Getting engaged is a wish that comes true for so many women over the holiday season.

After the proposal, excitement builds about planning the wedding. However, excitement can quickly turn to anxiety and stress as an endless stream of decision-making mounts. Of all the planning experiences, almost nothing blindsides a new bride more than choosing a caterer.

Overwhelmed brides tend to find most the stress comes from not being prepared to answer the barrage of questions a caterer will ask, and they do not realize that many of those questions will have nothing to do with the menu.

Executive Chef at Artistic Foods Catering in York, Michael Motter, has thirty years in the industry and offers up some advice.

Michael Motter, executive chef at Artistic Foods Catering, 144 Roosevelt Ave. in York, prepares a lunch order. Motter has been in the catering business for
Michael Motter, executive chef at Artistic Foods Catering, 144 Roosevelt Ave. in York, prepares a lunch order. Motter has been in the catering business for 30 years and knows how stressful choosing a caterer for a wedding can be. (John A. Pavoncello photo)

"If you do a little homework in key areas, the experience can be as fun and exciting as you hoped it would be."

First things first: Not all caterers provide the same services. Caterers can be categorized as banquet halls, hotel and convention centers with banquet staffs, off-site or mobile caterers, and boutique caterers who specialize.

Each company has its strengths and limitation. You should consider finding a caterer that has the expertise needed for your particular event.

Venue: Before hiring a caterer, consider where you are going to have the wedding. Each venue has its own list of approved companies it will allow on site. Choosing a caterer first could spell disappointment if that caterer has no rights to work at that venue.

Once you select a venue, it is important to understand what services it provides. Will they supply chairs, tents or linens? Come armed to the catering appointment knowing what the venue allows, provides and requires of you and the caterer.

Budget: Sticker shock is not uncommon for those planning a wedding.

"Know your total budget," Motter said. "But, realize that your budget includes more than food."

When deciding on a caterer, remember the cake is usually not part of the deal. Wedding cake is purchased separately and can run about $3 per slice.
When deciding on a caterer, remember the cake is usually not part of the deal. Wedding cake is purchased separately and can run about $3 per slice. (Submitted photo)

Cost per person includes all rentals and service. Many brides do not realize that a caterer may charge for plates or chaffing dishes or that she may need to rent chairs. Will it be cheaper to rent the items yourself or to have the caterer provide them? You may have a choice.

Alcohol is also often separate from the estimated cost per person. Most caterers will serve the alcohol purchased and delivered by the bride and groom, but are not licensed to provide it themselves.

An easy way to estimate the cost per person for a wedding is to select a restaurant that serves a similar type of fare you are considering. Order an appetizer, salad and an entrée. Select menu items you would like to see served at your wedding. The restaurant figures in service and overhead right into the prices, so when the check comes, divide the total by the number of guests. This will be a close estimate for how much a caterer will charge per person and help you avoid sticker shock when you sit down to decide a menu.

When budget is a concern a couple has two choices, according to Motter: Alter the type of dinner you want, or limit the guest list. Budget may dictate that you can't have both.

Menu: Decide ahead of time what type of food you would like to serve. This narrows down the enormous amount of possibilities the caterer can present. The kind of food will determine a general budget as well.

Menus that are kept simple are usually the most affordable. Often a bride chooses a buffet to save money, but then winds up wanting too much variety.

"You can't please everyone," Motter said.

The more variety on the buffet, the more expensive the meal will be even though a buffet requires less labor. This is because enough food has to be made of each item on the buffet to feed all guests. Therefore, giving guests multiple choices of vegetables or starches gets expensive and really provides more food than what is actually needed. A buffet with too much variety would be cost comparable to a seated service which requires more labor.

"Don't choose a menu just to impress. Know what you want and what suits your general guest list," Motter said. "Keep it simple."

The cake: Price per person will also not include a wedding cake. Other desserts can be added to the menu for an increased cost per person, but wedding cake is purchased separately and served by the caterer.

Motter explains that many services at a wedding such as chocolate fountains, ice sculptures or wedding cakes are subcontracted. A quality wedding cake can cost three dollars a slice and should be figured into the overall budget.

The best way to find a caterer is through word of mouth. Seek out companies for which guests speak highly and be sure to look into more than one. If you find a caterer through advertising, be sure to ask for references.

In the end, finding someone you work well with can make all the difference, according to Motter.

"Find a caterer that makes you feel comfortable, makes themselves readily available throughout the entire process and helps take the stress out of your big day."