Few things can ruin a good event as quickly or easily as a catering snafu.
Consider the exasperation of a crowd of undercaffeinated zombies when the coffee carafe runs out at a mandatory morning meeting. Or the profound sadness that comes with watching a pile of guacamole slowly brown in the corner, for lack of anything to dip in it.
Because offices often ask interns, assistants, or random staff with no event planning experience to pull off conferences and holiday parties, these kinds of catering slip-ups are all too common. And they can have major effects on morale, or outsiders’ views of an event or the organization that put it on. Fortunately, it’s not hard to avoid disaster—if you keep in mind these tried-and-true tactics, shared with The Takeout by a handful of catering experts.
This is rarely as simple as counting the number of seats in a venue, or the number of tickets sold or RSVPs confirmed for an event. Some events might have tons of no-shows, while others might have last-minute walk-ins. But collecting a provisional headcount, ideally via an RSVP that includes a question about dietary restrictions, will keep you in the right ballpark, especially when combined with insights gleaned from past event attendance.
Once you have a rough number you can call an established catering business, or a local restaurant that does catering; they will use their expertise to translate the figure, stated dietary needs, and your budget into a bespoke spread.
Unfortunately, many restaurants offer catering without thinking through the ramifications of serving offsite versus onsite, Jody Birnbaum of Caterconsult tells The Takeout. So, you ought to ask potential caterers for references and check their track record.
Also, clarify what exactly the caterer will provide: Setup and service? Plates, napkins, and utensils? There are no standards for this, so don’t assume and end up unprepared.
Because vetting providers can be a time-consuming process, remember to build a list of trusted caterers as you go. It’ll take some of the pressure off the next time you have to organize an office event. And your successors will thank you for leaving them the cheat sheet.
If you’re asked to whip something up last-minute, or you’re operating on a shoestring budget, working with any catering pro may just seem impractical. Fortunately, in those instances, it’s entirely possible to throw together your own DIY spread.
The only thing you absolutely should not try to do, Paul Neuman of Neuman’s Kitchen Events and Catering tells The Takeout, is to cook an entire feast on your own. That will only bring chaos and calamity.
Make it clear in your event invite that you’ll be buying a limited variety of simple, no-frills foods, like deli sandwiches or pizza. You can give anyone who RSVPs a chance to pick a specific item from a set list of choices, which prevents you from having to guess what people like. However, this does leave you on the hook for any order mix-ups or incorrect items.
It’s far easier to just set out a buffet.
When designing a self-serve spread, consider when and where your event will take place.
Morning meetings usually call for breakfast foods, while afternoon or evening events call for more protein-rich, diverse fare. A brief, informal event may only merit light snacks, like chips and dip, a fruit tray, or a cheese plate. The larger and longer the event, the more options you’ll need. Although Birnbaum recommends a buffet with two entrée options, two or three sides, and perhaps a salad or two for a large, long event, a recent survey found that Americans prefer tons of small, munchy bites to graze on over full meals, even for marathon meetings.
If your event is taking place in a small, poorly ventilated meeting room, don’t buy pungent foods. If you don’t have access to a chafing dish, don’t buy foods that need to be kept warm. If you expect people to eat over their laps on paper plates, don’t buy anything messy or complicated.
To avoid blowing past your budget, start with small, easy ideas, like grabbing chips and salsa and premade food trays from your local supermarket. See how far that’d eat into your funds; if it looks like you can do more, plan something a bit more ambitious. Iterate until you hit the sweet spot.
You’ll never be able to anticipate or satisfy every taste or need, so limit yourself to a handful of options. Make sure that at least one of them contains no common allergens, and label everything on the table clearly and prominently. Birnbaum recommends buying a few extra plain or raw food items, like carrot sticks, keeping them absent from the spread, then discreetly offering them to anyone who raises dietary restriction issues that go beyond what’s available on the table as is.
Caterers recommend buying four or five ounces of protein or main dishes per expected attendee, and two to four of each appetizer or snack. However, time of day and the length of an event might affect people’s appetites, in which case you’ll need to make adjustments.
It’s hard to crunch the numbers just right and end up with the perfect spread. That’s something caterers spend years of practice and research working toward, says Birnbaum.
Avoiding shortages is more important for assuring attendee satisfaction than avoiding excesses, so most caterers recommend that people order up to a fifth more food than their calculations say they’ll need, just to be safe. Typically, the more food you put out, the more people will eat. So, even if you overshoot, your event-goers may take care of some excess for you.
If you’re putting out non-perishable items like chips, you can just open one container at a time, then keep as much of your potential excess in reserve for future events as possible.
But if you’re putting out perishable goods, stock up on to-go containers, then announce at the end of an event that people can take leftovers home. Alternatively, arrange for a local shelter or food distribution network to pick up your leftovers.
Even if you follow all this advice, there is a good chance you’ll still occasionally have a snafu or two. But if you do your best with the resources you have, people will usually extend you more understanding and forgiveness than you might expect. And each time you put together an event, you’ll gather a little more insight about your audience and resources.
Given enough time, you could become an amateur catering pro.