Since the beginning of civilization, people throughout the world have always appreciated a satisfying meal. Not everyone, however, has the time, talent, tastebuds or organizational skills to know how to successfully negotiate their way around a kitchen. Even more of them would be daunted by the prospect of pleasing a hungry crowd outside their immediate family or pulling together all the culinary, floral, musical and aesthetic elements of a wedding or a corporate banquet. That's when caterers come to the rescue and make the whole thing look like magic.
The job of a caterer is to arrange for the preparation, delivery and presentation of food that a client doesn't have the time or skill level to put together himself. While a caterer doesn't necessarily have to be an accomplished chef, she does need to have extensive knowledge of ingredients and the seasonal availability of produce, familiarity with a wide range of ethnic cuisine, the ability to coordinate a menu, knowledge of nutrition and sensitivity to prep times. They also need to have access to vendors, culinary professionals and wait staff. Caterers also must posess excellent communication and supervisorial skills, fiscal responsibility and the willingness to devote a lot of attention to the details so her client can enjoy a stress-free event.
There are three types of catering jobs. The first type is operated out of a mobile van or a cart wherein the owner or employee sets up shop on a street corner, at a construction site, in a shopping mall or in the lobby of a hotel or business. With the exception of beverages and food items that need to be heated (e.g., coffee, burritos, hot dogs), the inventory usually consists of prepackaged baked goods, sandwiches, fruit and salads. Many mobile caterers are also prepare drop-off meals for corporate clients who are too busy to go out for lunch.The second type of catering jobs is at a restaurant, a resort or a conference center with its own kitchen and dining facility. The caterer is a hospitality employee of the company and is the liaison between the clientele and the culinary staff in planning event menus and banquets, arranging for tables to be set up, overseeing the delivery of decorations and flowers and ensuring that appropriate service personnel will be available on the date scheduled. The third type is a caterer who owns her own business and contracts with vendors on an as-needed basis for wedding receptions, birthday/anniversary/retirement parties, award ceremony dinners and other events. She is not only responsible for designing menus that fit each client's budget and food preferences but also arranging for the rental of plates, utensils, napkins and glassware, the coordination of wait staff and the hiring of a clean-up crew.
The larger the event, the more time and energy needs to be invested by the caterers in planning every last detail. A posh wedding reception can take from 3 to 6 months (sometimes even longer) because of the amount of sampling, discussions about the overall theme and coming up with creative ways to address any dietary restrictions that need to be observed. In contrast, a caterer who prepares custom meals for only a handful of clients generally discusses proposed menus the week before and delivers them all at once on a pre-arranged schedule set by each client. Whereas as a mobile vendor's schedule revolves around morning coffee and lunch breaks, a caterer who contracts to organize receptions, parties and major corporate events can potentially be on call from 6 a.m. until past midnight (including holidays and weekends), especially if something goes wrong.
A mobile catering enterprise--whether a taco stand or a coffee cantina on wheels--is generally staffed by only one person with an occasional back-up helper. A hospitality employee has at her disposal the access to and the resources of the entire restaurant or hotel that she works for. An independent caterer either works alone and contracts with the different vendors she needs, if her primary focus is on the preparation of appetizers and desserts as opposed to multi-course meals. She may also have administrative staff, delivery drivers and on-site chefs.
Word-of-mouth endorsements are critical in this business and a good caterer will work exceptionally hard to protect his reputation. Considering the amount of money you may be planning to spend for a flawless party with fabulous food, you want to work with a professional caterer who respects your unique vision, has a demonstrated track record and is amenable to your needs. Pay close attention to the fine print in a contract to make sure the event does not go over budget. Never hire a caterer who tries to pressure you into a contract, who refuses to let you take the contract out of his sight to have it reviewed by your attorney, who doesn't have a state-issued license and liability insurance and/or who's more interested in pushing her own agenda than in listening to what you really want.