How to Get Better Food at Weddings, Without Alienating the Caterer (Could This Mean the End of the Vendor Meal War?)

WeddingIQ Blog - How to Get Better Food at Weddings Without Alienating the Caterer

Ah, vendor meals...the bane of many wedding professionals' existence - not just those who feel that caterers aren't treating them well, but also the caterers who are tired of vendors attacking them and interfering with their service. If there's a hot button topic in the wedding industry, this is it. The vast majority of rants we receive on our Super Secret, Super Anonymous feedback form are about vendor meals, and we've shared a number of these complaints before.

Thing is, the problem is not that caterers are unaware of vendors' feelings on the issue. It would literally be impossible for catering companies not to know that vendors aren't happy. Whether it's the public Facebook groups and Tumblrs publishing anonymous callouts of caterers for the quality of their vendor meals, or the vendors themselves objecting during the event, caterers know.

So, rather than continuing to beat the long-dead "vendor meals suck" horse, I wanted to speak to some caterers myself. I wanted to ask them what goes into their decisions regarding what, and when, to serve to vendors at the weddings. And I found out some interesting things.

I was fortunate to speak in detail with three separate caterers: one at a venue with in-house catering in Baltimore, MD; one off-premise catering company owner in Annapolis, MD; and one former catering executive at an off-premise catering company in Washington, DC. While all three work (or worked) for very different kinds of companies - all upscale, but serving different markets and target clients - they all had similar perspectives. Across the board, these caterers acknowledged that two major things affect the vendor meals that are served.

Clients' Directives:

Ultimately, what is served is left to the discretion of the couple getting married, or whomever is paying the bill. Frankly, by the time the wedding rolls around, some couples just aren't going to be thrilled about the expense of paying a team of wedding professionals to eat, regardless of the fact that feeding their hardworking vendors is clearly the right thing to do.

Two of the caterers I spoke with reported that vendor meals is something they typically discuss with their clients in the latter stages of planning, and they told me that many clients are surprised by the question and seem not to have thought about feeding their vendors at all, let alone what meal to order. This suggests that, even though many wedding vendors include a meal requirement in their contract (some even stipulate a "hot meal" or the same meal guests are eating), it's still not registering with clients - probably because they're not internalizing all the fine print when they're signing contracts, and they assume that their vendors will remind them later what's required of them. Then, when the actual options are presented by the caterer, and the wedding expenses are quickly mounting, saving a few bucks is suddenly pretty appealing.

Speaking of options, the menus offered by the caterers I spoke with varied. All had a relatively inexpensive "cold" option available (which, as one caterer pointed out, offers some additional flexibility in terms of timing service and being able to be partially saved for later in the evening if the vendor preferred). At least two of the caterers also offered a "middle" option of a hot meal, chef's choice, and not necessarily what the guests were being served. And all three were willing to serve vendors the same meal as the guests, if the client chose (and paid for) that option. As they explained, however, this could quickly become cost-prohibitive for clients, as weddings can have anywhere from 10-30 vendors in attendance. Most clients, these caterers told me, are relieved to choose a less expensive option and believe that's reasonable given the overall cost of the wedding.

(Note: if an Internet search for "vendor meals" is to be believed, the topic of feeding one's vendors is still a confusing and hotly-debated one among engaged couples and vendors alike. The first several search results demonstrate that there's a lot of conflicting information flying around with regards to cost, timing and location of vendor meals.

Food and Labor Costs:

This is a very real concern for caterers, and admittedly one that I didn't consider prior to these conversations (in spite of my own wedding industry beginnings working for three different venues and caterers!). Based on the number of vendors I mentioned above - which is realistic, when you consider that you sometimes have a planner with 2-4 assistants, 1-2 photographers with an assistant, 1-2 DJs and/or 5-10 band members, 1-3 lighting or audiovisual technicians, and more - costs can escalate quickly. Is it really reasonable to expect a caterer to absorb these costs?

I'm not alone in overlooking these costs as a reality for caterers. Lauren Grove, in an article for her site Every Last Detail, stated "I think the venue or caterer should insist on providing the vendor meals free-of-charge - and meals that are the same quality that your guests are eating." Wait, what? Now, obviously food costs aren't the same as the "retail" rate charged to clients, but still: 15 vendors, even at just $20/plate, would be $300, and that's before any associated labor costs with serving them. Not to mention, the caterers have their own staff to feed as well, in addition to their other overhead costs. This can quickly become a huge expense for a catering company, and not one that can easily be waved away because a planner or journalist believes a caterer should feed vendors for free.

So, with those two things in mind, the caterers I talked with did suggest some tangible things vendors can do to maximize their chances of getting better food.

Things to try:

  • Put a meal in your contract, and discuss it at signing. This should be a no-brainer: if a meal is that important to you, then by all means, add it as one of the terms of your contract. If you expect anything less than the bare-bones, cheapest vendor meal available, then stipulate that expectation in your contract. And make sure you actually mention it (not only that you require a meal, but why), so it doesn't get buried in all the other language.
  • Confirm the meal when you're confirming final details. You're meeting or speaking with your clients in the weeks before the wedding to confirm everything else, right? Photographers confirm which portraits are expected, DJs confirm music requests and names for introductions, day-of coordinators confirm everything. Ask your client to confirm that they ordered and paid for the specific meal you require.
  • Reach out to the caterer in advance. The caterers I spoke with in the most detail acknowledged they are happy to accommodate vendors' requests (both in terms of dietary restrictions and timing of service) in advance whenever possible, but doing so on the day of the event is difficult, if not impossible. Why not get your client's caterer's contact information a couple of weeks before the wedding and then send an email introducing yourself, providing your own contact information, letting them know you're looking forward to working with them, and asking for what it is that you need? Could you be any worse off for doing so? I don't see how.
  • Be nice, both during the event and in general. This should also be a no-brainer, but the caterers I spoke with had some horror stories: of vendors bursting into the kitchen making demands, interrupting plating and service for 200+ guests, taking food not intended for them, and worse. (I don't think anyone would appreciate a caterer interrupting portraits to ask the photographer to take photos of the food, or disconnecting the DJ's equipment to plug in a food warmer). The hotel caterer I spoke with also complained about vendors - mostly photographers, but it could apply to others - utilizing space in ballrooms not intended for the wedding, standing on or moving lobby furniture and not putting it back, demanding the hotel pay for parking, and more. These caterers were quick to point out that they, and their staff, are humans like everyone else and are more likely to be accommodating to people who are kind and respectful.
  • Take the message of vendor meal importance to the real influencers: engaged couples. Shaming the caterers who are trying to manage food costs or adhere to their clients' requests isn't getting anyone anywhere - so maybe it's time to start using social media forums and blogs to spread the word of ethical working conditions and kind treatment of vendors among potential clients. After all, they're the ones ultimately selecting and paying for the meals their vendors are fed. They're also the ones saying "I'm already paying them for their services," and "No one pays me to eat at work" and other such nonsense. Just as cash bars and registry enclosures for invitations became commonly accepted as an etiquette faux pas, so too will the choice to feed vendors poorly, if the message gets shared widely enough.

Will any of this guarantee that you receive a delicious, nourishing, beautifully-presented meal at every wedding? Of course not - there could never be any guarantees, when there are dozens of caterers in this market alone, and thousands of weddings taking place every year. But it gives you, the vendor, at least a shred of control over a situation that has long left you feeling frustrated and powerless.

All of this being said, I can hear your protestations from here:

"But my clients paid for a hot meal for me, and I didn't receive it!" I have no doubt that you asked your client for a hot meal. And okay, maybe they did pay for it. But can you really know for sure? I ask, because in order for you to be certain, you would probably have had to put your client on the spot prior to the wedding, inquiring whether they remembered to order - and pay for - your preferred meal. You would have then had to have been denied the meal at the wedding itself (entirely possible) and been refused again after addressing the issue with the caterer. And you would have had to follow up with the client after the wedding - totally a honeymoon buzzkill - and reported your complaint, and asked them to confirm they had paid for the hot meal you were supposed to receive. And even then, unless a client was so moved by your unhappiness (or maybe your threats of breach of contract), the client would need to show you a paid invoice, with vendor meals as line items, for you to know for sure. An exaggerated example? Sure. But my point is that, even if a client does tell you they paid for your preferred meal, it's entirely possible, even likely, that they forgot (or that they chose to buy the cheap "cold" meal and blame the caterer later).

"Caterers throw away tons of food - they should serve it to us!" Maybe you've observed dumpsters full of filet mignon and crabcakes being wheeled out of the weddings you've worked. However, all three caterers I spoke with mentioned that they keep a very close eye on their food costs, and rely on accurate guest counts during their preparations. They aren't showing up with tons of extra meals, especially not plated ones, and they certainly don't plan for enough to cover the 10-30 vendors we've been discussing throughout this article. In addition, as one caterer pointed out, the caterer isn't going to be aware of any overages until after every single guest is served, which is well beyond the timeline vendors have been asking to be fed.

"Caterers should want to feed us great meals because we'll refer them!" "Should" is a dangerous rabbit hole to fall into, especially with regards to others' businesses. I understand the logic here - consider, though, that by that same logic, any restaurant we visit should give us the best meal on the menu, regardless of what we actually paid for, because we have the "power" to sing their praises on Yelp or whatever is the hot review site du jour. The list of what caterers - or any vendor - could do to earn referrals is endless; however, by no means does "could" equal "should," and upgrading every meal is very likely not in the caterer's business plan or operating budget. Let's face another truth: with the exception of venue contacts (many of whom aren't even on-site the day of the wedding, and are primarily going to be concerned with the caterer's adherence to the venue's regulations) and full-service wedding planners, few of us are in a position to refer many caterers to our clients, because we get booked after they do. That's not a reflection of our value to the wedding process; it's just a matter of timing, and a statement of fact. Of course, even if we can't refer them, we can trash them to the Internet and the world, but since when do we, as business owners, advocate for this kind of bullying to get what we want? We don't like when clients do it to us, and nor should we do it to each other.

One of the caterers I spoke with was especially passionate about one final topic: "[Vendors] complain that their contract states something and they are served something different.Your contract with YOUR client does not bind me to anything. It is the client's responsibility to make those arrangements with me. I am not responsible for feeding vendors. I am solely responsible for carrying out the wishes of our client. What arrangements did YOUR CLIENT make with the caterer/hotel/restaurant? If you don't like it, then go back to YOUR CLIENT who signed your contract."

In addition to pretty well summarizing the issues above, this caterer's comments bring to mind all kinds of analogous, and problematic, scenarios. How can any of us, as business owners and professionals, be expected to accommodate other vendors' contractual terms, when the contract is with the client (and not us) but affects our bottom line? Should a florist be forced to provide free flowers for cake toppers and serving trays because the bakery or caterer's contract requires it? Should a photographer be forced to provide free images to the wedding coordinator for marketing purposes, because the coordinator's contract requires it? Should a venue be forced to allow significantly early access without additional charges, because the rental companies' contracts require it?

I think in all of those situations, we could all agree that it becomes the client's responsibility to ensure that all terms of their contracts are upheld, and to pay any associated costs. And I think we could all agree that none of us, as wedding vendors, are under any obligation to provide anything that has not been agreed upon, and paid for, in advance.

Hopefully, if vendors commit to proactively ensuring their clients purchase adequate meals, and step up their own communication with caterers, and caterers commit to working cooperatively with vendors in getting everyone fed well and on-time, the "vendor meal" conflict can be laid to rest, enabling everyone to refocus on their real priority: making their clients blissfully happy on their big day.