Six Secrets Caterers Don't Want You to Know About Them
David C. Mau
Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!
I catered my own wedding.
Yep, you heard right. I like to keep busy anyway and had some good friends in The Biz willing to help so it seemed a great way to stay occupied, shake off pre-matrimonial jitters and save a mountain of cash, the last one being most important. The money some caterers charge for a wedding is obscene. As far as I'm concerned, they should be classified as war criminals and it's not just because of the often times lackluster food. Caterers might hit you for way too much and that's just the start of things. A case in point: A friend of mine has a kid who is nuts about our own Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim/Fullerton/Buena Park or whatever other OC metro area they are currently co-branded with. She had a great idea! Let's throw a baseball-themed birthday party for Junior with all the appropriate trimmings, cotton candy machine, pretzels, churros and hot dogs. She started calling around, figuring she could just rent a hot dog cart and get one of her buddies to steam some buns and wieners. (HA! I just said "buns and wieners").
"Whoa-ho-ho, not so fast!" boomed Johnny-Jackass-Hot-Dog-Cart-Guy over the phone when she called. "Of course we rent the carts but you have to use our staff to run it and buy the product from us." Sure, fair enough. So how much? "Well, it's 250 to rent the cart for a day, 50 dollar delivery/setup/cleaning charge plus 25 an hour labor and 18 dollars per head for food. So with 75 guests you are looking at 1775 bucks".
Let me break down the cost to Johnny-Jackass-Hot-Dog-Cart-Guy. Amortize the cost of owning a hot dog cart over the course of, say, 5 years and you are looking at roughly $1.35 a day. We'll make it an even 2 to be fair, insurance, maintenance, etc. Food cost for hot dogs? Basically nothing, but let's say you get the good ones plus all the condiments, let's throw in chili too. So you're looking at around 150 bucks tops. They're gonna pay some poor schlub ten bucks an hour and keep the other 15. "Actual" cost (whatever that that means) is around 200 bucks. So Johnny-Jackass-Hot-Dog-Cart-Guy makes $1575 for taking a phone call.
For $1,775 my friend could get cheap seats for 75 peeps at an actual game and have enough extra cash to buy a few dogs there. Oh, by the way: I got a cart from a buddy, did the gig for less than half the original price all in and still made plenty standing around drinking beer and stuffing my face for couple hours.
I'm all about free enterprise! I bill corporate clients full boat and don't even blink. But a kid's birthday party? C'mon! Charging that kind of money is just plain 'ol bad mojo. In The Biz, there are lots of peeps like Johnny-Jackass-Hot-Dog-Cart-Guy and, believe me, there's a ton of stuff they don't want you to know about.
1. Chefs Generally Aren't at the Height of Their Career When Running a Catering Business
There are many, startling local exceptions but usually it's some frothing-at-the-mouth kid trying to make a name for themselves or someone that has paid their dues already and wants to make a bit of easy money. Also, some people (like me) have a catering business as a little side thang to make few extra bucks. That puts people in the uncomfortable position of promising too much in order to land a gig more suited for a larger, dedicated, full-time caterer and that's when you get in trouble. Part-time/off the grid caterers aren't like restaurants where you can readily ping their Yelp page to see what's up.
2. They Probably Have a Cozy Relationship with the Venue
Venues that allow outside caterers are becoming few and far between for a reason. Most have a "suggested" or "authorized" list of caterers (if that) and they get a kickback from them when they do your wedding/bar mitzvah/family reunion. Often times this is based, not on who actually is providing the finest product and service, but who ponies up the most cold, hard cash to the venue. It's an easy way to charge less for renting out the space (thus keeping it booked) and making it up on the back end. I hear it all the time: "The catering was kind of expensive but the venue was cheap." What people don't know is it's all the same thing.
3. Just Because Someone Owns a Restaurant Doesn't Mean They Can Cater
It really is apples to oranges. A really capable caterer needs to both plan beforehand and adjust on the fly. That is tough enough in the relative control of a regular kitchen. It's much different out in the field where anything can go wrong and usually does. It's also true that regular table service staff generally make for a lousy catering crew (there are some that shine at both though). I won't name names but awhile back I attended a wedding catered by an overblown "gastropub" from South County. The food was okay but they didn't really pull off translating what was on their menu at the shop against what was prepared on site. In addition, the staff got absolutely shithoused drunk and left the rental fryers and ovens on overnight 'cuz they were too wasted to know any better. Which brings me to the next one.
Catering is a perfect way for newbie servers/bartenders to get their feet wet and makes a great stepping stone to getting a permanent gig in a restaurant or bar. People just tend to transition through the catering phase unless they get stuck or can't cut it in a regular shop. It isn't always true, I work with and hire some ridiculously sharp people that enjoy the flexibility of working for a specific caterer or temping at a couple different ones. The odds of the staff being super A-Team are just generally pretty low. Plus there are a lot of "Chefs" passing themselves off as caterers and if often borders on pseudo-science.
5. "So, It's Gonna be Such and Such and Blah-Blah-Blah to Cater Your Event"
Whatever, that's fine. Then when they hand you the bill there is the "Oh, by the way" service charge. Those charges are just fine (and de rigueur), especially when they go to the people actually working the event instead of lining the pockets of the owner. What is disingenuous is trying to sneak it past a frazzled bride or groom the day of their wedding or slipping it by someone who may or may not have been privy to the original bid.
I'm not saying that all my fellow caterers are predatory; they aren't, and there are plenty of real gems that don't rake people over the coals. Forewarned is forearmed as they say; just be aware of some of this stuff when planning your next event. My best advice is to shop around and follow your instincts.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.