From casual buffets to
multi-course sit-down meals, the style of your wedding catering will be largely determined by your choice of venue and what facilities it offers. You’re likely to spend up to half of your wedding budget on the reception and the best part of that on food and beverages, so put as much research and planning into the catering options as possible.
Ria & Andrew wedding Photos by Danelle Bohane
|Whatever your choice of venue or location, your catering options will be tied into other aspects of your reception, such as the seating plan, the table decorations, the timing of the speeches, the cake, the favours, and even space for the entertainment and dancing. For this reason, it is often easier to opt for an inclusive catering package at a set price, than to pay separately for different services and get caught out by hidden expenses you hadn’t considered. Even small expenses such as hiring a cake knife, can add up if they become extras.
The number of guests will also help decide the service style. A buffet, for instance, is an ideal option if you have a large guest list, while an intimate dinner suits a smaller wedding.
Wedding venues and caterers, usually charge per guest, and you can expect to pay up to $135 per person for an all-inclusive quality reception package at a five-star hotel (likely to include a complimentary suite for the bride and groom). A more average cost per head is between $60 and $100 per person, depending on the service option, and your choice of food and wines.
Remember, you’ll have to cater for a wide range of tastes and palates. While Grandad could be looking forward to a robust cut of beef, your girlfriends are more likely to be expecting something lighter and more healthy. There may also be children to think of. Your choice of caterer or banquet chef should be experienced enough to guide you through a balanced menu choice that will appeal to most tastes and dietary requirements. You can ask to taste samples from the wedding menu and view references from previous weddings.
It is important to find out in advance the date your caterer has set for the final headcount, and what happens in the event that your guest list shrinks or expands after that. Always have a contract in place with an exact breakdown of services and costs, and policies on deposits, refunds and cancellations.
Many venues, such as hotels and reception centres, offer professional reception services packaged into one cost, which is inclusive of food, room hire, table settings, flowers, cake and beverages. Most have an experienced event coordinator or banquet manager to help with your planning and seating decisions, and generally oversee every detail of your reception.
There are also numerous restaurants, large cafés, historic houses, lodges and wineries that provide full catering facilities.
There is a wide choice of companies that specialise in out-catering at the location of your choice, be it a marquee, hall, garden or Mum and Dad’s home. The larger ones can supply all the services, including the tables and chairs, while others only deal with the food aspect, leaving other details to you. While you’ll have more control over the food and beverages, this option will take up more of your time organising and coordinating the different suppliers, and paying for separate invoices. You also have to be more careful about budgeting and hidden expenses with the likes of table settings and liquor license fees. If you’re hiring an historical community centre, for instance, will there be extra costs involved in clearing up after the function, or returning equipment to the suppliers? Such costs can add up quickly, so careful and thoughtful planning is the key to self-catered functions.
When looking for an independent and interesting venue, check out your local council for community halls and houses that are charged out on an hourly rate. Some are set in stunning park-like surroundings.
The self-help, buffet style of service is a flexible option for difficult locations (such as catering in marquees) or for hosting a large number of guests. Formal or informal, they can be very elaborate cuisine affairs using premium produce, turned into a theme to suit your wedding style, or designed to suit budgetary considerations.
A buffet encourages guests to mix and mingle, and gives them more control over their food selection and quantity. Dishes can also be left on display so guests can ‘graze’ after the first serving. Compared to table service, the buffet-style service is also more ‘fluid’ and flexible for reception formalities. Precise timing is required for the kitchen to present meals at the tables at the same time, with a risk of the food service being interrupted by unexpectedly long speeches and other delays.
Over recent years, there has been a trend to mix and match the buffet and table service to fit both budget and reception style. For instance, you may opt to have the entrées served at the table and the mains and desserts served from a buffet.
A set menu with courses (usually three) served at the table is the most traditional option for a wedding lunch or dinner reception. Table service suits a more formal reception where guests won’t be inconvenienced by having to get up from the table to fetch their own food.
It is common to have a choice of two entrées and three mains – white meat, red meat and vegetarian to cover most tastes. The more choices, the higher the cost, as the caterer will have to prepare more dishes than will actually be consumed. Your choice of dishes will also be reflected in the overall cost, and duck and seafood will be more expensive than chicken or beef cuts.
A cost-effective option is to substitute the entrée choice for a shared antipasto-style platter for each table, then offer a limited choice of mains for your guests, say a chicken and vegetarian dish. Instead of individual dessert servings, you can also opt for an assorted sweet (or handmade chocolate) platter for each table.
Platters of canapés or nibbles have become very popular at weddings as an apetitiser/socialiser between the ceremony and reception, while guests are waiting for the bride and groom to arrive. Since your guests will be standing and chatting with drinks in their hands, choose bite-size, easy-to-eat items that won’t slip off onto clothes or the floor! Cost is calculated either per platter, per person, or per food item (usually between $1.50 and $2.50, depending on the ingredients used).
If the reception caterer is not supplying the cake, allow at least four months to shop around for a baker. The traditional tiered cake is still the most popular, but don’t be afraid to make special requests for colours, flavours, shapes, and styles.
The cake should have its own table at your reception and be served by professional staff after the first ceremonial cut by the bride and groom. Always ask if a cake stand and fancy cake knife will be supplied, otherwise you’ll have to order this from the cake supplier. Make sure the caterer also supplies plates, forks, and coffee to accompany the cake. If an outside bakery is supplying the cake, ask if delivery and set-up is part of the cost.
Licensed reception venues offer a choice of bar options. An ‘open bar’ functions just like a normal bar, but at no cost to your guests. Popular these days is the ‘limited bar’ where you pay for the wine, champagne, beer and non-alcoholic beverages, but your guests are charged for any spirits they choose. With any option, you can limit either the period that beverages are available or the amount you have budgeted for the bar, before your guests start paying for their own drinks.
In the past, it was considered inappropriate to expect guests to pay for any part of the wedding, but today cash bars at receptions are not uncommon. Guests purchasing their own alcohol also tend to drink less but, if you’re opting for a total cash bar, it’s important to mention this in your invitation to save any embarrassment. Remember to provide guests with plenty of non-alcoholic options.
Some venues will allow you to supply your own choice of wine and beverages, charging ‘corkage’ per bottle. If you decide on a non-licensed venue, you will have to supply your own beverages anyway. Your wedding organiser or beverage supplier will be able to advise you on quantities. If you are supplying your own wine, start searching and purchasing in advance to take advantage of special deals that will save you a lot of money.
For budgeting purposes, your reception will make up between 40% and 50% of the total cost of your wedding. All-inclusive, per person reception packages make it easier to budget. Otherwise, to come up with a total cost, factor in everything, including menu, beverages, venue-hire fees, furniture and crockery. For marquee weddings, also include toilets, lighting and flooring, crockery, cutlery and linen hire, and anything else. Divide the total by the number of guests and you’ll have your cost per head.
In the end, only you as a couple can decide what suits your needs. Just remember to consider all your options carefully before booking a venue or caterer, and paying a deposit.