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The importance of numbers in catering – And what you need to count

Ask any experienced caterer about the importance of numbers when it comes to catering and they’ll tell you it’s one of most important things about catering, if not if not the most important. While this may come as a surprise to some event planners, the catering industry is excessively driven by numbers. Guest and headcounts, portion sizes and delivery dates and times all influence profitability when it comes to food service and even the smallest change could result in a big difference when it comes to catering for a large group of people.

Because of this, event planners need to have a firm grasp on maths, catering numbers and their implications as this will assure the quality of the food as well as avoid any penalty fees. Listed below are the prominent figures and terms you need to be aware of when dealing with caterers.

Estimated count

This is a working number of the projected number of guests that are going be at the event. It is used to initially project costs and staffing needs. This number is determined at the start of the event planning process and there is no obligation to be precise.

Expected count

Usually submitted two or three weeks before the event, this is a more accurate count of the anticipated number of guests. It differs from the estimated count as it’s contractually tied to the final guest count. Every caterer has their own policy regarding expected counts but as a general rule it should not stray from 15% of the final count.

Final count (or guaranteed count)

The official number of guest meals you will pay for and if required the number of places that the catering team will set up in the event space. It is important that the event planner sets an RSVP date before any deadline the catering company sets in order to avoid late fees and penalties for changes in the numbers.

Drop percentage

The drop percentage represents the change in the final count from the expected count. To use a simple example, if the expected count says that 100 people are coming to the event but only 90 people RSVP the drop percentage is 10%.

If the drop percentage is too large caterers may be compelled to charge a penalty fee to cover the cost of staffing and food orders rendered unnecessary by the drop in amount of guests. In order to avoid this happening, event planners themselves will have drop percentage estimates. This is generally around 2% for ticketed events and 5% for free events as people are obviously more likely to show up if they’ve paid for it.

Meal cards

As caterers are likely to offer more than one option for each meal course it’s important to know how much of each they should make. It’s a good idea to get this information from guests when they RSVP so that it can be forwarded to the caterer in good time. To make the system more efficient on the day guests can be presented with meal cards reflecting their choice so servers know straight away what their preference is.

Drink tickets

Drink tickets are sometimes used by caterers to cut the costs of an open bar. It works by giving guests a set number of tickets as they walk into the event which they can exchange for a drink. Beyond the ticket limit should they want to order more drinks then they will have to pay for it. A major consideration when deciding to use a drink ticket system is that most of the time you will be charged the price of the most expensive drink per ticket. Therefore, it’s best to have drink tickets in a bar where all the selections are similarly priced.

After all is said and done it’s the event planner’s responsibility to provide accurate counts to the catering department. Event planners who ignore these counts do so at their own peril and may find themselves paying for it in the form of fees and penalties. In order to avoid this, look at the caterer’s policies before planning the event. Following the above rules will help you plan the event efficiently and pass on the most appropriate cost to your clients and/or guests.


10 Tips to selecting the perfect caterer

With the advent of the digital age a wide range of options have come up for people looking to select a caterer for their next party, wedding, meeting or event. Looking through reviews of different caterers can save you time and money by giving you an idea of what caterers you should avoid.

Of course when it comes to catering food is paramount. Excellent food has the ability to offset sub-par service while caterers that serve inferior food will not have as much leeway even with five star service. That’s why it’s important to put a lot of thought into choosing the right caterer, and to help you here are some tips to selecting the best caterer for your next event.

1) Look at their customer service

Catering will often be one of the first and most important things on any event planner’s checklist. This means that what you spend on the food will have an impact on how much money is left over for other things. With this in mind the caterer you choose should treat you, the customer, with the same importance. Before even considering what menu items to order you should gauge how prompt the caterers are when responding to phone calls and emails. Often their customer service reflects what kind of food service you will receive from them on the day and a lack of it should be a big red flag.

2) Make sure the caterer reflects the event

As an event planner you should know exactly what kind of food and service would best suit the event you’re organizing. When you know this it allows to be specific about the type of event, the food you’d like to be served and your expectations about service when reaching out to caterers. A good caterer would take the time to get to know this information in order to gain the knowledge they need to deliver exactly what it is you want.

3) Gauge their experience

Make sure that any caterer you’re thinking of hiring has experience working at similar kinds of events. In many cases caterers specialize in certain types of events (eg wedding caterers, corporate caterers) and while being able to provide excellent service for those it will likely not do the same if they’re in unfamiliar territory. For example, a caterer that specializes in formal events might not be the best choice for a casual outdoor BBQ and vice versa. Should you take the time to talk with prospective caterers about your needs, a good caterer will be transparent with you about their areas of expertise and what they can and can’t deliver for your event.

4) Look for flexibility

Look at caterers whose menus are current and reflect the latest food and beverage trends. Flexibility can be an important attribute for caterers to have as most menus only have standard and basic foods and a good event planner will want to see if they can customize the menu to better reflect the event and its guests. Further to this you should know their ability to cater for special orders and dietary requirements.

5) Look beyond the food

While food is by far the most important aspect of catering it is by no means the only thing you should look for in a caterer. Caterers will also provide beverages and service, both to you as a client and to your guests at the event. Knowing what service you’d like to see at the event, you should inquire as to the number of service employees, their standards and procedures, the number of supervising staff as well as their experience working at similar events.

6) Keep your options open

As a general rule of thumb you should get proposals from three different caterers outlining everything they’re going to be doing at your event and how much it will cost. With more than one proposal you can evaluate from and choose the one that’s best and offers the most value for you and your event.

7) Request references

In order to make sure that the food and service is a good as they say it is and to get an idea of what they’re like to work with you should request and contact references from the caterer. A good caterer will be able to provide a list of previous clients as references and contacting them will give you a third party’s perspective on them. Another good idea, if there is an opportunity to do so, is to observe them working at another event so you can see them in action first hand.

8) Insist on a contract

As with any other business transaction, it’s best to get everything in writing. The caterer’s contract should specify what food, beverage and services are to be provided as well as the details of the event including date, time and location. The contract should go into detail about selected menus, number of servings, bar service, table linens, servers and all additional services. Contracts should protect both parties following an agreement so in that vein its terms should protect you from a less than satisfactory performance.

9) Review their cancellation policy

When you’re planning an event the worst case scenario of its cancellation may not be on your radar. Having said that, it’s important to plan for the unexpected by knowing ahead of time your liability to the caterer should the event be cancelled and how they will handle it. The catering contract should include all penalties and procedures that will arise from the event’s cancellation. Further to this, as a contract obviously has to benefit both parties, there should also be stipulations regarding the caterer’s liability should they cancel at the last minute, and appropriate compensation requested.

10) And most importantly: taste the food!

Food is the obviously most important part of the catering experience and it’s for this reason that it should be tasted. If requested by the client caterers should be able to provide samples of their menu items for you to taste. It’s important to taste the food in advance before you commit to a caterer as in doing so you may discover it isn’t up to standard.