Fellowship & Feasting
As friends and family gather, plan a meal worth remembering.
Menus decorate the plates at the Aug. 25, 2012, reception for Abbey and Tim McIlvaine at the Athletic Club of Columbus.
Adam Lowe Photography
When Samantha Kenny and Jeg Coughlin were planning their August 2011 wedding in the backyard of the couple’s home, they made sure to take care of family and friends. It was, after all, a celebration in their home.
“Our main goal was cocktails and food so that everyone was entertained,” says the bride. “To us, the best part about it was to have great food, everyone having great food.”
The moment guests arrived, they were served sparkling wine with macerated berries to enjoy during the ceremony that took place underneath the willow trees near the pond. And the good food and fun times didn’t end until the last guest had gone home.
The couple worked with Cameron Mitchell Catering to plan a family-style meal that would make everyone feel at home, Samantha Coughlin says.
“They were very family-oriented,” recalls Kristen Hinshaw, the catering coordinator at Cameron Mitchell who worked with the Coughlins. “They wanted to make sure everyone always had everything they needed. They wanted it to feel like you were at Grandma’s house passing the food around.”
After the ceremony, guests were invited to a cocktail area for hors d’oeuvres that included arborio rice fritters, mozzarella with chunky marinara, prosciutto de Parma and lemon ricotta tortellini. After the cocktail hour ended and it was time for dinner, the caterer screened the cocktail area off and turned it into a cigar lounge, Samantha says.
And then it was time for a Tuscan-style dinner served under tents that the caterer had ordered and set up in the driveway.
“We kind of had all of our favorite things,” she says. “And we served it family-style. We wanted all the food on the table at the same time. And it was important that it was all hot.”
The reception took a lot of coordination in the kitchen and a lot of planning, but it worked out well. The caterer also had one server for each table and they brought out all the food at the same time.
“They served it all on beautiful white platters and everything was steaming hot,” Samantha says. “The comments from our guests were that the food was amazing.”
When the Coughlins were planning their wedding, choosing to hire Cameron Mitchell Catering was not a difficult decision because they used the company before for family functions.
Reputation and word of mouth often serve a caterer well when it comes to repeat business. But when a potential client is a first-time customer, it’s often a personal connection that draws in business.
For Bethany Crawford and Dan Kelly’s October 2011 wedding reception, the couple knew almost from the start that they wanted The Berwick, the bride says.
“We just liked them personally,” she says. “We were kind of drawn to them.”
Nancy Plassman, catering coordinator at Carfagna’s Catering, knows the importance of connecting with couples when she meets them.
“I actually ask them how they met,” Plassman says, explaining how she starts a conversation with a bride and groom through discussing their relationship and dreams. “I ask them about their theme, their colors. I ask them, ‘When you envision your wedding, what is your dream?’ … So the chemistry and the understanding between the two parties have to be present.”
The chemistry speaks directly to service, says Sarah Selhorst, director of catering and sales for Mass Appeal Catering and Events.
“It’s essential for someone you’re going to be working with for a year or more,” Selhorst says. “They have to be responsive and understand what you’re asking. You also want to make sure that they get along with your mother.” In her experience, she says, “it can be a delicate balance between the dreams of the bride and the desires of the mom.”
A good caterer goes out of his or her way to ensure the day meets the couple’s wishes. It helps a caterer succeed if the bride and groom do some homework.
While doing research ahead of time is important, that should not replace personal visits, says Melissa Johnson, director of catering at Cameron Mitchell Catering. “We love to talk to them on the phone,” she says, but when you meet them in person, “you really get an idea of what means so much to them.”
Johnson recalls a bride who asked to tour The Ivory Room, a reception space that Cameron Mitchell Catering owns in the Miranova building downtown. Johnson could tell the bride loved the space but wasn’t “in love” with it. “I felt like her parents were more excited about it than she was,” says Johnson, who then asked the client how she pictured her wedding. The bride started describing an outdoor space with lots of room for indoor and outdoor celebrating. “I said, ‘You’re describing The Darby House.’ ” So Johnson set up a time for the client to visit the Darby House, an estate in West Jefferson where Cameron Mitchell manages the catering. The woman loved it and booked the place immediately, Johnson says. “To hear her excited about it was just great.”
Many caterers willingly work with wedding planners, but caterers also often take on that role themselves. Most couples rely on hired caterers or facility managers to guide them through the planning process, a task at which these professionals usually are adept.
The caterer provides the map for couples who have an idea of what they want—even if it’s just a picture from a book or a memory from a wedding reception they’ve attended—but need help figuring out how to achieve it.
“I think it’s always nice if they can talk on the front end, and include the groom, too, and the parents,” Johnson says. “Give us as much information as you can. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Come prepared with a kind of a shared vision, a shoot- for-the-stars vision, and then what they really can afford. They need to be honest with their budget and realistic.” Then, she says, if they find they have only $15 a person to spend, she can try to work with them to see how they can best spend that money.
Booking a caterer
Caterers and food-service providers usually are booked as far in advance as reception sites—anywhere from nine to 18 months out, or further during peak wedding season.
As the economy continues to recover, what Winni Mooney sees with clients at City Barbeque is they are willing to make a long-term commitment and book a caterer further out. When the economy wasn’t doing as well, people were calling with much shorter time frames.
“Right now, 2013 is already pretty booked up,” says the assistant catering director. “It’s unique this year. People are allowing themselves some time. If they go ahead and book a year out, they’re going to feel confident they can financially handle it.”
While most caterers will say that the months from April through October continue to be the most popular for weddings, some caterers notice more couples choose for non-traditional wedding months.
“This past year, I did five weddings in December,” Plassman says.
Couples aren’t just competing with other weddings for certain dates, says Kevin Porter, owner of PC Events. Caterers also have corporate events, graduations, golf tournaments and summer festivals that keep them busy, starting in the spring. When the calendar pages turn to fall, brides also must compete with folks planning big tailgate parties or, later in the season, holiday events.
When the Kellys first set out to plan their Oct. 29, 2011, wedding, the bride looked at the OSU football schedule. “My dad would have died if I had told him we were getting married on a home game day,” says Bethany Kelly, who thought that weekend was a bye week or away game. But the schedule changed. “It ended up being a home game against Wisconsin. And it was a night game.” The couple had the venue roll out a projector, though, so guests could watch at least the end of the game.
“The popular dates do have more to do with the OSU schedule than anything,” says Selhorst. If a couple is planning a wedding on the weekend of an OSU football bye weekend, they need to get aggressive about booking. Usually a caterer could handle a tailgate party and a wedding or more than one wedding.
Cameron Mitchell Catering’s business is probably split evenly between corporate events and wedding events, Johnson adds.
“We do a lot of social events—bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, baby showers, retirement parties,” she says. “Or, we might have a big 500-person corporate picnic that takes a prime Saturday in September.”
Booking far ahead has other advantages beyond securing the caterer and venue of choice, says Porter, whose PC Events counts weddings as about 66 percent of its business. “The advantage to the farther you book out is you are going to get today’s prices locked in,” he says. “We are probably going to see price increases this year. If you’re planning something 10 to 18 months out, book now and lock those prices in.”
Caterers who are willing to book several weddings on the same weekend potentially will have more open slots. Cameron Mitchell Catering is one such caterer, and their flexibility also allows them to take jobs on very short notice.
“We’ll book anywhere from three months out, which is aggressive, but no problem, to two years out,” Johnson says.
That average yearlong timeline shouldn’t scare off brides who need to plan an event in a much shorter time frame.
To select the caterer that best suits you and your event, approach the interview knowing what details you need to discuss. Costs among caterers will differ based on such factors as the ratio of wait staff to guests and whether the company charges extra for things such as broken china. With that in mind, here are some key points couples should be aware of when interviewing potential caterers:
Know your budget. Creating and sticking to a financial plan is as crucial as finding somebody who will work within that plan.
“We need to know their budget,” says Debra Gearhart, sales and marketing coordinator at Monaco’s Catering. “And the best thing is to be realistic.”
Selhorst always tells couples that anything is possible, with enough hands and with a big enough budget. “As a caterer, having a bottom line is very, very helpful because I can then give them as much as I can with what they have to spend,” she says. “It’s helpful to understand what their priorities are and then the extras can be put on their wish list. Most often, their guest count goes down, and they can then add things they didn’t think they could afford.”
A smart caterer, Porter concludes, can customize the menu based on any budget. “We like to try to work with that budget to create a menu,” Porter says. “We try to get an idea of what they want and not so much what we think they want.”
Express to the caterer what is and isn’t a priority for you. Couples faced with making choices about food, a wedding cake, specialty linens, flowers and more need to decide what is most essential. The Kellys, for example, made it clear to Berwick that food was a priority for them.
Find out the level of service the caterer provides—how many servers will be used, for instance, and are they regular staff members or hired temps? The number of servers also depends on the size of the wedding, says Plassman. A wedding that Carfagna’s catered at St. Charles Academy, for example, required 28 servers. A much smaller one for 50 people required only one.
Ask who will be in charge of your event the day of, Selhorst says. “I’m there to help at the end of the night to load presents.” She’s also been known to call a taxi for a drunken best man and make sure that the cars being left behind for the night are parked appropriately so people don’t get towed.
Ask about contingency plans—what happens if it rains at an outdoor event, for example. Most caterers advise outdoor wedding receptions to have a plan A, which is what everyone hopes will happen, and a plan B, the alternative that will keep guests dry and warm in the event of bad weather.
Talk over the various options regarding how the food will be presented. Johnson, for example, recently catered a big Italian wedding reception for 275 people where the family brought in 350 dozen cookies—4,200 cookies. It took pre-planning and two hours the day of to build that display, she says.
Most caterers will offer a tasting, so couples will know what to expect. Plassman, for example, arranges to meet couples at the Carfagna’s restaurant on Polaris Parkway for a tasting. “We get an idea of what they want and I work up an estimate for them,” she says.
Bethany Kelly still recalls her tasting at The Berwick. “We tasted the food at Berwick, a few entrees and appetizers,” she says. “Everything they made was awesome. It was an easy decision.”
Porter does his taste testings privately with prospective clients. “We typically like to present a private tasting at the initial consultation,” Porter says. “Once we do that, we can get a good idea of what they want.”
Find out whether the food that will be used is fresh, frozen or canned. “People are more cognizant of where their food comes from,” Johnson says, adding that she’s had couples ask her to put cards out explaining where the poultry came from or what farm produced the vegetables that are being served. “We have great local farmers that we work with.”
Ask whether the caterer is used to working at the facility in which you plan to hold your reception. Some venues require that you use their on-site chefs or a caterer with whom they have an exclusive relationship; other facilities, such as the Columbus Museum of Art and Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, have approved lists of caterers that are familiar with their venues. The caterer has to know how to work with a site’s layout—whether it’s the complex hallways at the conservatory or a hilly backyard.
Find out how many events the caterer can handle in one night and how many he or she plans to work the night of your wedding. PC Events, for example, will take two weddings on a Saturday, one on a Friday and one on a Sunday. “I want to give the bride and groom the utmost attention possible,” Porter says.
Cameron Mitchell Catering can handle about 10 to 15 off-premise events a night. “But if they’re all 300-person, plated dinners, we’ll start to back off,” Johnson says.
Before signing a contract, ask several caterers for proposals, including full price quotes. Each proposal should address the same type of event, with similar menus, staffing, gratuities, service fees and taxes. All of the details will help couples make real comparisons. “The biggest concern people have is that they get worried that they’ll get an estimate and then it changes,” Plassman says, suggesting couples ask about hidden fees and what the estimate includes.
Find out what hours the room or rooms will be available and how easy—or difficult—it will be to get into the room to set up and decorate, Gearhart says. Some facilities have limited time frames, and couples need to make sure the caterer will have ample time to set up and break down, Selhorst says. If there is more than one event at a facility at the same time, it’s also important to ask where and when your rental items can be delivered and how the facility and/or caterer makes sure that what’s yours stays with your party, Johnson says. “Ask how they make sure things stay dedicated to you,” Johnson says.
Ask about deposit, cancellation and rescheduling policies. Also determine if the contract can be modified as the date moves closer.
Find out how long the caterer has been in business. Newer caterers might be less expensive; longtime caterers are likely to have covered events in most local venues. Ask how many weddings the company has catered.
Understand what is being delivered. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and discuss details endlessly until you’re certain you know what the caterer is proposing. Depending on the type of event and catering company, packages may present the best deal, or it may be more cost-effective to have each step of the service charged individually. The important thing is to make sure you understand exactly what you’ll be charged. The final contract should spell out all the details: how and when the food will be transported and served, fees, the staff-to-guest ratio, who will be the on-site coordinator, details of the caterer’s liquor license, brand names of the liquor and the date for a final head count of guests. This last detail varies from site to site: Some facilities require a firm head count only 72 hours before the reception, while others want it a week ahead.
“When you get the proposal, make sure to be completely clear on what is included and what is not,” Selhorst says. “You want to ensure you’re not going to get an invoice the week before the wedding and find out there’s a cake cutting fee.”
Most caterers agree that in the end, price shouldn’t be the determining factor: Quality and reputation are important in the selection process, too.
“I think it’s important to look at the overall picture. A lot of times, people look only at pricing,” Porter says.
Regardless of whether a couple uses a hotel catering director or a private catering company, many brides and grooms come to the table with at least a feeling of whether they might prefer a sit-down dinner or a buffet reception.
With a sit-down dinner, couples might expect about one server for every 18 guests. A buffet, though, would have about one server for every 25 to 30 or more guests, depending on the style of buffet. (Buffets with action stations, for instance, require more staff.)
There are six styles of meal service from which to choose:
Butlered hors d’oeuvres can be one of the least costly alternatives and allow for a range of interesting food. Prices vary depending on whether the food is billed per piece or per person. Most caterers will advise making the hors d’oeuvres in bite-size portions, which makes it easier for people to eat. Only limited seating is required for this style; it’s thoughtful to provide a few tables and chairs for guests who can’t stand for long periods of time. Sometimes the food service stops here, but more often it’s a precursor to a more elaborate meal.
The good thing about butlered hors d’oeuvres is that no one will be the wiser if you run out of one of the items, caterers say—it’s simply not served anymore.
Grazing buffets combine small portions of entrees with hors d’oeuvres. Again, the food selection could stop here but usually is just the beginning. Limited seating is advisable.
Station buffets and full buffets are very similar. The former allows more mingling, as guests must move from station to station to get the food they want. This is particularly true if the stations are spread throughout the room, a setup that has the added bonus of preventing bottlenecks from forming near the food table.
An upcoming wedding reception at the Jeffrey Mansion will feature station buffets and will help with a challenging arrangement since the venue is cut up into different rooms.
Station buffets can cost more, say caterers, since they require more staff, especially if carving stations are involved. The cost also can rise because portion control is harder to maintain with a buffet or station reception than it is with a plated meal. Couples could consider having catering employees serve the food from the buffet in order to help control portions and costs.
Couples opting for a full buffet should ask how many buffet tables will be set up—the number should be compatible with the size of the reception to ensure no one has to wait in a long line to get their food. Most banquet managers, in fact, try to be certain everyone at a buffet is served within 15 to 20 minutes, no matter the size of the party. The key to such quick service, they say, is to set up more buffet tables and have the lines go down both sides of each table.
The buffet service remains the most popular with Monaco’s Catering customers, Gearhart says: “They get more selection with the buffet versus the sit-down.”
“We actually serve our buffets,” Plassman says of Carfagna’s Catering. “Number one, for portion control. Number two, to answer questions about the food. We serve salad and rolls family-style, so your guests who are not in line actually have something to eat.”
Sit-down meals are the most traditional option and usually feature a head table that can be used as a stage for toasts and announcements. Full seating is required, as are enough servers to get the meals to guests as quickly as possible.
Couples should understand that sit-down meals require a lot of planning. The presentation at a sit-down meal can be beautiful, but it also can be hard work. If guests have entree options, their choices need to be tracked, usually through assigned seating of guests. It’s up to the bridal couple to make a seating chart and let the caterer know who requested chicken and who ordered beef.
Many caterers suggest couples make some identifying mark on the seating cards to indicate which entree each guest selected. That way, a server approaching knows who is getting what. It eliminates the time it takes for a server to ask each guest, and it’s likely guests wouldn’t remember what they marked on an RSVP card several weeks earlier.
One way to achieve the elegance of a sit-down meal without the hassle of seating assignments is to opt for a dual entree: Each guest is served two types of food—say, steak and lobster—so they are guaranteed some variety with minimal fuss. Dual entrees, by their very nature, provide more food for guests and they eliminate the hassle of keeping track of what everyone wants to eat. Selhorst likes the option of dual entrees because of its ease on everyone involved. But cost-conscious couples, she says, need to ask the caterer if there is a charge for a dual entree and how much that will be.
Family-style meals are becoming more popular as couples exercise creativity in planning their receptions. Usually with this service, the facility serves the courses in big platters for each table, and the guests at each table pass the food around, like one would do at a family meal.
Carfagna’s catered a family-style reception for 450 people recently, and the dinner took one hour and 15 minutes, starting with the traditional Italian wedding soup and ending with a cookie display. “It’s fun,” Plassman says. “It’s a great way for people who don’t really know each other to get together and talk.”
“I love it,” Selhorst says of family-style service. “I think it’s a great idea, and I think it’s where things are growing. People think of them as being less formal, but in a way, I think of it as being more formal because it requires a lot of staff to switch out the china between the courses. It’s the best of buffet and sit-down. You get the formality of a sit-down and the quantity and choice of a buffet.”
The Kellys also chose a family-style meal for their reception for 280 people at Walters Commons at St. Charles.
“We had a family-style Italian dinner with wedding soup, a salad, chicken, pasta, green beans, Italian sausage,” she says. “They also did an hors d’oeuvres course. Serving it family-style was kind of a convenient way of providing a lot of options without having to make our guests choose an entree.”
Selecting the menu
Once a couple has agreed on all the details and signed the contracts, it’s on to the fun part—choosing the food.
When couples and caterers work together, it can be fun for everyone involved, says Selhorst, recalling a custom menu at a November 2012 wedding.
“They wanted a hearty, comfort-food menu,” she says. “The trick was they wanted everything locally sourced.”
The fresh menu actually became part of the reception decor, she says.
“We made a map of Ohio and put stars in all the places where the food came from,” she says, so guests could see the vegetables came from a grower here, while the meat came from a farm over there.
The meal started with a display of fresh vegetables presented in individual farm baskets. The caterer made sauerkraut balls, roasted root vegetable bisque, beef stew, pork and sauerkraut and macaroni and cheese. The bar even included some local brews. Dessert was also local.
“They did a combination of their family’s cookies, cupcakes and Jeni’s ice cream sandwiches, and the pies came from Amish country,” Selhorst says. “The entire menu was astonishing.”
In the case of the Kelly-Coughlin wedding, the couple made sure there was plenty of food to satisfy their guests.
When guests found their seats at the dinner tables, the caterer already had food out to enjoy: aged balsamic vinegar and olive oil and rustic breads. “So when they first sat down, there were things for them to start munching on.”
The salad course included blistered tomato bread salad tossed with buffalo mozzarella with a cucumber-and-arugula vinaigrette and simple mixed green salad with balsamic vinaigrette. The main meal featured rigatoni arrabiatta, Marcella’s meatballs, Italian sausage with roasted peppers and aged goat cheese and sea salt crusted beef tenderloin, baby vegetables, chicken giardiniera and roasted Tuscan potatoes. The couple wanted a Tuscan feel, and Hinshaw used personal experience to help them plan it.
“I had just gotten back from Tuscany, and I used that to help them plan a meal,” she says. “It’s probably my all-time favorite event. It was hot, but the food was awesome. The food was probably some of the best I’ve ever seen us do. They had a budget and allowed us to take it out of the box.”
But the food didn’t end with dinner. The bride is from Canada and her mother brought cookies from Canada not available in the U.S., Coughlin says. “We had 70 bags of Fudgee-O cookies,” she says.
Later in the evening, they asked Cameron Mitchell to roll out the pizza.
“We ordered Tommy’s Pizza,” Coughlin says. “We ordered a bunch of half-baked pizzas. Cameron Mitchell just finished baking them and then served them at midnight.”
Weddings like the Coughlins’ event, though, don’t come along every day for caterers. So when it comes to choosing the food, professionals often suggest couples start with the menu provided by the facility or caterer and then customize it to match their wishes. The selections should be broad enough to suit the taste buds of hundreds of guests, however. Couples need to realize that while their favorite dish might be ahi tuna, they may not be able to afford to feed it to a couple hundred people, and it’s also something 200 people may not like as much as the couple.
“We get special requests all the time,” Porter says. “A week ago, we made a grandmother’s Italian sauce, a vodka sauce.” Using a family recipe like that makes the event more fun and memorable for everyone, and if Porter has a recipe, he’ll try to accommodate such requests.
Many caterers have a niche in which they sit well. Some can pull off the most elaborate wedding dinner, for instance, while others—City Barbeque, for example—can cater a barbecue party like no one else in town.
“We do quite a few country-themed weddings,” Mooney says. A wedding she’s working on for this summer, for example, has a county fair theme to it. In addition to the City Barbeque trademark food, the couple is planning to serve pies instead of cake and have a popcorn machine and a cotton candy machine.
Monaco’s and Berwick Manor, meanwhile, specialize in Italian cuisine and have traditional Italian dinners that couples can choose.
Cameron Mitchell often gets requests to duplicate food from their different restaurants for buffets, Johnson says.
“People love our restaurants,” she says. “So they might have a Cap City, a Molly Woo, a Martini, an M and Ocean Club stations. The decorations can be inspired by the restaurants, too.”
But don’t expect a giant meatball that you might get at Marcella’s, she says. Instead, on the stations they might put a 1-ounce or 2-ounce meatball, or a smaller slide of meatloaf from Cap City. “We kind of take everything and miniaturize it to put it on the stations,” Johnson says.
Caterers and chefs love it when couples choose something different that’s entertaining for guests and fun for the chef to prepare, Porter says. “We had one in December where the couple traveled for a living,” Porter says. The couple worked with him to plan nine different stations representing some of their favorite countries. So guests dined on pasta from the Italian bar or picked up a taco at the Mexican station. “It was all their favorite ethnic foods. It was creative. It was a lot of work. But people were raving about it. They were eating for more than two hours.”
One food trend caterers are noticing more and more is the move toward providing their guests with a late-night bite.
“I encourage it if the event starts earlier than dinner,” Porter says. But if dinner is at 7 and the couple wants to bring in “late-night” snacks at 9:30 p.m., it sometimes can be a waste because people are still full from dinner.
Cameron Mitchell Catering, which has been known to bring out an emulation of a food truck—like a taco truck or a hot dog stand—also still sees people asking for the late-night snacks.
“We also do a lot more edible takeaways,” she says, like a mini all-beef hot dog with a strawberry milkshake to go, or a mini doughnut and some hot chocolate before guests hit the road.
“People still do love the late-night bites,” she says.
In addition to food choices, couples and caterers should consider weather in planning the menu. “We have to consider a plan B in case it pours,” Mooney says of outdoor weddings.
Warm weather is always a consideration in food preparation for outdoor weddings. In general, seafood is a challenging selection for a large reception; however, any reputable licensed caterer should have the equipment needed to safely handle seafood. Most caterers, in fact, will have the necessary equipment to transport any type of food, but it’s a good idea to verify this ahead of time.
Experienced caterers can even point out things couples may not consider. In catering outdoor weddings, for example, an experienced caterer knows that a tent is a necessity as are portable restrooms. A good caterer thinks of electric needs and water supply and the need for ice and lots of it, especially for summer weddings.
“You need about five times the amount of ice,” Porter says of outdoor versus indoor weddings. Most ice companies, though, have trailers that they can drop off for big events like a wedding reception, he says.
Getting it right
Planning a wedding reception involves defining your priorities, advises Coughlin. And if the meal is important, make that a top priority and a guideline in selecting who will help you serve that great meal.
“One thing for me was not allowing anybody … to change the way we wanted to do things,” Coughlin says. “We really did stick to what we wanted and it turned out.”
The whole point of hiring an experienced caterer is so you don’t have to sweat the details.
“Find a good group of people that you get along with, that you feel comfortable with,” Selhorst says. “Get it done early and then just relax. Let the vendors guide you. You don’t have to do it all yourself. You should be the adviser and not the actual executor.”
Coughlin also suggests that brides not worry about things that don’t go perfectly.
“Not everything was perfect,” she says of her own reception. “I was the only one who knew. So don’t sweat the small stuff. Small things happen. In the grand scheme of things, everyone’s having a great time. People are with you celebrating and the fact that you’re together and celebrating together is what’s important.”