Typically, in my Monthly Morsel advice columns, I talk about hotel catering. But for this Best Practices column, I want to go over what you need to think about when booking off-premise venues or restaurants for meal functions.
Before we begin, I want you to close your eyes and visualize what the event looks like. Now, write down a short event overview. Include your timeline along with a general event budget. Taking the time to do this will help you select the best off-premise facility for your event.
Questions to ask potential venues
Venues come in many shapes and sizes. They can be churches, homes or places that charge rental fees. When choosing an off-site venue for your event, be sure be sure to ask the following questions:
- What are the facility rental costs? Prices will vary, depending on the day of the week and time needed.
- What kind of parking is available? Is it free or is there a fee? And do they offer valet parking for events?
- What kind of kitchen facilities and equipment is available?
- Are permits required if you want to do anything on the sidewalk?
- Does the venue have any noise restrictions?
- What size tables and chairs, and what kind of linens and décor are available?
- Are there any restrictions on how you may decorate the facility? (For example, can you hang fabric or secure things to the walls?)
- Are discounts available if you use the facility’s vendor partners?
- During what hours may you contract the facility? Make sure to include hours for move in and move out.
- Can the venue provide staffing the evening of your event? What kind of additional costs does that incur? Make sure that the engineer on duty is very knowledgeable about electricity, so they can troubleshoot or keep you from blowing any fuses.
- What kind of facility security is available? Will you need to be responsible for booking additional security?
- What kind of insurance is needed?
- What’s the venue’s cancellation policy?
- Is there any construction going on that would hinder your event or make parking difficult?
- If this is a larger rental facility, what else is going on the same day and time as your event?
- If, for example, you are booking for a wedding and need the venue for a rehearsal, will this venue be available at other times for your group?
- Can you come and watch an event similar to yours to see how the venue looks in action?
- What kind of sound, lighting, video capabilities and technical staff/support are included in the rental fee and what services carry additional fees?
- What is the venue’s alcohol policy? Do you need to purchase liquor through the venue, a third party or can you BYOB? Do you need to secure a permit before you serve alcohol? Are there any local regulations that might keep you from serving alcohol during the hours of your event?
- How many people will be working during your event to clean up and handle trash? Do you need to arrange or will the venue provide? Is that included in your rental fee?
- Does the venue have docents or facility event volunteers who could help you staff the event?
Are the above items negotiable? Sure they are, especially if you are doing a buyout during the off-season or during an odd time when the venue usually doesn’t attract business. If you are filling a real need in their calendar, you might be able to negotiate an add-on that wouldn’t cost the facility much. For example, if the facility charges for tables and chairs that they already own, you might be able to negotiate that you will pay for labor to set up the tables and chairs, if the facility will waive the chair and table rental fee. The other item I have had success negotiating is the price of alcohol, especially when bringing a large group.
Finding off-premise caterers
You’ve got the location. Now it is time to find a reputable catering company. First, establish your ball-park budget. Before you set that budget in stone, call a couple of companies and talk to each one about their offerings and fees. That will help you figure out whether your ball-park figure is realistic or needs to be adjusted.
Rather than just Google caterers in a city, contact the local chapter of the National Association of Catering Executives (NACE). They will be more than happy to send you a list of catering companies in the city where you’ll be hosting your event. Through NACE, you can rest assured that you will be working with a quality company. Another helpful resource is the local convention and visitors bureau’s Web site. Go to the meeting planners section and search the online directory for the kind of vendors you need.
Questions for caterers
Before talking with prospective caterers, I always view their Web sites to see what they look like, who their customers are and to learn more about the background of their staff.
- One question that is important, but rarely asked, is: What does the company do for continuing education (or how do they stay current)? The world of culinary is always changing. You want the catering company to be in alignment with the culinary world of today.
- Always ask caterers to send menus with all costs and fees you might incur. The catering contract and pricing is usually broken down into segments. First is cost of the food; second is cost of equipment; third is cost of staffing; and fourth are taxes, gratuity and transportation costs. If the caterer only gives you the food costs, be sure to ask about the other areas listed above, or risk getting burnt and blowing your budget. Also get a quote that includes china, glass, silver or disposables.
- Ask about the kitchen staff. Do key culinary staff have solid banqueting backgrounds? Do any of their staff have special culinary talents? For example, if they have a pastry chef who holds national titles for pulling sugar, you’ll want to know that before you plan the menus.
- What are the staffing ratios? Industry standard is one per every 30 guests. The general rule of thumb is one waiter per every three tables for regular functions; one waiter per every two tables for VIP functions; and one waiter per every 50 guests for buffet meals.
- If you are doing a buffet meal, it is crucial that you ask where the back-up food is going to be located and how many wait staff will be attending to the buffet. If the kitchens are far from the staging area, you may need to double the amount of staff needed to run the food for the buffets.
- Don’t forget to ask where the cooking is done. Finding this out should dictate your menu. If the cooking is all done at their facility and transported, then your protein should have a sauce so the food doesn’t dry out. If the cooking is done on-site, then you will have more possibilities.
Hosting an event in a restaurant
I am a big fan of this because you get more for your money. The restaurant is a fixed facility that already has built-in atmosphere and décor. Because of this, they may have greater flexibility with their fees and costs than other off-premise venues. Another advantage is that their service charges typically aren’t as high, either. In general, planning events in restaurants is a win/win situation. But like anything else, there are potential stumbling blocks. Here are some to watch out for:
- Restaurants will tell you that they do catered events all the time, and they do — for small groups. But, if you are doing a larger one with specialized menus, you’ll need to talk through the timing of the event. Once, while using a fine-dining restaurant in Atlanta with a high quality chef, the timing of the entrée got delayed by 20 minutes because he wasn’t used to dealing with a full restaurant buyout. Have a timeline in writing, so everyone understands the flow of the event.
- If you are doing a partial buyout, find out in advance what sections are yours; what time the restaurant will close down your sections prior to the event; and how having other sections of the restaurant open might affect the food and beverage service for your group.
- If you are bringing in additional décor, be sure to get prior approval from the restaurant. Share with them what you would like to do and agree on timelines for installation and break down.
- Understand what the parking situation is, especially if you are sharing it with the restaurant’s normal patrons.
One final word
Last, but not least, don’t underestimate the importance of communication and knowing who your audience is. Whatever type of event you are planning, it is only successful if you cater to their tastes and needs, not your own. If you understand how to do this and follow the above advice, congratulations — I’m willing to bet that you’ll be the proud host of a successful event.