Parties on the Cheap

Keeping costs down while entertaining – from the chef’s point of view.

There are several ways to keep costs down and control how much you spend on a catered party. Our goal, our job in fact, is to work with you throughout the entire process – from planning – to when the rentals are gone – to keep the bottom line… well… in line.

When planning a party, wedding or event, and deciding to work with a planner, caterer or organizer, you should only work with people who bend over backwards to have everything come in on budget. Their mission should be cost effectiveness. Nothing more.

To make it expressly clear – you should only work with people who express zero interest in making your event more expensive than necessary, and those who will never intentionally lead you to anything which “pads the price” or adds additional cost. All charges should be transparent and completely out in the open.

The main factors effecting the cost for any catered party are:

  • Location – Location – Location
  • Labor  – how many chefs or service personnel and for how long.
  • The quantity and quality of the type of food you request.
  • Rentals, expendables and material expenses.

First – where is the event to be held?

Hotels and Banquet halls.
Sometimes the best bang for the buck – but they often leave you beholden to their staff, chefs, talent and intrinsic value, or lack thereof. A breathtaking event space might be nice, but control over the food and who’s cooking it, how it’s presented, and the overall quality are always concerns. Reviews and word of mouth are important here. The one real pro is there’s usually little to no need for additional rentals. They are often a package deal – hence the popularity.

There are a lot of really good places around – some with at least a few star talent on board in key places. If they handle high volume on a regular basis – chances are they can host your function with very little fuss – but all that glitters isn’t gold. Caveat Emptor is the phrase that pays. There are many details that can be left out in the price – so it’s best to know the questions to ask – and get it all in writing.

Barns, Wineries, Country Clubs, Golf Courses.

Once again – there’s no shortage of these around – each competing for your celebratory dollar. My first questions are always: Are they well organized and do they specialize in events? How many and how often do they host them? What are the site logistics? Do they have experienced staff on hand – enough for the level of service required? Will it be full service – and what is their definition of full service? Can they handle the menu? Are they honest about the freshness, quality and sourcing?

Are they authentic, trustworthy and able maintain your confidence? (A place without any smokers offering a BBQ dinner for 200 is a good example of an obvious red flag.)

You need to be alert – and understand that people will promise the moon with little intention or ability of actually delivering it. Thanks to the internet – it’s harder for these places to exist – so they are rare – but they do exist. Knowing the common short cuts and who is most likely to take them is the best practice here.
Competent, full service providers will have everything detailed. Assume nothing, take nothing at face value, and get it all in writing.

Avoid phone conversations about important details. Always have those discussions via email. He-said, she-said never works when things hit the fan.

Barns, Wineries and generic event spaces without kitchens or kitchen staff.
These are real DIY places when it comes to catering – and people can often save a ton on catering expenses – but are forced to handle all of the work related to food and food service. The experience can sometimes be calamitous. Competing events utilizing limited resources. No running water (been there – done that). Inaccessible event spaces (upstairs with no, or very small elevators). Limited electrical. Limited lighting. Limited parking. Limited and usually inexperienced staff. Weather. I can think of a million things that can go wrong, but that’s my job…

You can really get out on an island quickly when trying to pull together an event in a non-traditional event space. This is usually where the caterers and rentals come in, because it’s extraordinarily difficult to pull off a culinary event without an awful lot of help. So – if you have really great, reliable friends and family who are willing to go all the way – this can be an option. If not? It’s time to give us a call.

Labor Costs:

This can be all over the map – so it’s not a “one size fits all” concern.
Everything you ask for costs money, and in the catering business, that’s where the devil is most certainly in the details.

Labor is a killer. It can make or break an event. It can take what was once very doable and make it impossible with a few simple menu changes.
Without going into exact dollar figures – staffing is one of those costs where caterers tend to pad the price – a lot. So it’s best to avoid additional labor whenever you can.

Canapes and bite-size hors d’oeuvres are next in line for adding additional cost. They take forever to make at scale and require the hands of more well trained staff members if the catering outfit actually makes them. Whether or not they make them – or buy them wholesale and resell them, guaranteed they’re going to charge you for them. If you are going to pay – it would be nice to know if they’re an in-house item – or poured from a box out of the freezer. Either way – it will cost you.

Slow food, soups and stews are next in line. If it takes hours to make – the price will go up. Whole roasted suckling pig, whole hog, whole goat or lamb, directly affect labor cost, just as multiple courses, or anything else which requires more people to spend time making or serving them.

Want waiters? Bartenders? Bussers? Additional chefs? The labor costs – and the hidden costs associated with that labor (120% to 250% tacked on to what they’re actually being paid by the hour) tend to increase exponentially. The overage usually goes directly to the caterer or staffing agency. The staff rarely ever see it.
Just something to keep in mind…

About the food:

It should come as no surprise that seafood will drive food costs up in a hurry, but item count along with food type both determine the quantity of time and labor, which are the greatest factors in the overall cost.

When it comes to ordering food for a catered event you have to consider how people normally eat when they go out.
A typical entree in a restaurant is roughly 14 to 16 ounces. Half of that is usually the protein and the other half is split between the starch and vegetable. Only three items.

If you order appetizers and a salad before the entree, you’ll be closing in on 2lbs of food by the time the meal is over. Add bread, and chances are you’d be handing out doggie bags and people will go home stuffed, tired and ready for bed.
We usually don’t want that happening to our party guests.

When it comes to hosting a dinner or cocktail party, you have to think of the dishes you plan to serve in terms of ounces and tailor your quantities with that in mind.

Three main dishes @ 4 ounces per piece leaves you at 12 ounces per person. Add two side dishes @ 4 ounces per person and you have 20 ounces, or 1 and a quarter pounds of food per quest. Canapes, a cheese tray, vegetable tray and fruit tray, crackers, chips, dips and nuts, pretzels, brownies and cookies – and you are well into a wide variety of food and certainly over the two pounds per person mark. It get excessive – quickly.

That’s where we come in to help you order correctly. We work personally with every client to create custom, well balanced menus.  If there are going to be leftovers – we want to make sure you know they are coming, under control and intentional.

Where most people, chefs included, stumble into over-ordering food is when it concerns variety. People want to put out a nice spread and they don’t want any of the items to run out too soon so they tend to overdo it on the portions. We completely understand. We’ve been guilty of it too.

The best approach is to sit down and hammer through the details in order to find the right balance. Of course, for sit down dinners things can be very tightly controlled per portion and extras are usually not a problem. Concerns about overages are usually reserved for standing-room gatherings and buffets.

We’ve had events where the item count reached 25 to 30 individual plated items served as Hors d’oeuvres and in buffet style presentations, which is an astonishing amount of food and preparation, even if we limited each item to 1 ounce per person. These parties are very detail oriented and take an incredible amount of time and preparation to pull off. Hence – they are some of the most expensive parties we’ve ever had.

Just last week we had a party for 4 people which consisted of 14 individual dishes, all freshly prepared on location, all served in various courses and it took 2 people a full day of preparation, cooking and cleaning as well as all of the prior planning to pull off the party without a hitch. This party exceeded a thousand dollars including the cost of food. For most people the two extreme examples above are a bit much to swallow and we understand that. In an industry where most people are looking to spend $40-$50 per head – more than $250 per head borders on insanity.

First thing to remember – a menu doesn’t have to be big to be good.  Serving a big family style pasta dinner with bread and a Caesar salad for your guests can be a wonderful experience. At last check, a dinner like this can be had for $20 to $30 per plate. Simply put, the fewer items you select for your meal and the shorter the cook times associated with them – the less the party will cost all around.

Thinking of adding soup and an appetizer to the menu?
Then we start to add time for cooking and preparation, which will bump the labor cost as well as the food cost. Once we begin adding additional courses, soups, salads, appetizers or slow roasted and braised meats, things can add up very quickly in ways you might not have thought of when you were initially planning the event.

We’re here to help guide you from the beginning and keep you out of trouble when it comes to planning quantities and prep times and explain to you fully, the ways things can add up. Together we can keep things from getting out of hand and assist you in creating an event that fits your budget and planning in every way. We do this at no additional charge to you. It’s all part of the service.

One way many of our clients economize their parties is by doing some of the heavy lifting themselves.  They’ll provide and set up all of the side items, snacks and drinks. They’ll set up the tables, chairs and provide the chaffing dishes, Sterno and steam table accessories. They’ll assemble the dishes and serving utensils. Many of our clients have gone to great lengths to contribute to their events and save on the bottom line. We couldn’t be happier about it when they do.

Every element, down to the time we spend on site can be controlled and we’ll be there to provide whatever level of service you require.

A big party or salad and an entree – we see them the same way and will treat your event just as we would any other, no matter the size.

Any questions? Just ask.

– The Chef






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