One of our favorite things about going to a Tampa Bay wedding is the food! (Yes, yes, being a part of a loved one's special day is important too, but dinner is next on our list).
Most couples we talk to say that “guest experience” is a top priority, which means feeding your guests food that actually tastes good and is memorable for all the right reasons.
There are several big decisions to make that will affect the outcome of your wedding catering. The number of wedding guests is the biggest factor, as you're paying per guest. Shaving down your list by even 10-20% can save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars! Other options to consider include: are you choosing a venue that provides in-house catering or do you need to bring in your own caterer? Do you want a formal plated meal or offer more choices through a buffet?
You'll find that there are no “right answers” to some of these questions, as it all depends on you and your fiance's preferences. To help you make better educated decisions regarding your wedding menu, we've asked expert Tampa Bay wedding caterers and venues to share their thoughts about what you need to know about wedding catering.
How to Determine A Budget:
Your budget can be figured out two ways: have an idea of an amount of money you absolutely can not go over and divide that by the number of people you are inviting so that you know approximately how much you have to spend per person or break it down the opposite way and figure out approximate per person prices for the type of food you desire. Just remember that this amount will need to cover not just food, but also, alcohol, other drinks, tax, gratuity, servers or chefs and if not included in your venue of choice, necessities such as: linens, chargers, plates, glasses, cutlery, tables, chairs, etc., per person. A full-service catering company can help you figure out a per person price that would include each of those aspects. Caterers who are not full-service might only provide food, in which case you would need to see what your venue provides or you will need to seek out rental companies and bar services to obtain the rest of these items. -Dena Leigh, Executive Chef, Amici’s Catered Cuisine Inc.
Often times when you hear someone ask about a wedding, the first comment people make is about the food. This is why the general rule of thumb is to allow 50% of your budget for food, drink, reception site and cake. It's always important to figure out your total wedding budget before spending a dime, this way you can be upfront with your vendors from the get go and avoid any surprises when it comes time to sign a contract. It is also important to remember that along with the cost of the food itself, you will need to pay for the staff to prepare and serve it, along with the service ware and tax. A common catering budget we hear from couples is $7,500 for 125 guests ($60 per person), not including venue rental and alcohol. Service ware, tax and staffing combined usually can consume about 40-50% of this budget leaving you with $33 per person. If you also wish to serve alcohol most 4-hour bars range from about $20-30 per person, leaving you with $13 or less per person for food. These days that's hardly enough for a meal at most fast casual restaurants. In this instance, scaling back your guest count will help provide a far more realistic budget for food and beverage. -Lucille Hanson, Special Event Planner, The Palmetto Club
In-House vs. Outside Catering:
Basically, these are the two main options for weddings. Either you choose a venue that has a food producing kitchen or restaurant on-site or you choose a venue that that does not serve their own food, in which case you have to hire an outside caterer. Depending on your personal preference their are pros and cons to both of these choices. A venue that does in-house catering can be good because everything is all-inclusive. You basically just need to write two checks (deposit and final), and you are settled. The food, tables, chairs, linens, alcohol, etc. would all be included in your total cost. However, in settling with an in-house caterer you also must settle for their menu, which may not be up to your standards, depending on the venue you choose. Where as, if you choose a venue that allows you to use an outside caterer, you have much more flexibility to choose one that fits your needs. Most venues have a preferred caterer list to guide you in the right direction. -Dena Leigh, Executive Chef, Amici’s Catered Cuisine Inc.
When using a venue's in-house catering, you might have the opportunity to save some money, but your food options might be limited to what the venue offers. With most outside catering companies, you are able to create your own menu or add your own personal touches making the event more personal to you and your guests. -Anggie Rocco, Director of Operations, K4 Catering
Advantages to having your catering provided by the venue can be that if you are running late, the food isn’t sitting in a hot box waiting on you or if Aunt Suzie’s date suddenly remembers he is allergic to peppers, the chef can make food quickly on-site. -Jessica Bressmer, Senior Catering Executive, Tampa Airport Marriott
Quality of Food
It is important to remember when comparing pricing between venues it may not always be apples to apples. Venue A may be able to offer a $49 filet, while Venue B is offering at $79 filet. The USDA has different grades of beef, and venues vary by which food distributers they use. Make sure you are asking both venues what grade the meat is and how many ounces it is. -Jessica Bressmer, Senior Catering Executive, Tampa Airport Marriott
Quality of Service
Compare the level of service that you are getting. Venues all staff differently. Ask about the ratio of servers to tables and bartenders to guests. There is nothing worse than waiting 20 minutes at the bar for a drink or for your table to get their entrées. You also want to ask if the staff working your wedding work at the venue full-time or do they hire labor from a third party. -Jessica Bressmer, Senior Catering Executive, Tampa Airport Marriott
Plated vs. Buffet
When choosing between these two service styles it is important to keep presentation and budget in mind. Do you want your guests to remain seated during the dinner, with each course pre-selected and presented to them? Or, do you want your guests to be up and interacting as they choose from several different dishes presented on a buffet or tablescape? Plated dinners are generally seen as a more formal service style, while buffets are seen as a more relaxed service style. Providing your budget and style allows the caterer to accurately suggest which service style is best for your event. Plated dinners tend to have a higher cost due to the amount of staff required to execute the service, as well as the intricacy of composing each individual plate. A buffet style dinner is more affordable, as the staffing needs are not as high and the food presentation is not as complex. -Kevin Lacassin, Executive Chef and Owner, Good Food Catering
We advise couples to think about the feel they would like for their event. Do they want guests seated and served or up and about? For a successful plated meal, it is essential to serve a cohesive plate with all the food choices complementary to each other. If a couple would like to offer chicken, steak, and seafood with potatoes, pasta, and vegetables to each guest, we suggest a buffet because that many options with flavors and sauces might not fit best together. A choice plated meal (when each guest gets a pre-determined choice ) creates a lot more work for the couple planning, as choices must be tallied ahead of time and for successful service each guest place setting must be labeled. Typically plated meals are more expensive than a buffet because the labor cost is greater. However, this all depends on food choices and the amount of food served; there is greater control on portion size in a plated meal as opposed to a buffet. -Laura Walsh, Olympia Catering & Events
Sometimes there is a misconception that buffets are the most price effective choice, which is often not true. For a buffet, the chef has to consider portions for guests returning a second, a third or even a fourth time to the station. Additionally, if the venue or caterer does not own all of the necessary equipment or display pieces for the buffet, they might need to rent them, maybe even passing along that cost to you. Plated dinners can sometimes be more cost effective, because there is a specific anticipated portion size per guests. -Audrey Grounds, Private Events Director, Rococo Steak
The Forgotten Meals
Don't forget about meals for any child guests. If having a lot of children, then a separate children's buffet might be more cost effective. If just having a few, then they can eat what they want off the buffet, usually at reduced pricing. -Michele Whitaker, Delectables Fine Catering
Vendor meals are something most couples don't anticipate. Most photographers, DJs and musicians have in their contracts that they are to be supplied a meal. Meals are usually given to those vendors that will be spending seven or more hours of service at the event. Planners, photo booth attendants and venue personnel may also fall into this category. -Michele Whitaker, Delectables Fine Catering