Tips for do-it-yourself catering and hiring professionals

Tips for do-it-yourself catering and hiring professionals as heard on Linda Gassenheimer’s WLRN NPR program.

Sometimes I wish I had my own personal caterer.  Today our expert will help us out.  She’ll give us tips on do-it-yourself catering –  and if you’re using an outside caterer for a home or office party, she’ll tell us how to approach a caterer and what to expect. She’s Joyce Weinberg.  She’s the author of The Everything Guide To Starting And Running A Catering Business.

LG:  Joyce, we’re entertaining people in our home. What do we do?

JW: Take a deep breath and don’t freak out. The first important thing is to relax.
Next important tip is to hire some help. Most people spend so much time and attention on food and miss the party. They don’t enjoy their own party because they’re too busy serving and cleaning up. So no matter who you are, look for someone who can help you within your budget. The other tip is to not worry about serving a complete meal with a hot entrée. Focus on serving cakes or tapas (small appetizers or hors d’oeuvres). Serve these items at room temperature or cold. Don’t worry about hot and exotic food. Just make things easier for yourself. Focus on a nice assortment of fresh food and some vegetables or fruit salad. Also, focus on pitchers of cocktails, using a virgin and a spiked variety.

LG:  You could buy tapas or mezze from the market also. And if you put them in different places people will move around throughout the home and mingle.

JW: Yes, and you have the right not to serve red wine and request people don’t wear high heels to protect your home. It’s up to you. But focus on creating a casual and relaxed atmosphere.

LG: What about platters from supermarkets or specialty stores? What is the correct amount to buy based on the size of your party?

JW: The stores will typically sell you too much food. You can buy things that you can have on hand in case you run out like spiced nuts. Those things can be opened in a pinch. Order things that can be spread out like precut items, and you can make as many portions out of them as you like.

LG: What are some of your troubleshooting tips for entertaining?

JW: Clean up one week before your party. Don’t wait until the last minute to clean up your home. Also, don’t forget paper guest towels in the restroom. Have enough toilet tissue. People forget about that. Also, have enough garbage bags and enough room for trash. Have enough soft drinks because you don’t want your guests to have to drink too much alcohol because there aren’t enough alternatives. Also, don’t forget about alternatives for people with food allergies or vegetarians.

LG: Cocktail hours these days are very long. Sometimes I’m ready to go home by the time they’re over! What should the timing be?

JW: A fun trend now is to have your entire party be a cocktail party.  The caterers continue to bring out different hors d’oeuvres and sometimes there are themes to the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. That makes the whole party relaxing and fun. If you do plan on having a dinner, always plan for people to be 30-45 minutes late. Cocktail hours should be no longer than 45 minutes. You don’t want to seat people at 9:30 for an entrée.

LG: That’s great advice. If you don’t have room for a sit-down dinner, cocktail parties end up being easiest and most comfortable and you don’t have to worry about having seating for each guest.

JW: Also formal dinner parties don’t allow as much social interaction. You’re stuck at your table. It’s most fun when people are relaxed and it’s not too dressy. People can just sit everyone and enjoy little bites of food while meeting more people.

LG: If I don’t have the time and I need a caterer, what should I do before calling the caterer?

JW: You need to know your budget. You have to pay for the food, help, beverages and maybe rentals like tables and chairs.

LG: That’s a great point. The drink bill can equal the food bill.

JW: Yes, and this can get very expensive. You should always talk to your caterer about this and the option of supplying the alcohol and drinks yourself. The ideal way is to find a caterer you’re comfortable with. Caterers have different price points and target clients. You need to look for the one that fits your needs.

LG: What do I need to do before the caterer comes?

JW: Clean up and make room for them. They need counter space and trash areas. They also need room for tables and space in your refrigerator.

LG: One time I arrived early and the caterer said to me, “have a drink and sit down.” That was the best caterer I ever had! Should you interview caterers?

JW: Yes, definitely; you should interview them just like you’d interview anyone else doing work for you. They should give you a proposal with just the menu and then tell you what their service fee is and other additional costs. Remember food may be half or less than your total bill.

LG: At the end of the party what should the gratuity be?

JW: Most of the time gratuity is already included at 15-20%. You need to ask the caterer before the party about gratuity. If they say you need to tip, then you need to have cash at hand. Take care of that ahead of time.

LG: How do you figure that out? Do you tip every person or the head person?

JW: Talk to the caterer. They should tell you. For instance one caterer I know takes care of his people and charges service already on his bill to make sure everyone is taken care of. If people do a great job there’s no harm in giving them an extra tip.

LG: How can we make our table look great without much effort?

JW: Glass jars with different color preserves are one easy way to add color to your table. Serve the preserves with nice baskets full of biscuits or breads.

LG: Joyce Weinberg also conducts food tours of Philadelphia and New York. Please see their website at