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Like most other components of the celebration, your wedding catering price can go up or down depending on a long list of factors. “Catering a wedding is like building a house,” says Lynn Buono of Feast Your Eyes Catering. “There are a great number of elements, and each element has options available at different price points.”
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Still, it’s helpful to understand what those elements are, as well as the average costs associated with them, as you plan your budget. Here’s what you can expect to pay to wine and dine your wedding guests.
Average Price of Wedding Catering
Word to the wise: Wedding catering costs vary drastically throughout the country, as well as based on menu components, design and styling, and service, so take any stats you encounter with several grains of salt. With that said, The Wedding Report indicates that, for U.S. weddings in 2019, the average spend on food services was $4,618, while the average spend on bar services was $2,365.
With more boutique firms come higher levels of service, and with that, you will likely encounter higher costs. With Peachtree, for example, rates begin around $165 per person, not including alcohol, and can extend upwards of $200 per person depending on upgrades and time of year.
What Dictates the Price
Per caterer Jon Weinrott, the typical wedding catering package includes cocktail hour appetizers (six passed hors d'oeuvres and one food station typically does the job), the main meal (Peachtree’s menus include two protein options, a vegetarian or vegan entree alternative, and accompanying veggie and starch sides), and passed desserts. At Peachtree, beverage costs are separate (though some caterers combine food and drink into one package), and a cake can be brought in from another vendor.
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Jon Weinrott is the co-owner and president of Peachtree Catering & Events, a boutique catering firm based on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
Service style will have the biggest impact on your catering bill. The more waitstaff and equipment required to distribute a meal to guests, the more costly it will be. This is why family-style service—in which large dishes of each menu item are passed around the tables, as you might at Thanksgiving—is typically the most expensive service style. “Each table gets serving containers and serving silverware, along with enough staff to get the family-style platters to each table without taking too long,” explains Buono.
You might be tempted to inquire about cutting down on waitstaff to save money, but remember that your reception only lasts a limited amount of time—and guests should spend more of it dancing and celebrating than waiting for their food.
While you might think buffet-style service would be the cheapest route, that isn’t always the case. It, too, requires a certain amount of wait staff to keep the lines moving, and will also require more food overall to keep guests visually satiated. “No one wants to walk up to an almost empty buffet,” says Buono. A traditional seated dinner will also require wait staff, but it has the benefit of curbing direct food costs by cutting down on excess. “With a sit-down dinner, you know exactly what you need—especially if guests indicate their meal choice ahead of time,” says Weinrott.
Seasonality can also have a big impact on pricing. A Saturday in the spring or fall, for example, is considered a premium date, and securing one will come at a cost. But if you’re willing to book a date that’s less popular—like a Friday or Sunday, or something in the winter or summer—it could come at a lower rate.
Additional Costs to Expect
- Bar service. If alcohol/beverage service isn’t included in your catering bill, this will be a significant secondary spend.
- Signature drinks. Some caterers do charge extra for the creation of custom cocktails to be served alongside standard bar service.
- Champagne toast. This celebratory moment typically a fixed fee that is separate from bar service.
- Chef-attended stations. Activations such as carving stations and sushi hand-rolled to order require a chef to man the table. Expect their services to be an additional line item.
- Grazing tables. Though certainly gaining in popularity, grazing tables at cocktail hour are not yet universally standard in catering packages and might be an additional cost when included alongside butlered hors d'oeuvres.
- Menu upgrades. Want to serve surf & turf? That’ll cost more than the roasted chicken, without a doubt.
- Late-night snacks. End-of-the-nights sweets and junk food are also typically an additional fee.
- Exclusive use of the venue. If your caterer owns or operates your venue, you may see a line item in your bill for use of the space.
- Rental upgrades. If your caterer offers them, fancier linens, chairs, dishware, etc. might come with an additional fee.
- Gratuity. Some caterers will automatically factor this into your bill, while others won’t. That’s just one reason why it’s important to always read your contract. An amount between 15 and 20 percent of your total food and beverage bill—no need to factor in the venue or rental fees—is generally considered fair.
If you’d like to hand out individual envelopes, Peachtree guidelines suggest between $25 and $50 for waiters and kitchen staff, while “high-touch” roles (your coordinator, chef, personal valet, etc.) typically receive between $75 and $100 each.
Our experts share their insider tips for cutting costs when it comes to wedding catering.
You may love the idea of a champagne bar, but size up your guest list before committing: If most are beer drinkers, then the service—and the money you spend on it—will likely go to waste.
Scale back on attendees.
The number one way to save money on a wedding, full-stop, is to limit the size of the celebration. “If a couple can trim down their guest count, the bottom line shrinks in absolute dollars,” says Buono.
Be flexible with your date.
Caterers can only work a certain amount of events per day. If you’re willing to book a date when they’re less likely to already have business, they may offer lower pricing in order to secure your business.