Anyone who’s organized a big party or wedding will tell you: Good catering is important. The quality of food and drink you serve—and how you serve it—is one of the most important aspects of a big event, whether it’s formal or not.
In most cases, catering will also make up a sizable percentage of your overall costs. For example, food and liquor are often the biggest expense for weddings. According to The Bridal Association of America, the average cost for wedding catering (including food and food service, drinks and drink service, as well as cake and cake-cutting) is almost $13,000. This is based on an average of $150 guests, coming out to around $85 per guest—but this number is dependent on many factors.
So how much will it cost to cater your event? Here is a helpful guide, as well as tips to cut back on catering costs.
Number of guests
Obviously, the fewer guests you have, the less you’ll have to spend on catering. If, on average, it costs $85 per person for food and drinks, then it will cost you $8,500 for 100 guests. Reducing your guest list by even 10 people might save you almost $1,000. However, it’s important to discuss possible numbers with your caterer. Some companies will offer a per-person discount for larger groups.
Catering costs, like any other expense or service, vary throughout the country. Costs tend to be around 30% higher in big cities and in the Northeast and West Coast; so if you’re on either coast, expect to pay more.
Plated vs. buffet vs. family-style
There are generally three types of catering styles: plated, buffet and family-style. A plated service is usually the most expensive because you have to pay for wait staff. Plated meals may also have multiple courses; the more courses you have, the more you’ll have to pay. Consider offering three amazing courses as opposed to five decent courses. Your guests will be happy, and you will have saved hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Family-style meals involve waiters bringing around food on serving platters for guests to pass around. For this type of meal, you’ll need more space on tables for all the dishes, which means you may need more tables, linens, and so forth. Buffet-style meals are usually the least expensive, but it depends on what options you choose and how many servings you plan to make available for your guests.
In 2014, the average cost for a wedding cake was $466. That number can easily surpass $1,200 in areas like New York and Napa Valley, California.
Cakes are priced per slice, so the more mouths they’re designed to feed, the more you’ll pay. Instead of having one extravagant cake to feed all the guests, many couples are now choosing to have one small, beautiful cake to display (and eat) and several sheet cakes with the same flavor hidden away in the kitchen and cut for your guests. This can save you 50% on cake costs.
It also costs money to have the cake cut and served to guests. Many reception sites charge a per-slice cutting fee that ranges between $1 and $8. Instead of having slices served to guests, you can have a station where guests choose a pre-sliced piece; people have reporting savings up to 10% savings on cake serving costs.
Multi-tiered cakes with handmade sugar flowers and special shapes are also more expensive. Alternative options include displaying the tiers on different platters and pedestals, rather than stacked on each other. Square-shaped cakes can feed more people.
Alcohol is where you can either spend a lot or save a lot. The cost depends on several factors. Will you have a full, open bar? Will you offer just beer and wine? Or will you offer a few cocktails, plus beer and wine? An open bar can drink up 10–20% of your total budget.
It’s typically cheaper to offer a “soft” or “limited” bar, in which you have a limited selection of liquor and several beers and wines. You could also serve cocktails at specific times and have servers offer wine and beer during the meal.
The cost is up to you
These are some of the key variables that will determine the total cost of catering your wedding or party. You must factor in the number of guests, the style of meals, the cake, and, of course, alcohol. If you’re on a budget, consider the following:
- Cut down your guest list
- Have a buffet instead of a plated meal service
- Go with simpler plated options and fewer courses
- Get smart about your cake service
- Limit your bar options
Whatever your budget, make sure you find a qualified catering company with a strong reputation. Good luck with your wedding and party!