How Catering Works


An event like this requires a great deal of planning and preparation.
An event like this requires a great deal of planning and preparation.
Photo courtesy Joel

If you've ever attended a gallery opening, bridal shower, book signing, rehearsal dinner or even a bar mitzvah, you've probably had a catering experience. When you attend an elegantly appointed wedding reception or a plated fund-raiser with food as tasty, if not tastier than the local dining hot-spots, you almost definitely have a catering team to thank.

Catering seems pretty straightforward and simple: You cook some food and serve it, right? That is the basic idea, but there's more to it. A whole lot more.

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In this article, we'll take you behind the scenes to see what catering is all about. From the initial client-caterer meeting to the big event, catering involves a lot of planning and preparation, teamwork, creativity and some pretty cool equipment.

First, let's consider what defines catering today.

Food is definitely the star in the catering world, but it's only one part of the equation. Chef Joel Dondis of Joel, a full service catering and event-planning company located in New Orleans, Louisiana, agrees. Like many catering companies today, Joel includes full event planning. As catering companies have moved toward the full-service, event-planning model, the focus has morphed. It's not that food is no longer a focal point, but rather that it is part of a broader mission. Dondis suggests that catering is about satisfying all the senses:

  • Sight
  • Hearing
  • Touch
  • Smell
  • Taste
Today caterers want every aspect of an event to be just as perfect as the food. This chocolate souffle cake certainly looks perfect to us...
Today caterers want every aspect of an event to be just as perfect as the food. This chocolate souffle cake certainly looks perfect to us...
Photo courtesy Joel

With the right atmosphere, you can appeal to all of these senses in a way that makes an event special and memorable. Of course, beautifully prepared food can appeal to your sense of taste, smell and sight - perhaps even touch, but it shouldn't outshine the rest of the event. Caterers today generally want every piece of the puzzle, from the decor to the glassware, to have that same kind of impact.

Joel Dondis, President and Chef Proprietor of Joel pictured behind the scenes of a rehearsal dinner.
Joel Dondis, President and Chef Proprietor of Joel pictured behind the scenes of a rehearsal dinner.
Photo courtesy Joel

From flatware to flowers, lighting to linens and tables to tunes, everything should complement the food to create a unified overall experience. According to Dondis, continuity is key. You want every aspect to be in sync with each other. For example:

  • Does the venue fit the occasion, climate and group size? No matter how lovely the surrounding gardens, you probably wouldn't want to have formally attired guests dining outside in 98-degree weather.
  • Does the menu fit the occasion and tastes of the group? For a retirement celebration, where the retiree is getting ready to embark on a 6-month sabbatical in Spain with her spouse, tappas stations would be an inspired idea.
  • Does the decor suit the venue and event? White linen, china and crystal stemware might not be the most appropriate table setting for a casual, pool-side barbecue reception. Festive prints, such as blue and white checked tablecloths and matching napkins with plain glass plates and mason jars might be a better fit.

Whether it's a cocktail party for 50 friends or a corporate event for 500, the goal is the same: deeply satisfying the guests. So, how does a caterer accomplish this grand task? It all starts with a few simple simple questions...

Meeting the Caterer

Photo courtesy Joel                              The catering company can work with the florist to create centerpieces to match the table setting.
Photo courtesy Joel The catering company can work with the florist to create centerpieces to match the table setting.

A popular mantra in the catering business is "How can I make it happen for you?" For most, this isn't an empty statement. A caterer worth his or her salt (and all the other spices in the spice rack) stands firmly behind this phrase.

After you make contact with a catering firm, the caterer's first job is to figure out what you want and decide how the company can create it for you. This process usually begins with a client-caterer meeting -- sort of like a first date. Whether it happens during the initial phone call or a scheduled appointment, the client services representative wants to get as much information as they can to help them prepare a proposal for you. As a client, you should be ready to answer these questions:

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  • What is the proposed date and time of the event?
  • Is this a social or professional function?
  • Do you have a general budget in mind?
  • How many guests will attend?
  • Have you selected a venue or setting?

Of course, depending on the type of function, other questions can (and should) come into conversation. Keep in mind that this initial discussion is critical because it will be the backbone of the caterer's proposal. So, if you have certain ideas in mind, you need to be as explicit as possible. According to Dondis, this -- what's in the client's "minds-eye" -- is the most important thing to discover.

One of the biggest mistakes a client can make is to only think about the budget. You can't expect to say to a caterer "I have "x" amount to spend; what can I get for that?" and get a reasonable answer. You also need to explain what you hope to get for that budget. When the caterer understands your budget and your expectations, he or she can figure out if they match-up. If they do, great. If they don't, then don't worry -- it's not a wash. It just means that it's time for more questions. Remember you're dealing with professionals and they're equipped to help you.

Photo courtesy Joel                              These Ahi Tuna skewers make a tasty and practical cocktail choice. Food items that can be served sans flatware are great for mobile, socializing guests.
Photo courtesy Joel These Ahi Tuna skewers make a tasty and practical cocktail choice. Food items that can be served sans flatware are great for mobile, socializing guests.

Let's say you're planning a 50th wedding anniversary for your parents, and like most of us, you're on a pretty strict budget. Initially you have something really elaborate in mind. But, you discover that with the number of guests you hope to invite, your budget isn't going to afford you the luxurious event you envisioned. So it's time to prioritize. The client services representative asks you a series of questions related to your parent's tastes -- perhaps something like this:

  • What is their favorite kind of food?
  • Do they like formal or informal functions?
  • When they entertain, what are their gatherings like?
  • Do they prefer small or large groups?
  • What do your parents like to do in their spare time?
  • What's their favorite vacation destination?

From your answers, it's clear that your parents would be much more comfortable with a relaxed, casual atmosphere.

Photo courtesy Joel                              Like the Ahi Tuna skewers pictured above, these cheesecake lollipops are perfect cocktail party fare.
Photo courtesy Joel Like the Ahi Tuna skewers pictured above, these cheesecake lollipops are perfect cocktail party fare.

Instead of a formal seated dinner with assigned seating and place-cards, your parents would much rather everyone be able to move about and socialize. A new vision starts to take shape in your mind: An outdoor southern-inspired cocktail party with fairy lights in the trees, soft jazz playing in the background and a light scent of magnolia blossoms swirling around the guests. With this new information, the catering firm can prepare a proposal that accommodates both your expectations and your budget.

Next, let's take a look at what goes into preparing a proposal.

Joel's famous White Chocolate Pecan Pie
Joel's famous White Chocolate Pecan Pie
Photo courtesy Joel
Photo courtesy Joel

Preparing a Catering Proposal

Sample: Catering menu
Sample: Catering menu

The foundation of a proposal is the information gathered during an initial inquiry or meeting with the prospective client:

  • type of event
  • date
  • time
  • guest count
  • venue
  • favorite foods or menu ideas

Armed with these guidelines, the caterer can build a detailed proposal that includes the actual menu, beverages, an itemized listing for equipment rental, the staff requirements and any necessary food or beverage taxes.

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Sample: Breakdown of rental estimates
Sample: Breakdown of rental estimates
Sample: Breakdown of personnel requirements
Sample: Breakdown of personnel requirements

When planning a proposal, caterers generally consider several other factors in addition to the basic information. For example, the staff at Joel know that their social clients usually eat less food (18-22 bites -- think bite-sized candy bar or an orange wedge, an average sized bite of food) than their corporate clients (22-28 bites). The time of day and length of an event can also dictate how much food you need. A party held right after work, during "cocktail hour", say from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. could center around hors d'oeuvres and other light fare because the guests will probably have plans for dinner after the reception.

Other menu planning considerations include:

  • Balanced menu - a standard menu should include a balance of two proteins (meat, poultry or seafood), one vegetable and one starch (pasta, rice or potatoes).
  • Courses - for seated dinners with multiple courses, each course should complement the next and there should be some variety. For example, if you're having a beef entree, then you might consider a seafood appetizer.
  • Buffets - the number of buffet stations corresponds to the number of guests. According to the folks at Joel, a good rule of thumb is one buffet per 75 guests. If the guest list is large, say 750 or more, you can increase the number of guests per buffet ratio to one buffet per 100 guests.

When the proposal is ready, the caterer gives it to the client for his or her perusal. After the client accepts the proposal, the caterer schedules another meeting to discuss the decor and layout and to plan a detailed timeline of the event.

Sample: Estimated summary of costs
Sample: Estimated summary of costs

Catering: Planning the Event

Sample: Buffet station diagram
Sample: Buffet station diagram

Caterers and other event planners today have many useful tools to assist them in planning the perfect event. One product, called Room Viewer, automates the process of drawing up floor plans for events and parties. Whether indoors or out, no matter the shape or specs of the room, this computer aided design (CAD) software helps the caterer utilize the space to its best potential. According to the TimeSaver Software Web site, Room Viewer can enhance the work of:

  • Meeting Planners
  • Facilities Managers
  • Caterers
  • Special Event Planners
  • Rental Companies
  • Production and Audio Visual Companies

The client services department at Joel uses Room Viewer to lay out an entire function, from the buffet tables to seating arrangements to floral displays. Not only does the software help in the planning phase, but it's useful during the execution of the project, too. Caterers can make print-outs showing exactly where everything should go (even down to the placement of utensils) so the catering staff will have a precise map of the event. These print-outs are especially helpful when caterers work with outside vendors, such as equipment rental companies that supply everything from tables and chairs to linen and china. Each vendor is given a printed diagram of the event plan to use for planning and setup.

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In addition to CAD-based software programs, there are many business-management software packages specially suited for catering and the food-service industry. A quick search on the Internet provided this list:

  • Caterease
  • CaterPro for Windows
  • CaterPlus
  • CaterTrax
  • Event Master
  • Maestro Sales and Catering
  • Party Perfect
  • Visual Synergy Systems
  • Total Party Planner
  • WinEASI Catering Enterprise

These programs are very versatile and, once you understand how to utilize them, they're incredible time-savers. For example, the folks at Joel use the Visual Synergy products to manage databases for recipes, marketing, client lists and vendors. Caterers might also use the software to maintain purchasing records, produce receipts and create event calendars. This kind of software really helps keep everyone in the company well informed, because it makes it easy to share information across the board. From the planning stage to execution, each part of the team can work from the same documentation.

Photo courtesy Joel                              Using a caterer for a dinner party at your home gives you more time to spend with your guests.
Photo courtesy Joel Using a caterer for a dinner party at your home gives you more time to spend with your guests.

The Synergy International Web site explains in greater detail what their software can do. Two software packages that are particularly useful for catering businesses are "Visual Synergy Small Business" and "Visual Synergy Enterprise." Some of the handy features of these products are:

Visual Synergy Small Business

  • Full Sales & Revenue Management Tool
  • Event Calendar Management and Event Schedule Reports
  • Customer Marketing - Tracking and Reporting
  • Revenue Management for Food, Beverage, Equipment, Staff & Miscellaneous items
  • Packing Lists for Production and Warehousing
  • Event Staff Scheduling and Reporting
  • Proposal/Contracts & Invoicing

Visual Synergy Enterprise

  • Proposal & Contract Creations
  • Sales Prospects & Contract Management
  • Recipe Costing & Purchase Orders
  • Inventory Tracking & Reservation Priorities
  • Custom Report Writer
  • Track Event Profitability
  • Event Labor Scheduling & Management

Catering Schedule

The catering staff carefully checks each place setting -- making sure the glasses gleam and the silver shines!
The catering staff carefully checks each place setting -- making sure the glasses gleam and the silver shines!
Photo courtesy Joel

One of the most valuable tools in planning and executing an event is a detailed schedule. Depending on the nature and length of an event, these itineraries can be several pages long, covering each moment, from setup to service to breakdown almost minute-by-minute. Large events may have 100 or more staff members on hand. These schedules are a script of exactly what should happen and when; providing direction to each of the many staff involved.

Caterers have to consider several factors before finalizing the schedule. Set-up time is a big consideration. For example, if an event is outside, with no set structures, the caterer might need a couple of days to get the site ready, depending on the number of tents, decor and layout. Cleanup is also a major concern. For standard functions, the folks at Joel generally like to have at least 3 hours for setup and a couple hours for breakdown.

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Edible art: This semolina poundcake pleases the eye and the palate.
Edible art: This semolina poundcake pleases the eye and the palate.
Photo courtesy Joel

The caterer also needs to consider the nature of the gathering. If it's a wedding reception being held in a different location from the ceremony, will all the guests arrive on time? If there is a cocktail reception, how long should that last prior to the dinner? The caterer also has to leave time for a bouquet toss, toasts and the cake cutting. If the event is at a rented facility with a strict end-time, the team has to precisely time and execute all this according to the schedule.

Keep in mind that some facilities do book more than one event in a day. If you're arranging a morning function and have the place booked until 3:00 p.m., that means you, all of your guests, the catering crew, and all their equipment and supplies must be off-premise by 3:00 p.m. sharp.

In addition to planning the schedule, there's other preliminary work that needs to be done. Before the event, the catering firm's Kitchen Administrator examines the menu and decides what to order. Visual Synergy Software may play a big role in this part of the job. The kitchen staff enters precise measurements to create a detailed database of recipes. The staff can easily expand these recipes to suit any number of guests. Once the team has the right recipe for the appropriate group size, it's easy to see what they need to order.

This catering firm's kitchen is very much like a restaurant kitchen.
This catering firm's kitchen is very much like a restaurant kitchen.
Photo courtesy Joel
Hundreds of pots and pans are on hand to facilitate cooking for any number of guests. No event is too big or too small!
Hundreds of pots and pans are on hand to facilitate cooking for any number of guests. No event is too big or too small!
Photo courtesy Joel

The timeline for this work definitely depends on the size of the function. For a corporate event for 300 people, for example, the kitchen staff at Joel would order food about two weeks in advance and start the actual food prep one week out. A smaller gathering, perhaps 100 guests or so, doesn't require as much time. The staff would order the food one week ahead of time and the food prep would start a few days prior to the event. Catering kitchens are similar to restaurant kitchens, in that the staff gets most of the foodstuffs and supplies from large distributors, but goes to local markets or specialty shops for specialty items.

The shelving in this walk-in refrigerator can be used to store trays of prepared food.
The shelving in this walk-in refrigerator can be used to store trays of prepared food.
Photo courtesy Joel

So everything is planned and ready to go, let's see how the big day unfolds...

Catering: Set-up, Service and Clean-up

Photo courtesy Joel                              Glasses safely stored in racks are easy to transport.
Photo courtesy Joel Glasses safely stored in racks are easy to transport.

The big day has arrived. This is when the catering team finally puts the itinerary to use. It's time to load up all the equipment, supplies and foodstuffs. Working from an extensive packing list, the crew loads vans and trucks with all the supplies. Nothing goes unchecked - the crew accounts for every linen, glass, chafing dish, tray, pot, pan and silver piece on the packing list. They even itemize small items like aluminum foil, saran wrap and garbage bags. The team at Joel has a 14-foot truck to move equipment and supplies from their premises to the event site. The crew loads the heavy stuff first -- ovens, fryers and hot boxes -- followed by tables, pots and pans, glassware, china and serving pieces. Finally, when everything else is on board, they load the food.

At this point, you might be thinking, "Back-up there a minute -- did you say ovens?" Yes, ovens! Caterers use an array of portable appliances and heavy equipment -- ovens, fryers, hot boxes and dishwashers to name a few. For example, Joel uses industrial convection ovens that have been put on wheels and converted from natural gas to propane for mobility. One tank of propane provides enough power for five hours of cooking time. Complete with burners for stove-top cooking, each oven cavity can accommodate four sheet pans of food. That may not sound like a lot, but at forty 8-ounce filets per sheet pan, that's 160 steaks!

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Photo courtesy Joel                              This portable oven enables on-site baking and cooking.
Photo courtesy Joel This portable oven enables on-site baking and cooking.

The Set-up

The catering crew transports the supplies to the event site and unloads it all. If the site has cooking facilities, the crew unloads the cooking equipment (pots, pans, serving dishes, etc.) and food right away. Then they set up the tables and chairs, according to the precise floor plan. Typically, the client services representative or coordinator that planned the event manages all the setup work. Sometimes, the firm has to execute this front-house setup in concert with other vendors. This is where the detailed schedule, floor-plan and layout come in handy. Thanks to the detailed plan, the florist knows where to place arrangements, the musicians know where to set up their instruments, and so on.

Photo courtesy Joel                                      Creativity, organization and incredible teamwork are what it takes to create beautiful settings like this.
Photo courtesy Joel Creativity, organization and incredible teamwork are what it takes to create beautiful settings like this.

For an outdoor event without cooking facilities, things get a little more interesting: The crew has to assemble a temporary kitchen immediately. The team divides the tents into two staging areas, one for presentation and serving and one for cooking. A hanging wall separates the two areas of each tent. On the kitchen side, tables line the outside walls and run down the center. The crew also sets up the ovens, hotboxes and other equipment. Hot boxes are large insulated steel booths lined with racks that can hold 40 to 50 sheet pans of food. The kitchen staff uses sterno cups, small cups of inflammable gel, to keep the hot boxes warm. Once lit, a sterno cup will burn for about 4 hours.

If the caterer is serving the food buffet style, the crew will set up stations with serving platters and chafing dishes around the event. The kitchen staff cooks and prepares the food and buffet attendants and runners keep the stations stocked. Sterno cups keep food warm and dry ice keeps food cold. For example, at a dessert station, the team at Joel will use dry ice wrapped in linen to support a ceramic serving bowl of ice cream. This prevents the ice cream from melting for three, possibly four hours.

Large seated dinners require even more staff and organization. For these events, Joel uses something called the "T formation." Basically, they set up prep tables in the shape of a T. Kitchen staff flanks the center-column table, with one person per item on each side. As the crew passes plates from the base of the "T" up to the top, each person adds one part of the meal. Once the plates reach the top of the "T", the final person in the line garnishes them, and the waitstaff brings them to the guests. This assembly line method keeps the kitchen from becoming too congested with people moving about.

Photo courtesy Joel                              Caterers attach PVC pipes to the legs of prep-tables, raising the table-tops up to chest level to make food-prep easier for the cooking staff.
Photo courtesy Joel Caterers attach PVC pipes to the legs of prep-tables, raising the table-tops up to chest level to make food-prep easier for the cooking staff.

The Service

Different functions call for different types of service. For example, for a cocktail buffet, the team at Joel uses this formula to decide what the staffing needs are:

  • 1 Coordinator per event
  • 1 Supervisor per event
  • 1 Waiter per 30 - 50 people
  • 1 Steward per 100 people
  • 1 Buffet Attendant per buffet / station
  • 1 Runner per buffet / station
  • 1 Bartender per 75 people
  • 1 Kitchen Manager per buffet station

So, a cocktail buffet for 150 people with seven buffet stations would have a service staff consisting of three to five waiters, seven buffet attendants, seven runners, one or two stewards and two bartenders. The coordinator or event supervisor meets with the service staff to go over their duties. Some will be manning the buffet stations, some will circulate through the event serving hors d'oeuvres and others will run food from the kitchen to the buffet and bus dishes. With everyone properly informed of their responsibilities, the event should run smoothly. Throughout the event, the coordinator continues to oversee each phase, making sure the detailed schedule is strictly followed.

Photo courtesy Joel                              Innovative presentation: buffet selections are suspended from above for a floating effect.
Photo courtesy Joel Innovative presentation: buffet selections are suspended from above for a floating effect.

The Clean-up

After the function is over, it's time to clean everything, break down all the equipment and tables and pack it all up to go back to the catering premises. The crew breaks out the original packing list to make sure they account for everything. As with every other stage of the function, the team has to execute the clean-up meticulously. The caterer's goal is to leave the space as clean -- if not cleaner, than they found it. The team washes supplies such as glassware, silver and dishes and wraps them for storage. They identify and clean all rented supplies, and return them to the rental agency.

Photo courtesy Joel                              This silver is wrapped in plastic to keep it clean and tarnish-free.
Photo courtesy Joel This silver is wrapped in plastic to keep it clean and tarnish-free.
Photo courtesy Joel                              The plastic wrap on these plates keeps them fresh and clean for the next function.
Photo courtesy Joel The plastic wrap on these plates keeps them fresh and clean for the next function.

As you can see, catering can be an exciting career that requires creativity and excellent organizational and people skills. Let's take a look at what you can do to prepare for a career in catering.

A Career in Catering

Photo courtesy Joel

Joel Dondis of Joel, a full service catering and event-planning company located in New Orleans, Louisiana, took time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about catering, how he got started in the industry and what would-be caterers can do to get into the business.

For Dondis, the cooking-bug struck early. By the age of twelve, he had secured his first apprenticeship with a noted chef and restaurateur from the Basque region of Spain. Dondis went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York and then traveled to Europe to gain even more hands-on experience. He worked at the Schloss Hotel and Restaurant Gargantua, in Frankfurt, Germany. When Dondis returned to the United States, he worked for the Brennan family in their restaurant "Mr. B's" and then at the world-renowned Emeril's Restaurant where he earned the title of Sous Chef. The Sous Chef is second-in-command in a restaurant or kitchen, ranking immediately below the Head Chef.

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As the president and chef-proprietor of a thriving catering and event planning company, Dondis wears many hats. He has traveled to the Bahamas, Florida, Washington DC, and New York City to cater some noted high-profile events. Joel even trained Princess Margaret's chef at her home on the island of Mystique in the Lower Grenadines. An average day might find him working on company finances, marketing and business development, mentoring new staff, talking with clients or creating new recipes.

If you're creative, love cooking, enjoy working with people and have a strong entrepreneurial drive - catering could be a good profession for you. So, what should you do if this sounds like a viable career option? Several caterers, Dondis included, believe that a combination of formal training and practical experience work well. Dondis particularly stresses the importance of business classes. Running a catering company is very much like running a restaurant or any other kind of business. A strong background in business administration can only enhance your ability to handle the myriad of responsibilities that come your way. Caterers debate who offers the best apprenticeship or internship opportunities. For some, Europe is where you want to be. For others, the U.S. is just fine. No matter where you choose, find a setting where you can be comfortable so that you'll be open to gaining valuable practical experience.

For more information on catering and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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