Simple Ways to Save on Catering Costs

Photo: gilas

A catered meal I once had at a charity cycling event, served by pleasant and helpful staff, made a big impression on me. My entry fee to the event entitled me to a buffet lunch presented by this caterer in addition to the usual pre-ride breakfast and snacks along the route. The meal, which included choices for meat and vegetarian entrées, was elegant and satisfying.

What intrigued me the most, though, was the caterer's back story. The organization had started as a buffet restaurant staffed primarily by volunteers as an experience-based training center, and then evolved into a catering firm to lessen the day-to-day demands on volunteer hours. All proceeds from the caterer fund charitable activities. So when a friend was planning an office luncheon, I recommended this catering service. The prices were extremely reasonable, the food was fresh and imaginatively prepared, and the service was excellent.

These experiences illustrate that there are some simple ways to save on catering if you have the time to do some research.  Start by exploring these sources of catered meals:

  1. Non-profit caterers, which may offer complete catering services as a training ground for aspiring chefs and foodservice professionals.
  2. Culinary programs at area colleges and universities, which may offer full-service catering as well as delivery of complete meals for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Many schools focus on restaurant-style service only, but some offer catering as part of the training curriculum.
  3. Meals-to-go companies, which sell fresh and frozen prepared entrees, side dishes, and desserts, and sometimes offer box lunches and traditional catering services as well. These companies may be national chains or run independently. The quality is generally very good to excellent, though creativity in menu design may be limited. Consider serving these prepared meals as a cost-effective alternative to full-service catering with individual servings. You can plan a full menu by supplementing entrees and side dishes with fresh bread and desserts from a local bakery.
  4. Specialty grocers and grocery chains also sell prepared items, similar to meals-to-go companies. Very often they have excellent luncheon items such as chicken salad and potato salad in addition to standard catering items (e.g., deli trays). Cull out the best and most creatively prepared foods (southwestern chicken salad is a favorite of mine, for example). Call ahead to make arrangements so that the staff can prepare a large batch for your event.
  5. Restaurants often sell menu items in large quantities. Save money by buying these larger portions and then controlling portion size when you serve meals to guests. Many restaurants also have catering businesses that are worth investigation.
  6. Bagel shops and sandwich shops often provide catering for breakfasts and lunches or offer deals that work well for business breakfasts or casual lunches.

Your research should involve product sampling, one of my favorite parts of investigating potential caterers. Try some meals-to-go or food from the grocery's deli when you have a hectic work schedule, ask for the caterer's name at the next luncheon you attend, and dine at a variety of restaurants. At the same time, notice service standards so that you can make sure that lower-cost sources don't skimp on service levels. And don't skip the obvious step: Check prices to verify that your business will save money by using one of these approaches compared to traditional alternatives.

It's also important to think about all aspects of an event when you are planning a catered meal. If you are throwing a holiday party for a handful of employees, then you may be able to buy various menu items and set up a casual, self-service line in the office kitchen. If you are hosting a dinner with key decision-makers from a major client, then you may opt for a full-service caterer in an offsite space. Either way, estimate both the dollars and hours required to achieve expectations without ruining your budget.

Food accounts for just a slice of the total cost of an event. Other cost components include venue rental, set-up, and decoration; food presentation; food and beverage service; and clean up after the event. You may need to handle these details yourself, make assignments to your employees (who may or may not have expertise in hospitality), or hire outside help.

Ways to save money in these areas include:

  • Use your own facility, reserve common areas in your office building or neighborhood, or rent space in a public park or community center.
  • Bring your own serving platters, table linens, dinnerware, etc.
  • Ask an employee to plan and execute décor within a set budget as part of a project.
  • Plate meals and prepare beverages prior to arrival of guests (allowing you to control portion sizes and avoiding the need for servers).
  • Clean items in the facility or take items home for clean-up.

And finally, remember that there are times when you need to focus on putting the finishing touches on a client presentation rather than polishing catered-meal presentation.

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