Even your most jaded wedding guests are expecting to enjoy great food and drink, and lots of it. Consequently, you can plan to spend about 50 percent of your budget on catering, so it's important to know where your money is actually going–and what you can do to save. Here are the factors that will most affect the amount of your catering bill.
Serving Style: In most cases, a sit–down meal is more expensive than a buffet, because a sit–down meal requires more staff to prepare and serve it, says Dana Harris of AST: A Southern Tradition Catering & Event Planning, in Atlanta. Caterers charge you a fee per staffer, and each table usually has a server or two manning it. The fewer staffers you need, the less you'll spend. However, a buffet isn't exactly a bargain. "Buffet meals require linens and serving pieces, and larger quantities of food—people eat more when they serve themselves," explains Kay Benson of East Meets West Catering, in Boston. "Plus, you'll still need to pay staff to tend to the buffet, and waiters to provide water and wine to the tables." Since there isn't always a major price difference, your choice in this great debate should come down to the style of wedding you're hoping for. A sit–down meal creates a more formal experience, while a buffet is more relaxed. If you're hoping for the formality of a sit–down meal, but want to spend less, opt for a family–style dinner, where guests, seated at tables, serve themselves from platters.
Your Venue's Kitchen Situation: If you're marrying in a rural location, like a vineyard, ranch, or farm, expect ineffficient kitchen facilities— or none at all. The less your venue has in the way of ovens, prep stations, and equipment, the more it will cost to bring in these items. Under such circumstances, a "satellite kitchen" must be erected, which can include tents, generators, and a water supply, equipment that can add up to equal to or greater than your entire site–rental fee. The same goes for a wedding held at a private home, also a huge fi nancial undertaking, since the kitchens in most houses are not equipped for large parties.
Cocktail Hour: Cocktail hour can be the most expensive part of the night. If you want sushi chefs, prime rib stations, and loads of passed hors d'oeuvres, along with free flowing top–shelf booze, the cost of food, setup, and staff for just that one hour can totally blow your budget. For the most cost–effective cocktail hour, Kay recommends having a few passed hors d'oeuvres and several unmanned stations that feature less expensive foods. "For example, if shrimp is left out on a station, guests may have as many as 10 to 15 shrimp, but they'll take only two or three if it's passed," she says. If you do opt for passed hors d'oeuvres, several additional servers will be needed. "The more passed hors d'oeuvres, the more staff you need to carry the trays and to bus debris," says Paul Dongarra of Dionysus' Kitchen, in Baltimore. "We suggest having just three types of passed hors d'oeuvres, and budgeting about one or two pieces per person—this plan offers a nice variety, but doesn't require a multitude of additional staffers."
Alcohol: To provide unlimited drinks, you could be charged a fee "per hour, per guest," in which case you would know the total going in—a great option for a drinking crowd. The other, less predictable option is being charged "by the drink," which is preferable if you're hosting a crowd of teetotalers. Additional costs can include the hiring of extra licensed bartenders or the renting of glassware and bar accoutrements, all of which can add up to 20 to 25 percent of your entire catering bill. There is no easier item to lose control of in the budget than alcohol, but balance that thought against the fact that there isn't another wedding component a guest will complain about more if denied. The compromise between affordability and angry protests is to "offer your guests wine and beer, along with a specialty cocktail," says New York's Marc Alvarez of Perfectly Marc'D. "And if you have an important relative who only likes a certain liquor, have a bottle of it on hand for him or her."
Ordering: The reason guests are asked to select "chicken" or "fish" on their response card is because costs skyrocket when guests order at the wedding. "The caterer would have to provide enough of each entrée to ensure that all guests get their first choice," says Jonathan Beil of Fork & Spoon Productions, in San Francisco. This multiplies your food costs and is wasteful. The alternative is to serve everyone the same entrée, like a composed plate of filet mignon and grilled shrimp, so that ordering is not an issue.
Tip: If you purchase your own liquor, whether because you want to or because the venue doesn't have a liquor license, some caterers will simply charge a bar setup fee, while others add a "corkage fee"—a service charge for opening bottles the caterer has not purchased (read: made money from). Costs can rise to several dollars per bottle. This per–bottle rate is what you should try to negotiate—you may be able to have the fee waived. As with all wedding costs, it never hurts to ask.