Working with Wedding Caterers

The budget may demand a few sacrifices, but you can still have a fabulous reception.

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Love may makes the world go round, but budget dictates much of a wedding's details. If the bride and groom have realistic expectations, the wedding will be successful.

From David Craig's perspective as a caterer, the only difficult client is one who makes grandiose demands without providing the resources for the caterer to fulfill those wishes. So Craig does everything to forestall a difficult situation by making sure people understand their options. Love may make the world go round, but budget dictates much of a wedding's details.

And location, says Russell Sanders, executive vice president at RSVP Catering in Fairfax, Va. "A tent is a blank slate," he says, but halls have different constraints. If you want a buffet, for example, the room has to have enough space for the serving tables and lines of people.

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People under pressure often don't ask many questions, says Craig, who runs Catering by Craig, a Kingston, Ontario, Canada, catering firm, for 14 years.

"It's like the used-car scenario," Craig says. "They go onto a lot, knowing nothing about cars. The car salesman yaks away and they end up signing before they know what they're buying."

Catering usually makes up the largest line item on a wedding budget, often 45 to 50 percent of the total. Budget plays a big part in whether your reception will feature hors d'oeuvres that are passed or on platters, whether the meal will be a served as a formal sit-down dinner, a buffet or food stations, whether you serve a dessert in addition to wedding cake, and alcohol choices.

Don't assume that a buffet will always cost less than a sit-down dinner, cautions Craig. What you save in not having to pay for waiters is often lost in increased food cost.

Have an idea of what you want - and what you want to spend - before you talk to caterers. Ask friends and family for recommendations, and plan on talking to three or four caterers. When you meet with the caterer, don't be shy about describing your hopes and plans for the day. You want to be confident that you can trust this important event to just the right person. And count on a caterers to guide your hopes within your budget and situation.

You want to pick a caterer who can work magic for you, says Craig - which might include conjuring up a beautiful meal in a field, moving the schedule along, and keeping the salmon from drying out when dinner is delayed by an hour, for instance.

"One of the most important aspects of a wedding is to pay attention to the bride and groom," says Sanders. "Whether that has to do with the timing of the cake, no onions, or having the champagne at 68 degrees." There's always something - a "wow factor" - for each couple, he says, and a good caterer will deliver because he or she listened.