February 14th, 2014

Give Me The [Harvest] Moon: Picking A Caterer

I’ve been to dozens of weddings – dozens – and each left behind their own unique memories.

At Jenny’s, more than a decade ago, it was drinking beer in a hotel room with the bridal party before we went to the reception. I walked with Heidi and her sisters down on the beach the day she got married. I danced my fanny off at Dana’s before a bunch of us ran barefoot across the golf course in the moonlight. I remember the hat my cousin, Alex, wore to my brother’s wedding … and how green said brother was before he walked down the aisle. (NOTE: The groom should not have his bachelor party the night before your wedding!)

That said, think back to all the weddings you’ve been to in your life and tell me what you ate?

I went to five weddings in 2013, and all my foodie brain remembers is bits and pieces. There was a cute “wood” cake at the wedding of my cousin Jillian and her hubby Kevin. My friends Michelle and Jon had a mashed potato bar. And there were these super-fun homemade beer and wine favors at our friends’ John and Shannon’s wedding. But in all honesty, most guests just don’t remember the food.

Unless it’s bad.

If there’s one thing this foodie and her equally food-obsessed fiance wanted for their big day, it was that it would include a meal to remember. (You’ll have to read the accompanying “Meet The Chef” post for more on that espresso encrusted short rib!)

No matter what your budget, this is the area where you’re likely to spend the most. If you’re a WTE reader, you love food — so try to make that menu one your guests will actually remember. Here are some tips for how to do it, by picking the right caterer for your event.

WHAT DOES YOUR EVENT LOOK LIKE?

Before you even start calling caterers, you should get an idea of what you are looking for. You don’t need to make final decisions at this point, but you should have a general sense of these considerations:

  1. How many people will be at the event? This is the single largest place to cut back on budget. Less people means less money … and don’t forget the kids. Some caterers have a reduced price for tots, but that cost still adds up (and quickly!). We did a kids’ camp at our event so the little ones could have their own party. We hired help from our church and hit Costco for healthy, organic options to serve our wee guests. We provided coloring books and some other activities, and each parent brought supplies for one activity and movies. It was a huge hit.
  2. What day of the week is my event? Bringing caterers unexpected business on an off-day may mean a discount for you. It’s becoming more popular to have events on Friday or Sunday. In fact, we already have two Friday weddings to attend this year … including one that launches a music festival in Nashville. Come for the wedding, stay for the music!
  3. What time of day is my event? Serving brunch or lunch — or even just heavy appetizers – can mean a significant price reduction on the cost of your meal. How fun would a build-your-own pancake bar be? And Adam could eat his weight in the tiny grilled brie and caramelized onion sandwiches we served, along with shots of tomato soup, at our event. Yum!
  4. Will I have a buffet or a plated meal? Buffet is usually the cheapest option. You may also want to consider a family-style affair. People don’t have to pick a course – they can have what they want. We talked to  caterers who said this was less expensive than serving a plated meal, others said it was more. We liked the intimacy of passing dishes, as it created the community vibe we were looking for. And because my parents wanted something more formal, we compromised with a plated salad.
  5. Steak and fish? Chicken or pasta? The first thing we told our caterers is what we didn’t want — and that was anything traditional. There was nothing I was more worried about than cold food at an outdoor venue or serving something overcooked. Without a kitchen on site, we wanted something that would hold heat well and not dry out. And consider your pocketbook outside of the box. If you are on a chicken breast budget, do something fun with it. Don’t be afraid of big flavors. Do you love a certain ethnic food? Or food trucks (find out what food truck we had at ours next week!)? Or BBQ? Go for it! At our rehearsal dinner, we served our mostly city-slicker guests a ginormous pig roast. They loved it! Do you and your betrothed represent two different cultures? Plan a meal that marries the two. Have fun with it – it’s your day, and it can be anything you want it to be. (Just don’t forget to accommodate guests that don’t eat meat or have food allergies or dietary restrictions!)

We spent a lot of time and energy researching caterers for our event, which was about 2.5 hours outside of Washington, D.C. That prompted us to cast a wide net, looking in our area as well as in Richmond and Charlottesville, Va. Tasting fees can kill you – only half of the nearly 10 different caterers we “taste drove” even charged for it and we still spent about $250. I’d suggest starting with the ones that don’t charge, as it is definitely not a measuring stick of a caterer’s quality. The caterer we chose didn’t charge for tasting. We adored our caterer.

HARVEST MOON

Photo courtesy of Mark Hahn.
Photo courtesy of Mark Hahn.

Enter Mark Hahn. He’s the co-founder and executive chef of Harvest Moon Catering in Charlottesville, Va.

Born and raised in New York City, Hahn first came to the Commonwealth in 1984 to attend the University of Virginia. College wasn’t a good fit … and since he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, he made the only logical decision: move to the Caribbean.

Mark lived in St. John and paid his way working in restaurants. When he returned to the mainland USA, it was to San Francisco’s food world. And while he’d found his passion, there was still something missing.

“None of it was leading to this sort of, ‘I’m going to be this high-end, six-figure chef,’ ” Mark says.

So a decade after he began at U. Va., he returned to finish his degree. He knew his next step would involve food, and was inspired by working in a former girlfriend’s sorority. He decided to launch a co-op, providing meals that resembled the college’s eating plans to the Greek houses.

He found two clients – a sorority and fraternity – which grew to six, and then eight in the first few years. He and partner Rob Gustafson set up a catering shop to continue providing nine meals a week and breakfast supplies to the growing number of sororities and fraternities they served, then opened Blue Moon Diner a year later.

Their first catering vehicle? An old wood-paneled station wagon they bought for three grand.

“I didn’t spearhead anything particularly cutting edge,” Mark says, “It was local food, and making connections with like-minded people.” People, he says, who were committed to the same things.

Fresh, quality food is one of those things, and always has been. Mark says his goal was to serve those first two houses something different: steamed vegetables, vs. something that was boiled to death. That commitment continues today. Only 5 percent of what Harvest Moon puts on the table comes from a box.

Harvest Moon’s other main ingredient is quality people, like head chef Mike Perry, who got his start with Mark as a line cook at the diner. Their team now does weddings, events at U. Va., social functions and private dinners as well as a healthy rental business.

“There’s no one person that makes our company run,” Mark says “We just are lucky to have people like Mike, who probably wouldn’t want to work for a catering company if it wasn’t for the commitment to the freshest, scratch cooking.”

You can follow Harvest Moon on Facebook and Pinterest. You’ll find your mouth watering in the next post, profiling Chef Mike Perry of Harvest Moon Catering.

MARK HAHN’S TIPS FOR PICKING A CATERER

  1. Listen. What you hear after you ask a question can tell you a lot, Mark says. If you ask how big a tent you’ll need, you shouldn’t get an answer, he says — you should get a question. If a caterer just whips out a formula instead of helping you determine what’s happening under that tent, there could be a big sticker shock down the road. Especially if you have plans for a 10-piece mariachi band. Or a conga line. Or even a simple buffet. That stuff takes room. “It’s always an ‘if this, then that’ scenario,” he says.
  2. Staffing. Who will be there that day? What does the team look like, and what is their experience? How are they trained? How do they dress? At Harvest Moon, 50 percent of the employees have been there three years or longer, and longevity, Mark says, typically means staff are taken care of by their employer and know how to work well together. You don’t want to find out at your event that the staff has never done a plated meal before. That almost happened to us, and could have been disastrous. Know what questions to ask, and keep asking until you get a clear answer.
  3. Relationship. Does your caterer have a relationship with the venue? Ask your caterer how familiar they are with where you are holding your event, even if the venue referred you. Mark has two binders filled with information for every venue they have ever worked (and even ones they haven’t) — like venue policies, maps, images and answers to questions like, do they have an ice machine? The binders took them six months of calls and site visits to compile, but they know these places inside and out. Your caterer should, too.
  4. Food. Of course this is going to monopolize much of your conversation. Mark says he loves having couples come to him with ideas. Harvest Moon doesn’t try to steer people – he wants to hear their thoughts and see what they can make work. Mark says that, with a six month lead time on most events, “If we’re worth our salt, we can do most anything.” And don’t forget that there is a direct price correlation to quality. If you want Costco prices, you are going to get Costco food. Mark says you should expect that a quality caterer buys local, but if this is important to you, I still urge you to ask. It was very important to us. And be respectful of your prospective caterer’s time – especially if they are not charging a tasting fee. Harvest Moon doesn’t, so every tasting no-show, and every fusion meal they plan that doesn’t pan out, eats money. That’s the cost of doing business, Mark says with a smile. I say it’s rude. Be really interested. Be there. Be on time.
  5. Budget. This is the other big one. Food is arguably the most important part of that day. Don’t spend half your budget on a venue, your farm tables and fresh flowers and leave a McDonald’s budget for the meal. You can’t expect filet mignon on a ground beef budget. Be open to substitutions. Your caterer should be able to recommend alternatives that are a better fit for your bottom line.

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Posted in In The Red Corner, On The Road

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