Proper communication with your caterer can be the difference between a successful event or a culinary disaster.
We turned to two of Knoxville’s best – and busiest – caterers, Holly Hambright and Chris Ford, for tips on what planners need to ask and can expect to be asked before the food arrives.
No. 1: Are you a full-service catering company?
However obvious that question may seem, Ford, owner of Sweet P’s Downtown Dive and Sweet P’s Barbeque & Soul House, pointed out this is one of the most important questions for planners to ask.
While food is a given obviously, plates, utensils, glassware and napkins are not. Some venues have these items on-site – or can get them. Some catering companies provide them. Find out on the front end.
“Drinks, plates, cups, napkins and silverware are a few items customers often expect but forget to ask for,” Ford said.
The dialogue between caterers and their clients is paramount to the success of the event. Ford said he never assumes “the client’s got everything under control.”
“If the client is in need, it’s my job to find vendors to supply them with things,” Ford said.
Seasoned caterers have a network of resources to connect planners with needed services from décor to bartending.
No. 2: Who else is involved?
Hambright, owner of Holly’s Eventful Dining, will ask this question because she wants to secure details long before she begins her preparations. She will inquire about beverage services and other vendors. This ensures that she knows exactly what the client needs from her.
“Caterers have to manage expectations,” Hambright said. “A good caterer will gather every detail attainable from the customer.”
Communication is critical, and Hambright keeps notes of all discussions with clients and retains copies of the paperwork. Hambright’s approach is to know everything about the event, from if a valet is present to how the bar is staffed. These details help her determine the perfect food for the event because she gains an understanding of the attendees and their expectations.
No. 3: What exactly will be catered?
Planners must be aware of what the caterer will bring from appetizers and salad to main courses and side dishes. While that also seems like a given, neither planners not caterers want surprises on the day of the event.
Hambright said, “I never want to hear, ‘I thought we were going to have … .’ ”
Caterers need to know if vegetarian or vegan items are needed in addition to the selected main courses. Don’t assume the vegetable side dishes are adequate.
Even a seemingly simple request needs to be detailed. For example, a planner may ask for a buffet of fried chicken.
That request is followed by Hambright asking: “What would you like your buffet to look like?”
Buffets can be presented in a variety of ways. Caterers aren’t limited to silver serving troughs with Sterno canisters for warmth. Hambright likes to cater to themes.
“For a summer picnic, we could make it look very rustic with woven baskets and tied bandanas or checkered cloths,” Hambright said. “The food can be presented with a very contemporary look.”
No. 4: Can I make changes?
Yes, but not after the menu is finalized. Once locked in, planners need to stay with their food decisions.
Caterers have been asked on the day of an event to change the main course, bring the food hours earlier and lower the price.
That is a recipe for wrecking an event. Caterers have to keep schedules with deliveries, and the expense and time of buying and preparing the food already have occurred.
Both Ford and Hambright stressed communication before and leading up to the event as the most critical to success. That means looping in planners, venues and other vendors.
Ford pointed out that his point of contact for the food may be different than the primary planner for the event, a situation that works only if everyone stays on the same page.
“There must be communication among all parties,” Ford said.
No. 5: How much will it cost?
This is the most-important question to be resolved, according to Ford and Hambright.
The caterer will expect to be paid in full based on the finalized menu. It is imperative that both planner and caterer agree on the cost and document exactly what the payment provides. If items are added or deleted, the paperwork must be updated to reflect any changes.
Neither planner nor caterer wants any disruptions leading up to the event or surprises on the day it arrives.
“The best experience happens when everyone is on the same page,” Ford said.
The ball celebrated the museum’s opening of the Richard Jolley installation, “Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity,” one of the largest figurative glass and steel assemblages in the world.
“There was no stone left unturned, no potential scenario not planned for, and everyone did their part,” Hambright said.
Malik McKenzie, a summer intern at Moxley Carmichael, is a junior marketing major at Howard University in Washington, D.C. A lover of good food, good music and good friends, you are likely to find him in an interesting situation involving all three.