To choose the catering company that is best for your special occasion, ask candidates these important questions…

What services do you provide? Some caterers provide only the food. Others provide wait staff and cleanup—and still others offer full service (tables, chairs, table linens, design coordination, flowers, music and more). Any arrangement is fine so long as you understand what is available and whether it meets your needs.

What is your price range? If the cost is beyond your budget, there is no point in going further. Asking a caterer to reduce the price or quality to below what he/she usually provides is simply not worth the risk of having the event go badly. If you opt out, it is perfectly OK to ask whether the caterer can suggest someone who is used to working within your budget. Caterers often are happy to recommend other caterers who aren’t direct competitors.

How can I get a sense of what your food is like? Although free pre-contract tastings are in vogue in the catering business right now, in reality, these tastings tell you very little. Any decent chef can pull off an impressive tasting for, say, only four people. Better: Find out whether the caterer has a large upcoming event that is open to the public (for example, some fund-raising events) where you could taste the food. Visiting the event also is an excellent way to assess the staff’s performance and how smoothly the event is progressing.

Where is the food prepared? Food can be cooked away from the venue where you’re holding your event, but it should always be finished on-site so that it is served at its best.

Who will be present to supervise the event? If it’s not the owner of the catering business, ask to meet this person so that you can gauge your level of comfort and trust. Does he/she listen to you? Ask good questions about what you want? Also, find out whether a backup person will be assigned to the event and be kept informed throughout the process. The more the caterer seems to understand that a successfully catered event is about the people who work the event, and not just about the food, the better.

Can you give me several examples of problems that have occurred at your events and how you solved them? Ask what he learned from them. Does a caterer seem to blame his/her clients? Or become agitated when talking about them? If a caterer speaks ill of clients, you should probably look elsewhere.

What insurance do you carry? Liability insurance is a must—and also personal-injury insurance covering all of the catering workers if the event is to be held in your home.

How much money do you require at signing? Most deposits are 25% to 50% of the caterer’s estimate for the work.

Do you accept commissions from vendors? Caterers may use other companies to provide flowers, table linens and other items and services. Caterers who receive money from vendors for giving them business may not be choosing the vendors that are best for their clients. If the caterer receives a commission, he/she should disclose that to the client. And then you should ask the caterer why he/she is recommending that vendor.

What are your special strengths? Ask what a caterer is most proud of. You want a response that includes areas that are important to youperhaps creativity, a friendly but professional staff or very strict adherence to the timing as the event unfolds.

Can I supply the alcoholic beverages—or is this something that you insist on handling? If both the venue and the caterer allow hosts to supply liquor, it may save you some money because the markup on alcoholic beverages tends to be high.

Could you give me some names and contact information to call for recommendations? To learn the most valuable information, ask several former clients about any financial, quality or timing issues that cropped up.

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