The Ultimate Guide to Catering: Your Contract & Budget

Food & Drink

When it comes to planning your dream wedding reception, some details are easier to solidify than others. One tricky place where couples often struggle to get what they want and still stay on budget? Catering! We're already shared tips for your bar, tasty appetizer ideas, how to create the perfect menu, and the best wine and cake flavors, but now we're focusing on the nitty-gritty — your catering contract and those all-too-common budget busters.

To start, make sure to get these seven items in writing from your caterer! From an exact number of staff and vendor meals to any extra fees, you want to know your total cost from the get-go.

How much staff will be provided.
In addition to your servers, factor in one captain, or supervisor, per w guests.

Special meal options.
Have guests indicate food allergies or restrictions on their RSVPs and give your catering manager a heads up if you know any specific guests' needs ahead of time. And always include a vegetarian option!

What the little ones are eating.
If you've got lots of kids coming to your wedding, the caterer should be able to whip up their meals for half the price of adults'. Request a separate menu for kids during your tasting and figure out how many meals will be needed. And don't forget them during cocktail hour! Small kid-friendly plated will keep everyone happy.

What the vendors are eating.
You'll need to feed the catering staff, your band or DJ, your event planner, and any other vendors who will be on site throughout your party (assistants included). Most are happy with a buffet in the kitchen — about half the price of each guest's meal.

Rental details.
Caterers should include a few choices of colored cotton linens, and many offer colored glassware and plates. Basic rentals start at $65 per person (including tables, chairs, linens, and tableware) but go up to $200 for, say, silk tablecloths and Chiavari chairs.

The day's timeline.
Indicate what time you'd like the reception space to be "room ready" to avoid a backdrop of half-set tables in any pre-event photos.

Additional fess and penalties.
You may pay extra for cake cutting and, if you're bringing your own wine, corkage. These and any other fees should be spelled out in writing, as should exactly how much it'll cost you to deviate from the contract.

And don't forget to tip! Ask your catering manager if your staffing fee includes a service charge. (Most in-house caterers' do; outside caterers' may not.) If you're responsible for the tip, budget for 15 to 20 percent of staffing charges, or about $60 per staff member, including the catering manager. Before the wedding, organize tip money in labeled envelopes for the catering manager to distribute. If you don't have a planner to hand them off, let a bridesmaid or responsible family member do the honors.

Even if you have an ironclad contract, you can still fall pray to common budget-busting errors. Keep these three things in mind to keep the budget in check.

Stick to the food plan: If you make changes after your caterer's final menu deadline (usually a month before the wedding), some venues will charge a late fee.

Handle your head count: Give your catering manager a final guest list as early as you can. Guests added less than two weeks before the wedding might have a penalty of an additional 50 percent per head. Week-of additions can be twice the price.

Resist the urge to run over: If you extend your reception and the catering staff has to stay late to break down the room, you'll probably have to pay each member for the extra hours of work. And if staffers have to return to the venue the next day to finish cleaning up, you could be dinged for up to a grand.

For more great food and drink advice, check out our April/May issue, available on newsstands and for download now!

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