Catering Begins At Home: Want to Throw a Party? Make it Easy by Hiring a Caterer

Some people seem to have a genetic predisposition for throwing parties. You know the type: The neighbor who can pull together an impromptu “my son decided to come home a few days early from college” celebration for 25 of his closest friends, or the executive’s wife who can put on an intimate, five-course dinner for eight without breaking a sweat.

Then there are the rest of us. We love the idea of having groups of friends, family and coworkers over to our homes for good conversation and a great meal—until we start contemplating all the planning, decorating, shopping and cooking involved. Who has the time?

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a natural entertainer to successfully entertain at home. You just might need a little help from a caterer. These experienced, talented professionals can assist you with everything party-related, from planning and cooking to decorating and cleaning—but it’s not an all-or-nothing deal. They offer varying levels of support so you can stay within your budget—and still completely enjoy the personal, memorable experience that comes with hosting a celebration or dinner party in your own home.

And if you think that hiring a caterer is only for the untalented or the ultra-busy, think again. There’s a good chance that the neighbor who makes party-hosting look like a snap uses a caterer from time to time and may even have their number on speed dial.

“Most people hire us to take the work and worry out of having people over so that they can relax, enjoy themselves and have fun at their own event in their own house,” says Adi McCauley, owner of Magnolia Foods in Lynchburg. “Having help with some or all of the details just really takes the pressure off and makes it easy.”

Right Party, Right Caterer
Before you head next door to ask for the name of your neighbor’s caterer, keep in mind that not all catering firms are alike. They can have different specialties, different pricing models and different approaches to service.

Most caterers are willing to work with you to create customized appetizers, entrees, side dishes and/or desserts, while some prefer that you order off of a set menu. Some specialize in a certain style of cooking, and many are willing to prepare food items and even personal recipes brought to them by the client. Some caterers will send a full team, including chef, bartender and wait staff, and work out of your kitchen, while others will prepare the food at their own facilities and drop off food trays at your home just before the party starts. And some will come into your home ahead of time to assist you with party setup and decorating.

As a result, before you start asking for referrals and calling caterers, it’s important to take time to think about what kind of party you want and who you plan to invite. Will it be a sit-down dinner for a few friends? An upscale backyard barbecue for 100? A birthday, graduation or anniversary party? A bridal shower and luncheon? Perhaps you’d like to have your work colleagues over for a casual, buffet-style meal or you might want to invite your neighbors for a wine-tasting event and heavy hors d’oeuvres. Maybe you’d like to have a big Super Bowl party and were planning to make your own famous Texas chili, but you’d like a caterer to supply some appetizers, side dishes and dessert.

The options are endless, but your decisions on party theme, menu and services will impact the price, the amount of planning involved, and the caterer’s workload and approach to your event.

Most critically, you need to have a budget. “That’s really the key for us,” says Trey Ward, executive chef for the Farm Basket in Lynchburg. “Because we can do anything, from foie gras to barbecue. But if somebody calls and says, ‘I want a dinner for 25 people but I don’t have any idea how much I want to spend,’ it’s going to be tough getting started because we build the menu and the experience based on the client’s budget.”

Even if you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you want to spend and how you want your party to go, there’s a good chance you’ll be at a loss on what type of food—and how much variety—to serve. Don’t worry. Caterers are great at making suggestions, so at this point, go ahead and make an appointment to consult with one or several caterers to get an idea of your options.

“We’re happy to help people out with ideas,” McCauley explains, noting that she will usually interview clients to determine what foods will and will not work. In what direction are they leaning—casual or formal? Sit-down or buffet? Italian, American or French? If it’s a 50th birthday party for a husband, what are his favorite foods? Do any of your guests have allergies or intolerances to any foods, such as nuts or gluten?

“We’ll just really talk things through,” McCauley says. “I’ll get a broad idea of what they like and what they need, and then if they want me to make some recommendations, I’ll usually put together a list of items with prices for them and let them choose. It’s a mutual effort—with a little bit of work on both ends.”

At Magnolia Foods, popular choices include shaved roast beef on crostini with fresh tomato bruschetta and pan-seared sausage bites with goat cheese and coarse-ground mustard for appetizers, and entrees like hoisin-glazed pork loin with mango salsa and salmon with artichoke gratin. For less formal occasions or a Saturday luncheon, people might opt for the caterer to drop off a couple of gourmet salads, a sandwich platter and some dessert choices.

If you’d rather make your selections from a set catering menu, you’ll realize a couple of key benefits. You’ll likely be able to sample the food ahead of time, the prices are already set, and the recipes included usually represent what the caterer does especially well. The Farm Basket in Lynchburg, for example, is famous for its southern-inspired dishes, like its “Southern in a Jar” appetizer, which includes black-eyed pea hummus, smoked trout and pickled vegetables; its signature southern shrimp and grits entrée; and its mini-blueberry cobblers.

However, the catering teams at both Magnolia Foods and the Farm Basket encourage clients to bring their own
ideas, whether it’s a recipe that’s been in your family for 100 years or something that grabbed your attention while reading a magazine.

“We actually love to try new dishes so that we’re not doing the same things over and over again,” says Ward. “And if we’re doing something new and different, it makes the event that much more interesting for us.”

The Finer Points
Once the menu is finalized, you’ll need to work with the caterer to determine other key details that can help ensure a successful and smooth-running party.

First, the beverage question. Are you planning to serve alcoholic drinks, and if so, what kind: beer and wine, specialty drinks, liquor or some combination thereof, or just canned beer and sodas? Most caterers have an ABC license and can help supply the hard liquor while you provide the wine or beer (or vice versa). Or if you just want to serve wine and beer, you can aid your budget by buying it yourself (and, if you ask, your caterer may help you develop a shopping list).

No matter who’s doing the supplying, it’s a good idea to consider paying the caterer to staff a bartender at your party, especially if you’re planning an evening affair with more than 20 guests. “It just makes that part of it go a lot smoother,” says Ward, noting that an on-site bartender avoids bottlenecking and sticky spill disasters at the drink table, and keeps the host from having to be bothered with restocking drinks, ice and glasses.

For larger or more formal parties, the caterer, as part of the quoted cost, will generally supply at least one server (and sometimes more) to set out food, keep the party area clean of empty glasses, plates and crumpled napkins, and/or serve hors d’oeuvres. However, if you’re having a smaller shindig, you can still request an on-site server. It’s an additional cost, but it can be money well spent if you’d rather spend your time completely focused on your guests and party activities.

Another issue to contemplate: What kind of table service do you want? If it’s a small, formal dinner party, you can ask your caterer to serve your guests using your own family china and antique platters, but if you don’t want to risk any breakage, many serve the food using their own upscale dinnerware (though it may or may not involve an additional fee). “We can do china, silverware, crystal, whatever the clients wants,” says Ward.

If it’s a less formal celebration, the caterer can serve using any variety of pretty or plain plates, glasses and serving ware, or you can opt for disposable items to make clean up fast and simple.

Setting the Stage
One of the big issues with a house party is making sure that you can easily accommodate your guests and ensure that they can move around easily and feel comfortable. To do this effectively, caterers will, for an extra fee or as part of the negotiated price, come in ahead of the big day and help you map out the flow of your party. This will help you determine the best spots for your serving table, appetizer stations and bar or drink area, and whether or not to bring in extra seating.

Some caterers offer other pre-party service offerings, such as helping you clean, prep and decorate your home or backyard. The Farm Basket, for example, has a decorating specialist on staff who will work with your home design and theme to create a party decor using floral arrangements and other unique decorative items.

Although most caterers do much of their prep work and cooking before they arrive at your home, they’ll still need use of your kitchen to stage, finalize and warm the various food items. The good news is that you probably won’t need to supply anything, except, perhaps, your microwave, stovetop and oven.

“We try to bring everything we need with us, our own knives, cutting boards, any specialized tools or appliances, and that’s because we don’t want to be going through drawers or bothering the host for help in finding this or that,” says McCauley. “Again, it’s all about making it easy and comfortable for the customer.”

The one thing you will need to do is to clear your countertops of any paperwork, appliances or other clutter and make sure all surfaces and cooking areas are clean and disinfected. “We’ll come in with lots of stuff and then lay it out and organize it from there, so it’s nice to have everything cleared so we have plenty of space and don’t have to work around anything,” Ward says. “It allows us to just get in there and get to work as efficiently as possible.”

Party Down
On the day of your big party, everything is set up, the house looks beautiful, the staff is set and your guests are starting to arrive.

So what do caterers advise you to do now? Relax. Mingle with your guests. Let go and let the caterers do their job. “Don’t start micromanaging and looking over your chef’s shoulder and getting antsy about whether people are having a good time or not,” says Ward. “People are getting fed, they’ve got drinks, everyone is going to enjoy themselves. We can take care of any issues that arise, so the host should focus on having a good time too.”

And isn’t that exactly what you’re paying for?


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