A common statistic that is bandied about the meetings industry states that F&B costs are commonly the second-highest budget item (after guest rooms), so getting this portion of your event correct is absolutely crucial to the bottom line.

And it certainly doesn't take a veteran planner to know that a substandard F&B effort is perhaps the most likely meeting component to leave a bad taste in the mouth of your attendees!

Hiring a caterer can involve different challenges than planning food and beverage functions at a hotel. I've compiled a list of questions that might be helpful in evaluating caterers—some questions are more basic and some concern sustainability. Use those that are specific to your event.

Caterer qualifying, policy, pricing and staffing

  • Are you a full-time caterer? What type of experience, background and education do you have? How long have you been in business? Who owns the company? What is your specialty?
  • Can you provide custom menus for my group?
  • Do you have a liquor license? Is there a corkage fee if we provide some/all of the liquor?
  • Can you provide certificates of workers compensation, liability insurance, health department and liquor licenses, and a food manager certificate?
  • Have your bartenders attended TIPS training (Training for Intervention Procedures for servers of alcohol)? What is your bartender-to-guest ratio? Can you provide a cash bar?
  • Are servers employees of your company or do you hire from a server pool/agency? What is the guest-to-server ratio? Are gratuities included in quoted costs?
  • How will servers be dressed? Can we provide costumes/themed outfits/masks for them to wear?
  • Can servers put out place cards, menus, handouts or favors? Can they collect tickets?
  • Will my pre-planning contact be on-site to manage my function? How many supervisors will be working the event?
  • Have you worked in the XYZ venue before? How close is your facility to the venue?
  • Can a tasting be arranged prior to hiring?
  • When is the final guarantee due?
  • What is your overset policy?
  • Does your price per person translate to "all you can eat" for buffets or receptions?
  • Can you provide special pricing for children? Can you provide special pricing for suppliers (band, DJ, photographer, etc.)
  • Do you require a deposit? How much? When is it due?
  • Do you take credit cards? If yes, what type?
  • What are your cancellation terms?
  • Can I take the leftovers or can you donate them to a food bank on my behalf?
  • Will you clean up the facility and dispose of trash following the event?
  • Can you provide three references from planners who held similar size-and-style functions with your company? NOTE to reader: The best question to ask the reference is the following: "Would you use XYZ caterer again?"

Menu Development, food preparation and food service

  • For plated meals, can guests be given a choice of entrees at the event?
  • What food-service types can you provide (e.g., plated meal, buffet, tray-passed hors d'oeuvres, action station, etc.)?
  • Which food items will be prepared on-site and which items are transported from a different facility? Do you use frozen items?
  • Do you offer an organic, local and sustainable menu? Do you offer a seasonal menu featuring locally grown ingredients? Can you provide the origins of the food you serve?
  • Can you provide free-range and cage-free meats and poultry, and hormone- and antibiotic-free meat and dairy products?
  • Can you accommodate special meals/dietary needs? How much advance notice is needed? How will on-site requests be handled?
  • Are you able to provide dietary information on the menu you serve?
  • Can you post signs listing ingredients that cause major allergies: peanuts, nuts, diary, shellfish, etc.?
  • Do you make special occasion cakes? Is there a cake-cutting fee if brought in from the outside?
  • Can you include a recipe that we provide, like a special family dish, etc.?
  • How much food will be provided per person, i.e. ounces, pieces, etc.? What is the portion size of each entree?
  • What time will the set-up start? What time will servers arrive? What time will clean-up be concluded?
  • How long will it take to serve each course?
  • How will buffets be decorated? Can you provide pictures? Can you provide centerpieces for guest tables?
  • Can you provide beverages, salt, pepper, cream, etc., in bulk dispensers, rather than providing individualized packages, cans or bottles?

Equipment and Rentals

  • Do you need water/power for your equipment? Who will make those arrangements?
  • What set-up equipment will you provide (e.g., banquet tables for food, tables for guests, linens for all tables, decor for banquet table, plates (what kind), glasses (what kind), napkins (paper or linen) plastic utensils or silverware. Can you provide samples of each? Can upgrades be made?
  • Can you provide biodegradable/compostable/recyclable dinnerware?
  • What size are your banquet rounds? Can you provide floor-length linens? What colors and pattern choices can you provide? Note to reader : 60" table seats 8 to 10 (8 preferred) – 72" seats 10 to 12 (10 preferred).
  • Do I have a choice of chairs? Can you provide chair covers?
  • Can you rent a tent and/or dance floor, if needed?
  • Is the rental kitchen equipment included in quoted cost, i.e. stoves, warmers, service tables, chafers, outside kitchen tenting, if needed?

For more than 30 years, Arlene Sheff, CMP, has had varied and extensive experience in the meeting management field. She is the former senior meeting & event planner for The Boeing Company, where she produced senior-level executive meetings and events. Internally, Sheff taught a workshop series, "The Fundamentals of Meeting & Event Planning." For the 10 years prior to joining The Boeing Company, she owned and managed Meetings, etc., a full-service meeting management firm servicing corporate, association and government clients. She is currently a strategic meeting consultant.