Food for Thought

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Caterer: The Newport Beach House. Michelle Carpenter Photography

There are lots of factors to consider when choosing and working with a caterer.

After your closest family and friends gather to witness your “I do’s,” there’s probably one thing on their minds besides your glorious union: food. It’s often said there’s no more important vendor on your wedding day than your caterer — and none that will arouse more discussion. So choose wisely. 

By Andrea E. McHugh / Newport Wedding 2021

EDITORS NOTE: Click here for details about how COVID-19 is impacting weddings, including food service.

Where to Start

In all likelihood, booking your church and/or venue will be your first step toward matrimony. In and around Newport, you’ll find a variety of venues: some with catering included, and others that require an outside caterer. Venues lacking in-house catering are often historic properties, such as Fort Adams, Glen Manor House and Eisenhower House. These sites will typically provide couples with a recommended list of caterers familiar with the venue. In other instances, your venue may have an exclusive list of caterers pre-approved to work onsite.

Rosecliff, the famed Gilded Age mansion completed in 1902, is home to Newport’s largest private ballroom. Couples celebrating their nuptials at this Preservation Society of Newport County property are required to select from the “Newport Mansions Caterers of Choice” list, which includes four highly qualified caterers with experience servicing the organization’s turn-of-the-century venues.

“We are not a function hall; we are a museum that does events after touring hours, which presents a challenge,” says the Newport Mansions’ Director of Special Events, Philip Pelletier. The preselected caterers, he explains, have a comprehensive knowledge of Rosecliff, from which doors and ramps to utilize for loading gear, to floor plans that work best in the space.

When Glen Manor was built in 1923 on the banks of the Sakonnet River in Portsmouth, world-famous architect John Russell Pope could hardly imagine the French chateau-style home (inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles) would become one of the area’s most sought-after wedding venues. “Being familiar with the house is very important,” says resident manager Katie Wilkinson, who oversees events with her husband, Don. The caterers also act as the wedding’s point person, managing the event’s staffing needs and directing the wedding’s flow from “I do” through dessert, including first dances, toasts, cake cutting and more.

Some venues do their own catering, like Castle Hill Inn, which prepared these hors d’oeuvres. Photography by Jana Williams.

Gathering Names

Couples not bound to an exclusive catering arrangement with their venue often find caterers through wedding websites, the Newport Wedding Show, and Newport Wedding and Newport Life magazines. Lynell Lovejoy, VP of Venues at Russell Morin Catering & Events, says couples should make sure the caterers they interview have experience at their specific venue, not only for a working knowledge of the premises, but for important logistical details like staffing needs or if a mobile kitchen is needed and what arrangements that entails.

Get Your Ducks in a Row

With Newport’s active social calendar, area caterers can be booked a year — or more — in advance. Before you reach out to one, you should have a few ducks in a row.

First, your date and venue should be confirmed so the caterers can check their availability. Next, they’ll want to know approximately how many guests you’ll be expecting. If you haven’t done so already, draw up a list of invitees and try to determine how many of those you expect will attend. (If Aunt Alice hasn’t left Auckland in decades, chances are she won’t be there.) A good rule of thumb is to plan for around 15 percent of your invited guests to decline the invitation. Finally, have a budget in mind with a realistic range of what you can spend, as that will determine what the caterer can offer.

TIP: Caterers will want to know how many guests you’re expecting. A good rule of thumb is to plan for around 15 percent of invited guests to decline the invitation.

At Your Service

Costs are determined by the total number of guests, the menu and the type of service, which can range from a seated multicourse dinner to an elaborate buffet, food stations or a cocktail event with heavy hors d’oeuvres. Key factors in determining your choice will be budget and venue. Seated dinners are the norm at formal events and will be more expensive than other options, but a seasoned caterer will look for solutions when there are challenges. For example, if your heart is set on a seated dinner and your wallet is not, a family-style seated dinner — where appetizers, entrees and sides are served on large platters passed around the table — usually offers a more affordable option.

If you think you can save even more with a buffet, think again. “There’s typically more food brought if there’s a buffet meal, so everyone can have a bit of everything. But there’s a few less service staff, since they’re not serving each meal to each guest, like a plated dinner,” says Lovejoy. “These two styles of service are actually quite comparable, contrary to the assumption that a buffet is always less expensive.”

Another option is a clambake. McGrath Clambakes in Newport showcases the traditional cooking process passed down from New England colonists, with the big moment unfolding when wedding guests gather ’round the subterranean bake to watch the cover peeled back, unleashing a billowing cloud of steam as wire baskets full of lobsters, corn, potatoes and clams are revealed. “We can also do a lobster boil with the same components but without the show, and can accommodate a plated dinner, buffet or stations,” says Senior Catering Manager Alexis Radkovich.

It’s important to be transparent about your budget, clear about your vision, and willing to compromise if your budget and vision do not align.

Caterers handle more than just food; they may also be responsible for the tent, tables, chairs and linens. Tiffany Axtmann Photography.

More Than Just a Meal

Many of today’s full-service caterers also act as de facto event planners, and can secure everything from tent and table rentals to china, tableware, linens, decor — even the dance floor. “We offer our signature green-and-white striped tent, which adds a little something different and stands out more than just a standard white wedding tent,” says Radkovich. The company can also provide ceremony and cocktail seating, bar service, and everything for dining. “We try to do an inclusive package: linens, plates, flatware, glassware — everything you need,” she says.

When comparing catering proposals and weighing them against your budget, Lovejoy says it’s important to look at the whole picture and compare apples to apples. “There are so many factors that go into what the price looks like,” she explains, including if a company owns items or needs to outsource. Another factor that will impact cost is the number of staff needed. Lovejoy recommends trusting the expertise of your caterer when it comes to staff-to-guest ratios. “That has a lot to do with the style of service you’re doing and the venue. We want to make sure our staff number is appropriate to run that event.”

Caterers are also invaluable resources when it comes to recommending other vendors to execute your vision. So before searching for an event lighting company, or performers like living statues or a strolling champagne table, check with your caterer, who has an entire network at their fingertips.

Making Your Selection

After narrowing down your catering contenders, request a proposal for your wedding. It’s important to be transparent about your budget, clear about your vision, and willing to compromise if your budget and vision do not align. After collecting the proposals, follow up with an in-person or phone interview to review specifics and address any questions.

A tasting to sample your caterer’s offerings and craft your menu is typically scheduled after you book the caterer — but not always. Elizabeth O’Keefe, marketing and design manager at The Catered Affair, says the company can accommodate tastings prior to booking for a fee, which is applied as an event deposit/payment should the couple move forward with the booking. “Ultimately, there is no charge for contracted events,” she explains.

Dining options can range from heavy hors d’oeuvres to a seated dinner. Tiffany Axtmann Photography. Russell Morin Catering & Events

What to Expect

Once you’ve selected a caterer, you will be asked to sign an agreement and provide a deposit to secure the date. Be sure to keep your copy with any other wedding-related contracts. If there’s anything the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s that circumstances beyond anyone’s control can cause a wedding or event to be cancelled or rescheduled. The “force majeure” or “act of God” clause in a contract removes or alters liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes.

Some caterers prefer that entrée selections be included with your guests’ RSVPs, so they can prepare in advance. Be sure to ask if this is required, so you can plan your response cards accordingly. As responses start to flood your mailbox, keep track of your total guest tally, as your caterer will ask you for that final number about two weeks before the big day. If you haven’t been on a payment plan, this is usually when the full balance of your contract is due (or by the wedding — but it’s best to have this settled in advance).

This is also the time your caterer will request a list of any meals that need to be specially prepared to accommodate guests with dietary restrictions or preferences, including food allergies and vegan, vegetarian or religious diets.

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