As wedding pros, one of the things our couples typically know the least about is catering. The menu part and picking their favorite foods they understand entirely. They've also learned to ask, "How many bartenders will you have?" But beyond that, most people don't know how it all magically comes together.
With the world starting to slowly reopen in the age of COVID-19, restrictions on gatherings are loosening in many areas. This means that slightly larger weddings, with appropriate social distancing, are happening too. Most people see pretty clear regulations for restaurants, but catered events have primarily been a gray area. Aside from prescribed six-foot distancing, hand sanitizer, and masks, the rest of the service options are pretty vague. Follow along for some great ways to get the conversation started with your clients and caterer to ensure a safe and successful event.
A lot of what you'll need to know to manage a catered event safely will be driven by many factors. However, most importantly, the comfort level of your clients and their family and the education and compliance of the venue or caterer need to align. To get started, here are a few questions to gauge the comfort level of the couple and their family:
- During quarantine, have you been to a restaurant to dine in?
- If so, what were some of your observations? What were some of the things that worried you? What were some things you wish the restaurant had done better?
- If not, why? What prevented you from eating inside a restaurant? What would've made you more comfortable?
Hand passed hors d'oeuvres offered by servers with masks and gloves may put a majority of guests at ease. While others might feel that a selection of cocktail bits pre-plated for each guest is the only way to go. In many cases, food displays will disappear unless caterers invest in plexiglass screens and offer individually plated selections of a designated server to eliminate guests touching utensils.
Seating Arrangements & Physical Distancing
Couples may have considered physical distancing of tables having seen six-foot spacing on the news. However, they may not have considered whether family members who had not quarantined together would be comfortable sitting together. Smaller dining tables might be a creative way to seat couples and smaller families together.
Beyond physical distancing, you may have to engage in conversations around service pieces and pre-set foods. Something as simple as setting the table with salt and pepper shakers, sugar, butter, and rolls may cause some people to get nervous. Although, at the same time, a pre-set salad with guests walking past as they enter the ballroom may be okay for other guests. Discuss how you can best accommodate these mixed safety measures for guests.
When it comes to dinner service, the consensus from much of the catering industry is that family-style service is on pause for the time being. Many couples are shifting to a plated dinner. Others are sticking with the buffet dinners they originally planned, but having masked and gloved servers to serve their guests. It's critical that when asking these questions surrounding comfort level and service, you gather information without making any promises. Gauging the comfort level is only the first step in the planning process.
Precautions, Practices, & Product Offerings
The other half of the catering conversation is the precautions, practices, and product offerings of the venue or catering company. Across the country, we've seen practices differing greatly, not only based on local and state regulations but also based on the size of the business. Many sizable national chain hotels and companies with multiple venues tend to have more stringent practices in place—well beyond required masks and the wearing and changing of gloves. Online conversations with some of the country's top caterers and catering associations have offered members some solid practices and things to consider. Meanwhile, some smaller mom and pop companies may be less proactive in what they're prepared to do. As a wedding professional, it becomes our job to bridge the gap between our client's needs and comfort level and the policies, procedures, and offerings of the companies they hired pre-COVID.
Policies & Procedures
Here are some questions to discuss with the catering professionals after gathering information on your clients' comfort level:
- What kind of policies have you put in place regarding the health of your staff?
- Are staff members having temperatures taken at the beginning of each shift?
- Are all staff members provided masks and disposable gloves?
- Have you planned for hand sanitizer and specific handwashing stations for staff?
At a bare minimum, the company should have a pretty specific plan in place and be diligent with training and signage reinforcing procedures with staff.
Service Styles & Standards
In working as a go-between with the venue or caterer and our clients, we need to be exceptionally clear about the current offerings and how they align with our clients' comfort level.
- Are they offering butler passed hors d'oeuvres?
- Have the offerings been changed to eliminate dipping sauces?
- Are servers presenting guests with food items, rather than them helping themselves?
- Are they offering food items in individual service containers?
- Are there options for curated boxes of hors d'oeuvres?
- Are they offering food displays?
- Are there sneeze guards or plexiglass barriers protecting the foods?
- Are items individually plated?
- Will servers be handing utensils and serving guests?
- Are you pre-setting foods and service items on guest tables?
- Are service items like salt, pepper, and sugar pre-set or brought as needed?
- Are your pre-pouring water and champagne?
- Are you pre-setting salads? Are salads served pre-dressed, or how are you handling dressing service?
- Are food stations and buffets still an option?
- Will servers be handling utensils and serving guests?
- Will we need additional buffet lines to accommodate the number of guests?
- Will there be a cost for any additional staff?
The number of questions to ask caterers and the comfort level of couples and their families is a moving target. We might find that as regulations change, as more weddings begin to happen, and as we know more about the control of COVID-19, we'll have a better idea of how we can proceed. For now, asking your clients the right questions, gauging their comfort level, and knowing what the catering company can offer is the only way to formulate a plan to put people at ease.
Hero photo courtesy The Ganeys