What do you pay an amateur caterer?
June 4, 2007 11:24 AM   Subscribe

How do I know how much to charge for an amateur catering gig I've just been offered? The potential client wants me to call him with an estimate, but I neither am a caterer nor have I ever hired one, so I really have no context at all.

The dear boy and I have been going to a certain winery in Sonoma for about two years and are very friendly with some of the employees. Some months ago, after hearing me talk about all the foods I like to pair their wines with, one of employees jokingly said that I shouldn't talk about yummy food unless they got to taste it. After bantering about since then, I finally made up a picnic (white bean and goat cheese puree with crudite and bruschetta, skewers of melon, shrimp, and prosciutto, little biscuits with herb roasted pork tenderloin and fig/mustard compote, and strawberry buttermilk panna cotta) and took it up to the tasting room.

We had a super time, and I clearly impressed the pants off them. Yesterday, we went back to the winery for an event, and another employee (who didn't actually taste my food, just heard about it and saw the pictures) said that he and his wife are having a sort of casual, neighborhood party in late June and would I like to cater it with food to pair with wine from the winery?

I made a cool, professional face and said I'd give it some thought, but honestly, I'm flummoxed. I've never cooked for that many people before, but I'm almost certain I can handle it. It's the question of an estimate where I don't even know where to start.

How to I find out what a decent price is to provide party style food for 25 people in the SF Bay Area?

Some considerations:
I obviously won't have a serving staff or anything
I will probably need to purchase some large serving pieces
It's not practical for me to provide real plates, cutlery, etc. (but I can do paper/plastic if it suits them)

Bonus question: How do I tactfully ask if him if he'd want me to be visible and chatty at said party whilst also minding the food or if he'd prefer if I disappear?
posted by mostlymartha to Work & Money (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I should hope your client knows you are not a professional caterer? If he doesn't, you should tell him (or should have told him), as this will modulate the pressure somewhat and you can probably have more frank and realistic conversations about what he wants and what you can provide.

As far as an estimate, I would call up some middle-of-the-road catering places in your area and ask for a quote for 25 people. Then, maybe do 75% of that, or whatever you think is best. A real catering company is going to offer some services that you can't, so I would cut your price down somewhat at least, if not a whole 25%.
posted by bluenausea at 11:43 AM on June 4, 2007

I used to do this with a partner in New York. It's alot of work, but great fun, and there's nothing to be afraid of. 25 people is not huge, but you will want to meticulously plan ahead and enlist another set of hands to help you shop and prep, if possible.

Some pricing guidelines we followed:

- depending on the protein (chicken, beef, shrimp), we charged approximately $2.75 to $4.00 per piece. For vegetarian dishes (stuffed cherry tomatoes, veggie samosas, etc.), we charged about $2.00 per piece. (We were generous with our piece size - 2 to 4 ounces of food)

- you'll want to have at least two to three pieces per person per menu item

- Between 4 and 8 menu items for this sort of party - casual, neighborhoody, daytime(?) - is perfectly okay. Obviously, if you go with fewer options, up the amount of pieces you make

Oh, and we often catered for people we knew and it was very easy to let them know we wouldn't be attending the event. A simple, "So, I'm thinking I'll deliver everything at about 1 o'clock and have it set up by 2:30. I imagine I'll be pretty tuckered at that point, so if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to take a raincheck on the party. Have a great time, and thanks for letting me cook for you."

Let me know if you'd like any other tips and best of luck!
posted by TryTheTilapia at 11:47 AM on June 4, 2007

Oh, and as for serving pieces - a good restaurant supply place will have appropriate pieces at a reasonable price. You can factor the cost into your price per piece, or you can throw them in as a freebie if your host has any interest in keeping them. Just ask; I'd hold onto them, though, as you may be asked to cater other functions in the future.

Ask your host if they would would mind disposable plates, flatware, etc. If not, you can generally find plain white plates and simple silver also at a restaurant supply place.

Service is not your concern. You're not an established company with a staff which I'm sure they understand. Suggest to your host a buffet style set up. If they want passed munchies, there are event companies who can be brought in for that.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 12:01 PM on June 4, 2007

Charge triple your food costs. If you're going to buy serving plates and the like, then that's your own overhead.
posted by solid-one-love at 12:12 PM on June 4, 2007

Call an ACTUAL caterer, and have them bid on an identical event. You don't have to provide the actual details, make them up. When they submit their bid to you, use that as your template and adjust as your expenses vary.

Catering contracts/proposals tend to be detailed. You can essentially have a pro do it for you this way.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 12:44 PM on June 4, 2007

Caterers provide both food and services, and often both for the same event. I think it is pretty standard to charge per person for the food and then a flat hourly rate for going there, setting up, and cleaning (even if you are not serving the food per se). Otheriwse, just charge for the food.

Caterers normally do not provide silverware. Ask them about their flatware and about their serving trays--people who host big parties often can prefer their own, or can prefer that everything is brought plated on a real silver platter. I think the important thing is knowing exactly what their expectations are beforehand. It is not strange at all to ask in great detail about the level of service they are expecting--even if you were an established company.
posted by shownomercy at 12:58 PM on June 4, 2007

Hi. I hire lots of caterers. The pricing guidelines from TryTheTilapia are about right, modulo solid-one-love's comment. You might not want to go as high as triple your food costs, bearing in mind that you're brand new at this.

Serving equipment will be a nontrivial cost. There are doubtless eleventybillion party/event rental companies in your neck of the woods. You'll need:

1) Serving dishes (china).
2) Chafing dishes if items must be kept warm.
3) Tables and linens
4) Flatware if applicable
5) Glassware (it is so much easier to rent than to have to wash the glasses of 25 people by yourself).
6) Plates (ditto, unless they're okay with disposables)

Take that cost, add a discreet markup (10%-ish). Or you can pass the rental cost directly, and charge a slightly higher hourly rate.

Hourly rates for serving staff can vary wildly. Double for cooking staff. I'd advise you have one person onsite to help you. It's probably reasonable to charge $50/hr for your time onsite, and $25 for your assistant.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:13 PM on June 4, 2007

I've hired a couple of non-professional caterers and I have a couple of observations: it costs more for them to do it. Simply put, you don't have the manpower, the equipment, the cheap suppliers, etc to do it at the same price (in labor and equipment) that they do.

As a rule of thumb, I've paid the non-professionals 15% more than the professional quotes I got. Even so, they said that the profit margin was minimal.

I second the suggestion that you get someone else to quote it. Rick & Ann's in Berkeley does good quotes- I think you're in that neck of the woods?

Also, it is going to be a big undertaking: you'll worry about it, you may have to rent a van so you can have all of your provisions flat, etc, etc, etc. Do it if it sounds like the kind of thing you'd do for fun. Don't do it if you want to make money from the adventure (I can give you my non-pro caterer's email is you'd like- she's currently interning at a boulangerie in Paris, I think).

Suggestion: one of them tried something novel: she gave us all cold foods. A few of them were to be heated up, but everything else was cold which saved a lot of time. Besides, chafing dishes dry out food and make it all yucky.

Good luck!
posted by arnicae at 2:38 PM on June 4, 2007

I don't know about catering, but most effective restaurant managers I know set their prices as a function of their food cost percent, which is probably the magic Google phrase you're looking for.

By way of proof by negation, given that labor costs are pretty static and predictable, 9 times out of 10 when a restaurant is in trouble, its because its FCP is out of control.
posted by ChasFile at 3:24 PM on June 4, 2007

Seconding arnicae's suggestion about cold foods - this is completely appropriate, particularly for a summer gathering. In fact, the menu you mention in your post sounds like it could all be served cold (not to mention sounding delicious). Thanks, dirtydumbangelboy, for your insight, too.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 3:30 PM on June 4, 2007

Take that cost, add a discreet markup (10%-ish).

This is exactly what I mean about the food cost being wildly out of control. As a general rule of thumb, your food cost percent should be about a third. Reversing that equation, your mark-up on raw ingredients should be around 200%-ish.
posted by ChasFile at 3:53 PM on June 4, 2007

*[Obvious and embarrassing math error.]
posted by ChasFile at 3:58 PM on June 4, 2007

Ex-caterer here.
Bill food separate from everything else. If someone comes along to help, bill for there time. If you feel funny billing for your own time you can let it slide but that should be the only time you short yourself. Rent platers, etc. and bill rental costs plus ~10% (Really do this) The price per piece can be a good way of figuring what to charge but I like the $$ per person approach.

Catering can be a lot of fun but it is massive work and you need to be paid for it.

TryTheTilapia , dirtynumbangelboy, arnicae are all giving good advice.
posted by pointilist at 9:57 PM on June 4, 2007

Also be aware that as a not professional caterer, your kitchen is unlikely to be inspected and certified by the health department. Please check into the requirements for this, because if one person gets the runs, you need to be aware what your responsibilities are.
posted by bilabial at 5:44 AM on June 5, 2007

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