When to splurge and when to scrimp on catered meals

Companies that don’t routinely order catered meals might not recognize the simple ways they can save money. Putting aside unnecessary fees for delivery, service, time-of-day or fees associated with being out of the caterer’s county — many of which could be eliminated by comparison shopping — there are small things to do to cut costs.

“Talking to full-service caterers well ahead of a special event is crucial,” says Todd Schafer, president of Crooked River BBQ. “Talk to them about the event, it’s aim, and what you need in terms of food. Most will go out of their way to make sure the food aspect of the event is top-notch.

“But in other cases, when catered meals are less formal, supplying some of the accouterments can lead to significant savings.”

Smart Business spoke with Schafer about cutting costs for casual catered events.

When is it appropriate to spend a higher amount on catered meals? When is it better to be more price-conscious?

The dollar amount depends on the clientele or the event’s purpose. A business might send catering to a customer as a thank you for a recent purchase. Spend to impress, but be responsible. Understand you provided a service at a fair price and you know your profit margin, so don’t waste it on a thank you that may not come back.

Dinner-time meals that hold employees or clients away from families after work hours should go the extra mile to both show appreciation and make it worth their time. Lunchtime, or in-between meals such as a continental breakfast or brunch, is always less formal and should be less expensive than dinner. If you’re just looking to provide for a group that will head into a meeting that lasts more than a few hours, provide caffeinated beverages at a basic drink station. Otherwise, a warm room and a mundane talker will put people to sleep.

When catering for employees, it’s a good idea to establish a fixed budget that’s approved by a CFO or whoever is in charge of finances so that meals are consistent.

How can a company know it’s getting the best price for a catered meal?

Shop and compare. There are websites that will compare the costs of caterers in a geographic area. Local caterers may not offer the best price or best portions, so be willing to broaden the search.

Keep in mind that there’s more to consider than the surface price. One company may serve lunch at $10 per person, while another will provide the same meal at $7 per person. But that may not be an apples-to-apples comparison. Find out what’s included for the price and ask about portions — don’t assume when it comes to portion size because every caterer does it differently.

What are some ways to save money on a catered meal?

For those companies trying to be budget conscious, visit a wholesaler and stock up on items caterers might overprice, such as plasticware, disposable dishes, napkins and cups. While inexpensive when purchased at a retail store, caterers can charge significantly higher for these basic items. It will save considerable money over time, especially if catered meals are a frequent occurrence.

For informal meals, buying in pans as opposed to a per-person purchase can save money. Find a caterer that sells by the pan or by the pound. Buying this way means utensils and cups won’t be included, but if those have been purchased already there will be significant savings realized for the meal.

What are some ways to show guests you’ve gone the extra mile for them?

Any kind of communication that can be done in advance is appreciated. Contact guests about dietary issues, if there are vegetarians and vegans, or if anyone has food allergens. People really appreciate that kind of consideration.

Often just catering, especially when it’s unexpected, goes a long way. It doesn’t need to be special, but having food available, even just coffee or beverage stations at a meeting or conference, is an element of hospitality people appreciate.

Insights Corporate Catering/Events is brought to you by Crooked River BBQ + Beer