How to Maximize your Catering Budget: Pick the Right Catering Style for Your Event
People will stay late or leave early solely based on the quality—and quantity—of the food you serve at your event. If people are hungry (or cold or otherwise uncomfortable), you’ll lose them. So, how do you balance keeping all the people happy without going into the red from serving unlimited shrimp cocktails? How do you plan so that you won’t run out of food, but don’t end up with 500 sliders looking for a home at the end of the night?
By picking the right kind of catering style for your event, you can make the absolute most of your budget and ensure that your guests leave satisfied and satiated.
Today, we’re leaning on the expertise of our resident catering guru, Marianne Jackson, to give us her insider tips on hosting a smashing event while keeping both the hungry guests and finance execs happy. (You might want to have a snack handy while reading this, because we’re sharing delightful photos from our catering partners that are sure to make your stomach rumble).
Hosting a Reception? Here are Three Catering Options We Love
Perhaps one of the best ways to save at an event is to host a reception rather than a full meal. This is ideal if you want to have a VIP experience without the VIP cost.
For example, let’s say that your conference ends at 6 p.m., and you know people will be heading home or out to dinner. Give them a chance to relax and eat together with an hors d'oeuvres reception. Depending on your budget and goals, you can save money while treating your guests—or go all out for a big “wow” factor!
Catering Style: Stationed Appetizers
This is our catering style of choice when looking to save big bucks. You’ve probably seen this before: a pretty display table with lots of appetizers and maybe a few wait staff to monitor/replenish if necessary. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it saves money.
This catering style is best for those times when you’re really trying to save money or when you wish to allocate funds to other areas. Stationed appetizers can be perfect when you want to treat guests to delicious noshes while networking; think mid-day events or hosted VIP experiences between meals. Although it is a cost-saving option with high quality food, it can easily be an elegant, high-touch choice, all while saving money.
So, while all of this sounds great, why might you not want to choose this option? As you’ve likely experienced, it can get crowded around food stations, and if people are really hungry they will descend like locusts! This might make it difficult for people to both network and eat well.
For extra large groups that need a high-touch experience, this might not be the way to go. Consider adding on passed appetizers as well to help with the crush.
How to maximize it
Serve the food on compostable plates to save on both rentals and staff.
Serve all or mostly room-temperature items to save on staffing costs for on-site chefs. Food will hold longer and will need less attention to replenish and monitor.
Avoid seafood: it’s expensive, has food safety risks, and can be smelly.
Catering Style: Passed Appetizers
Picture servers passing out bite-sized savory delights while you have your other hand free to hold your glass of wine. Who doesn’t love indulging in a meal of just appetizers?
Passed appetizers work equally well for both an elegant gala as a prelude to the evening or at a tech networking event the night before a conference, but this service can get expensive—fast. The bite-sized servings are often intricate, and thus, need to be chef prepared. This will spike the labor costs, not to mention all the waitstaff needed!
However, because waiters bring food directly to the guests, it allows your guests to mingle freely, creating better networking opportunities—which is the whole point anyway, right?
How to maximize it:
Higher guest counts often means lower price per person. So, if you have a large group, this might be a good option to consider serving between stationed appetizers and a full meal.
Opt for napkins instead of small plates—only if the bites aren’t drippy like meatballs!—to save a bit on rentals.
Consider the time of day and the group you’re serving. When planning the menu, ask yourself, “is this just a snack or more of a meal?”
Catering Style: Live Chef Stations
This is quite a sexy catering option (if such a thing exists), and is great for an event that wants to put on a show at every opportunity. There are plenty of events in which this is a perfect option. Guests get a hearty meal/snack and are entertained in the process by having a live chef prepare any number of succulent items.
One thing to keep in mind is the fact that this option can also get quite expensive. It requires a great deal of set up, preparation, and staffing. Plus, lines can get quite long, even with the fastest chefs, as each dish is prepared to order. Attendees get cranky waiting for food when they’d rather be jetting to the next session, or meeting up with that person they’ve been dying to finally connect with in person.
This kind of catering can be great for events when there are other food options available and you can afford to have enough stations to keep the lines down. It’s a pricey option, but might be worth the cost if you want to go big and impress.
How to maximize it:
It’s hard to find ways to reduce cost on this one, but if there is any way at all, it would be to ensure that the food you’re serving is in season (even local, perhaps!), and is scheduled so that it doesn’t go into overtime for chefs. You might consider steering away from the classic carving stations and go with a fun taco station instead.
Catering Style: Buffet
A buffet is a great way to serve a large group quickly, especially in cases where people might come in phases. It’s decidedly less formal; which may be appropriate or even preferred in many cases. Buffets are perfect for conferences: people want to eat at their own pace, attendees might come at different times, and a buffet can quickly serve large groups of people.
However, buffets mean that there is nearly no portion control. More entree options mean that people will not get half a serving of each, they’ll likely get a healthy portion of each.
How to maximize it:
Simple one protein buffet with cold sides will save you money.
Consider having a meat entree and a vegetarian entree. To save even more, you might have a buffet sign to announce “vegetarian entree upon request.”
Use compostable serviceware—no need for place settings!—to save on rentals and/or labor, but note that we only recommend this for casual daytime events.
Fill your buffet with a lot of vegetable and grain sides along with large baskets of bread. People will appreciate the healthy options and you’ll save on costs.
Catering Style: Plated Dinner
The pièce de résistance of catering options. It’s elegant, sophisticated, and creates an opportunity to truly treat guests. A plated dinner is ideal for awards ceremonies, VIP networking events, galas, or anything where people have paid a high ticket price to attend. (Yes, even if it’s for a nonprofit.)
Any event where the meal is the main event should have a plated dinner. This option takes time, as each course is served individually for the most formal of events. Sitting down at a meal gives guests an opportunity to linger at the table, get to know their dining companions, and works well in coordination with a program, such as speeches or award ceremonies.
How to maximize it:
Opt for one entree with a gluten free, vegan entree available upon request. This one dish covers all dietary restrictions and saves on fuss and time, ensuring each special request is accommodated.
Are we the ones for you?
Have questions about making the most of your catering budget (or anything else for your event)? If all of these options are sounding overwhelming, we'd love to make that easier on you. To figure out your best bet for making catering work well, send us a note.
Maggie Kennedy founded Kennedy Events in 2000 and has been Chief Everything Officer ever since! She’s a master at keeping clients and her team happy, plus brings the fun to every function. Her days are filled with things like logistics, sales, and, of course, putting her 20+ years of creative event strategy to work. She likes a life filled with adventure, and when that’s not happening in a ballroom, she’s found that on a 600+ mile bike ride to LA, on hikes in the Himalayas, and under the stars in an Indian desert. The world beckons, but nothing beats coming home to the Bay Area, and her two kids, fiance, and spunky cat.
About Kennedy Events
Kennedy Events began with one goal in mind—to produce high-level corporate events with just as much strategy as style. Maggie founded the company in 2000, found her match in Paige, and in 2011 the two became official partners. Since then, these two resourceful and brilliant creatives have pooled their strengths to build one one of the most the most sought after corporate event companies in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles.
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