exactly, but it was the most cost-effective choice (we’re talking the difference of a few thousand dollars with our particular venue), and with a lot of Baptists in the family (I say this with love), paired with the fact that we were getting married on a Sunday morning… yeah, a dry wedding just made the most sense.  If Josh and I had to do it over again, the only thing we would have done differently was celebrated with some of our closest friends at a bar or something afterwards, but this was hardly a thing that ruined the wedding (or so I believe when I look at pictures of my friends dancing like crazy people at the reception).  Again, this being a Sunday morning wedding, this omission was a lot more justifiable than if it was an evening wedding.  My money saving point in all of this is:  a dry wedding is the cheapest, but if you want alcohol at your wedding (beyond a champagne toast), you need to make sure your venue doesn’t make this impossible.  A cash bar is sometimes an option, however there are many sides to this and many people have strong opinions, and in general, a lot of folks out there think a cash bar is… tacky. You know your friends and family, and you can make the final ruling on this, but I knew it wasn’t something I was interested in.
  • Also, venues vary, but be careful of the “we’ll charge per drink”/tally system that some venues do. Limit the alcohol to just the first 2 hours, or just wine and beer, or just a signature (pre-mixed) cocktail.  And if you have a little more freedom, then providing your own alcohol would definitely be more cost-effective (a few kegs and 2 buck chuck from Trader Joe’s — you can’t beat it!).

That’s all the wisdom I have for today (if you can call it that).  Hope these tips help!  And as always, if you’re reading this from a “been there, done that” standpoint and you feel you have a few tips to offer, please do so in the comments section below (or click on the permalink above to be directed to the comments section).  Thanks!

Check out the previous Wedding Wednesday posts:


Setting a Date

Finding a Venue