All prices quoted within the piece are for food alone -- they do not include additional fees for liquor, waiters, chefs, kitchen staff, furniture/tableware/space rentals, or setups (unpacking rented furniture and laying out the tables). To get a rough idea of the total cost per head, triple or quadruple the cost of the food.
The number of wait staff required varies from caterer to caterer: For a top-tier event, caterers will allocate two waiters to every table of ten, but the average is a waiter and a half per table -- with one waiter keeping an eye on beverages for two tables.
HIRING THE STAFF: Waiters generally cost between $20 and $25 per hour with a five-hour minimum. Captains (one for every 150 guests) generally cost $25 to $35 per hour (five-hour minimum). On-site chefs usually cost $30 to $35 per hour (five-hour minimum). Smaller caterers might bill at a higher rate, but that's because they have to pay their staff more, since they can't guarantee them the sort of regular work the large caterers can.
Some caterers add up to 30 percent to the total cost of the staff bill to cover administrative expenses. Tipping especially helpful members of the staff is optional.
LIQUOR: If the caterer is supplying the liquor, the cost will range from $15 to $20 per person for cocktails (based upon brand selection); add another $20 per person if dinner is also on the slate. Expect the liquor to cost half as much if you're doing the purchasing. The only caterers with liquor licenses are those who run an on-premise catering space or a restaurant. To do an off-premise party, they apply for a temporary license that allows them to accept payment for the liquor they will be serving at that event only. Most caterers don't have a liquor license: They'll direct their clients to a retail store with a thumbnail sketch of what to order, and payment for the liquor is made directly to the store. The caterer is then permitted to serve the liquor at the event.
RENTALS: A three-course dinner will cost from $25 per head for run-of-the-mill tableware, tables, and chairs up to $75 per head for handblown glass, linen napkins, damask tablecloths, and gilded chairs with cushions. Rentals (which are customarily arranged through your caterer) can eat a big slice of your money: Unbagging and bagging each chair can cost $3 a chair; it's far cheaper to get your waiters to do this as part of the setup. There is always a surcharge for after-hours pickup and delivery of rented furnishings -- up to $150.
PAYING UP: Approximately half of these companies require a 50 percent deposit when the contract is signed (with the balance to be paid before the event starts). Others require a 75 percent deposit when the contract is signed (with the balance expected in 30 days, always prior to the event). Charges you may have to foot after the event include overtime and fees for any additional guests who turned up. (Caterers have ways of figuring this out -- surveying the coat racks, for one.)
Cancellation penalties vary wildly. Some caterers will refund all the money if the cancellation is made well ahead. Caterers generally try to be fair and accommodating; they recognize that cancellations are usually caused by circumstances that can't be helped, and they are looking for repeat business.
Ask any caterer you're considering for sample menus and recommendation letters. Check out some of the references. Then meet with the caterer -- preferably in the offices or kitchen -- to get an idea of how organized and clean the operation is. Always ask for a tasting, although some caterers do not offer a tasting or will charge for one. Once you have booked a caterer, you can request that gratis tastings be included in your contract.