Tips or Trends Tuesday: Five Tips For Avoiding a Catering Fiasco

There is something in the event catering world that I have a bone to pick with. What is up with not letting your customers taste your food without booking first? This past year or so I toured a lovely wedding venue with my local Association of Bridal Consultants. A group of wedding planners are going to have a lot of questions and one of the first ones was, “Do you do tastings?” The answer was, “Oh yes, of course we do.” We left it at that. Little did I know that we weren’t being told the entire truth.

About a month later, I brought a couple to tour said venue. They are in love and ready to sign a contract. When the tasting issue came up, I was floored and NOT happy. “We do tastings after you make a deposit.” What? I ask about the food and why the venue had come to that decision and they said that their food is top notch as is their pastry chef and no one has ever complained about the food. I’m not convinced, but the clients were okay with it. We didn’t make a deposit that day as I wanted them to have time to think it over.

Once my clients got to the point of putting down a deposit and the deposit was made. We waiting for the tasting. Our turn came and it was held in one of the beautiful ballrooms in the company of many other couples who had booked the venue. The venue put out a comparable spread that my clients had chosen and as we hit the buffet line, it took my foodie groom and myself by surprise. I was completely shocked by not only the poor presentation (wedge of risotto anyone?), but once that food hit my mouth (the cake was obviously not made by a pastry chef and came from a box), I was not amused. I was angry that my clients were now faced with the realization that their non-refundable $700 deposit was gone.

Here are a few of my catering tips to help you avoid a similar situation:

1. Don’t ever ever never ever book a catering hall, traditional caterer, personal chef, restaurant, bakery, etc. without a tasting prior to booking. Any business that does that is more than likely hiding something.

2. Before putting down a deposit. Insist on trying comparable food you will be serving to your guests and seeing how it will be presented to them. Ideally, if you are serving Buffalo Prime Rib, then you should get to taste Buffalo Prime Rib and it should be presented well, not slapped on a plate. However, not all caterers and venues are able to accommodate this and a comparable sampling of their fare is adequate. The emphasis is on comparable: if you are serving chicken, a sample of a chicken dish would be comparable and if you are serving hot hors d’oeuvres, then a sample of a simply executed hot hors d’oeuvre is acceptable. For a bakery, not only want to taste the cake, but you want to see actual photos of cakes they have created, not pictures from a magazine or downloaded off the Internet.

3. Let the venue know that you love their facility, but will not contract with them unless you have a tasting prior to giving them any sort of non-refundable deposit or retainer.

4. If you are so in love with the venue that you want to put that deposit down right away, be sure that your deposit depends on their tasting and is refundable if you receive poor quality food at your tasting.

5. If they won’t refund your deposit under any circumstances…RUN! Do not pass proverbial “Go” or collect that $200! Any caterer or chef worth their salt will let you taste their creations first.

I leave you with a bit of humor (Not humorous for the couples involved) from Cake Wrecks.

“Professional” Cakes Gone Bad

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sources:
http://www.cakewrecks.com/home/2010/7/9/who-you-callin-pro.html
http://www.cakewrecks.com/home/2008/7/10/inspiration-vs-perspiration.html

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5 responses to “Tips or Trends Tuesday: Five Tips For Avoiding a Catering Fiasco

  1. I am sorry that you had a bad experience but a tasting will not solve your problem and is costly to the facility or caterer. Buffalo Prime Rib? really? You would expect someone to procure and prepare a whole prime rib? I would have to drastically increase my costs to everyone to cover all this free food and labor. Cooking for two is nothing like cooking for 250. By your own admission what was ordered or “tasted” could be completely different than what could be delivered. I would come to a function that they are doing and see how the entire event went. When it comes to weddings the food is just one part of the full event. Recommendations from previous customers are the best indicator. I am going out tonight and plan to take your advice and ask the restaurant for tastes of the filet and shrimp before I order it. Oh, dessert too (maybe 3-4 of them). It’s about time we changed the paradigm in all food services! Free food for everybody! lol

    • Larry, the venue in question held a mass tasting after clients had booked the facility. So, we are talking about 100 – 150 people (the size of an average wedding) served at the tasting. If a venue is unable to execute a menu in a similar way (not exact) as what my client would be purchasing, then I would strongly suggest to my client to go elsewhere. In my 16 years of event planning, I had never had a venue and/or caterer serve food prepared that badly. I have had better food at places like Boston Market. I would not expect a caterer or venue to prepare an entire prime rib, buffet, etc. for an individual tasting nor did I state that. However, a venue/caterer should not require a non-refundable $700 deposit from a client prior to any sort of tasting be it for an individual couple or in a mass tasting such as what my clients and I experienced. My issue was primarily the amount of the non-refundable deposit. As a planner, it’s my job to be a good steward of my client’s finances and I would be remiss in my obligation to my clients if I advised them to put down a non-refundable sum without tasting what the venue/caterer has to offer. I have utilized caterers and venues in my area (Denver/Boulder metro) for 11 years and in that time I have never had a venue/caterer ask for a non-refundable deposit of such an amount prior to a tasting. I see no issue in the venue/caterer asking for a fee for the tasting or a combination of a refundable amount plus a non-refundable amount for the cost of food. While something like that isn’t the norm in my area (many places do tastings with many couples present or have a typical tasting menu they serve when an individual couple is tasting and do not charge), it’s not as significant of a loss to a client or to the venue/caterer (in terms of losing the client). In this case, my couple was going to be spending a significant amount of money with the venue and the venue lost that business because of their food. During the dinner it was clear that several of the couples were not happy, but most of those that were unsatisfied felt they couldn’t back out because they would lose the money from their deposit. I have and will continue to advise my clients prior to commit such a large deposit that they could very well lose prior to any tasting. Thank you so much for your comment as it has helped me clarify how to explain my thoughts regarding this issue.

  2. As a caterer for 25+ years, I encourage tastings. Since I also own a restaurant, What I do for my brides is to set up 4-5 items with the types of foods they are interested. 99% of the time they do not know what they want. I usually have an Idea after so many caterings. So I use my most popular items. Personally I would never book a place without tasting the food. So charge for the tasting if you do not have the food on hand. Making a couple sign a contract before giving them a tasting is a NO No! I almost fell off my chair when I saw those cake pictures. I make the cakes and desserts at my restaurant and do the wedding cakes as well as the food. I tried to think of how the cakes ended up like that and the only way I could think of is if they had their girlfriend or mother make the cakes. I ‘ve seen some not so great cakes out there, but those were really bad. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Hi, as a caterer for over 30 years, I have to totally disagree with your post. Tastings that are done in the caterers’ kitchen usually cooked by the exec chef with minute attention paid to all details have nothing to do with catering to a large crowd at an off site location. The cooking process is different, the people doing with work are usually different and the equipment is different. Tastings rarely reflect what you actually get.

    What you need to look for in a caterer/venue is someone who listens and who cares. Taste anything they make. If they have a restaurant go eat there, pay for it, see what the experience is like. If they treat you with respect, use good ingredients, prepared with care and attention to detail, then you know that they will do what they say. If they use bottled salad dressings, frozen pre-made dishes then you know you won’t get what you asked for at your wedding.

    Don’t order a cake from a picture unless the person showing you the cake can say they made the cake themselves. I had many people bring me picture of cakes from books and then ask if we can make it. This is silly. What you should ask is “Can I see some pictures of your wedding cakes?” You wouldn’t go to an artist with a picture of a Rembrandt and ask if he can paint it.

    • Andrew, thank you for your comment. I agree with you regarding cakes and in my post stated that one shouldn’t order a cake from a magazine pic, but look at pictures of actual cakes the baker has created. With regard to tastings, here in CO, it’s not uncommon for caterers to provide tastings prior to booking. Several provide a sample of actual menu items a client has chosen. My biggest issue is not the exact replication of the meal, but with asking a client to put down a hefty sum prior to tasting any of the caterer’s/venue’s food. I do believe that a tasting of the wedding menu should be provided to the client prior to the event. Most caterers that I have worked with, do so. After re-reading my post, I will go back and change it to reflect that. Perhaps the method caterers/venues use with regard to tastings is regional?

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