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Catering Nightmare

post #1 of 26
Thread Starter 
Hello all,

New here - I'm not new to the business but I *am* new to owning my own company! Last December, my husband and I launched our own business and have really enjoyed the work that we do and the clients that we work with. Currently, we're still small (our largest event to date has been for 300) but, of course, we dream of growing and are working toward our goals!

That said, this past weekend, we experienced our first negative event but, on the positive side, we learned a LOT of lessons!!

The event was very complicated (7 course meal with wine pairings following h'ors d'oeuvres and cocktails in which my servers had to pass out a specialty drink using a script the groom gave us) and the clients were extremely needy (we offer one free tasting; they required two and an extra visit to their place and they were still making changes to their menu the week of the event).

As we arrived at the reception site (outdoors at the groom's parents' HUGE house), the tableware (rented by the wedding couple) was nowhere to be seen. We looked in the kitchen, the prep area, on the tables... no luck. Asked the wedding coordinator - again, no luck. Asked the decorator - nope.

I'm trying not to panic and, as my chefs and servers were prepping the h.d., of course, the guests show up 45 minutes early. The dishes were eventually found but relocating them to where they needed to be set us back a good 20 minutes. When we received the wine list, we found out that the vegetarians would be receiving different wine than the meat eaters for each course. And, as if that wasn't enough, someone complained that there was a gnat in her vichyssoise (hello? Not sure if you realized this or not, lady, but you are eating OUTDOORS under a TENT!)

Let's see... what else... two of my servers and two of my runners didn't show up (we needed a staff of 20 for the event but it was workable with 16), the power supply blew (we requested that we rent a generator but the groom's father insisted that their power supply was efficient) which set the serving of the main course back another 20 minutes - and infuriated the client. The beef wasn't cooked to their satisfaction (that, obviously, IS our fault), my servers had to walk 300 feet in pitch black (no lighting for us) to and from the cooking area with their fully loaded trays and the reception went three hours longer than we'd been told it would.

Even though the vast majority of the mishaps weren't due to error on our part, we felt badly and chose not to charge them anything for the bar service. They told us this wasn't enough so we deducted more than $1,500 from their bill (roughly 25%). Their response was, "That's a good start but what else are you going to do?" Uhm. We've already done more than duty requires and now we're done.

Yeesh - glad that's over! And, like I said, there were LOTS of lessons learned after that event! Thank goodness our events are usually nothing like that one - who needs drugs when you can get the adrenaline rush you get from catering???

I wanted to know if anyone else would be willing to share their own catering disaster stories, too!
post #2 of 26
IMO, not that have i expereincei n this but the table wears and power supplies and stuff was there fault. you requested it they denied it. the only fault in your coner was the undercooked beef.

Maybe in the future when something is requested and denied by the cleint you make them sign a waiver stating that you are not repsonsible for issues that occure due to this request being denied. Also any special intructions must be put in writing at least 48 prior to event were applicable and any entree/food changes need to be made 1 week prior (or when ever you do your ordering)...... and maybe also put in something like What ever is being supplied out side of the catering company that will be used such as the place wears must avaabiale 4 hours prior to event start.

just thoughts and ideas.

Catering is definly something I would love to do in my future. I had my first kidna gig yesterday. I did my freind 4th of july party. It was all freind and stuff but Iknew what I was being supplied, I got what I needed, I bourhgt what I needed and might need (favorite part, peopler were shocked when I went to my car and they were like he comes prepared) dispite the rain it went off well. I got a few offers (paying gigs) for the future.
post #3 of 26
horror stories of catering.....oh my.

25%=$1500 for a 7 course with bar/wine and supposedly 20 staff?
not sure how many you were serving but wow.
who was supposed to check in the rentals? it's to the point that I order them myself, check them in and out....that way I know who to call if something isn't right or is just not appearring.

I've got a lot to do today, but I'll get back with frying in the rain, or how stupid can an adult professional be??????
cooking with all your senses.....
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cooking with all your senses.....
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post #4 of 26
Thread Starter 
I know, I know. 135 guests @ $50 per plate - 8 servers for 16 tables, 1 server for the head table, 4 runners, 2 bartenders and 5 chefs (entirely too cheap). It was my first booking and I was entirely too eager. I've done several events between when I booked that one and when it actually took place and I've kicked myself a zillion times for it. Even as a newcomer to the business, I realize if I were booking them now, there's no WAY I'd have given them the deal they got.

When we went through the contract, they were going to check in the rentals but the last time we met face to face, they informed me that they had a wedding coordinator (a friend of the family) so it may have been that person's responsibility - I really don't know. Either way, we were all clear on the fact that it wasn't ours. The first decision I made about changing our policy happened the minute I realized that the dishes weren't accounted for. From now on, it'll be written into the contract that my company will be ordering all rentals.

I made a lot of 'newbie' mistakes - making assumptions (like assuming that adequate lighting would be provided). We did build into the contract that the power supply would be provided by the groom's family so we're covered there.

They are now demanding that we provide them with all of our receipts. I spoke with my lawyer about it and was told to tell them, "absolutely NOT." We have more than adequately compensated them and we're done. I'm averaging 5 events per month right now - thank goodness most of them haven't been like this!
post #5 of 26

lessons learned

1. get full payment 7-10 days in advance of wedding (especially for wedding)

2, charge for labor seperately - add an extra hour in for good measure (it usually runs an hour later than they expect anyhow) and put in a clause for over time per server per half hour eg $15 per server per half hour seems more palatible to clients than $30 per server per hour.

3. Any menu changes made less than 10 business days before event will incur a service charge - for the extra work you have to do to rearrange everything.

4. try to get ownership of the rentals - and certainly charge a fee for checking them in, setup, etc as well as for telling the client what is required - you are doing the work


5. never let the client talk you into using volunteers - family and friends - they are not reliable. You can use this story to warn off other clients.

6. cheap clients are never happy. They already got a bargain. You gave them too much back and now they want more! Why do they want to see your receipts - what possible reason could they have for that?

for the second tasting, you should have charged them at least the plate rate - or just refused. but it's all a learning curve.

7. send them a bill for your staff overtime - and deduct it against any charge backs you gave them. They may not pay it, but it might shut them up.

8. Take a deep breath and move on - it's not the end of the world and as you said, lots of lessons learned.
Chef Tigerwoman

Stop Tofu Abuse...Eat Foie Gras...
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Chef Tigerwoman

Stop Tofu Abuse...Eat Foie Gras...
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post #6 of 26
Thread Starter 
Very good advice, tigerwoman - thank you! I've printed off your list so that I can add those items that I hadn't thought of to my changes.

I wish I'd found this site BEFORE I got started but even so, I'm very glad I've found it now!
post #7 of 26
I DID find this site before I got started, and I STILL made the same mistakes you did.
post #8 of 26
Good for you Chef Kelly!


I use one rental company fairly exclusively, rentals are 15% over the cost from the rental company and I make sure my clients know that.......it makes rental charges alittle more palatable

Horror stories......and learning curves.......
prior to one learning curve I chose to get a deposit to book an event date then the balance the evening of the event......ever tried to get a check from a bride or someone in the bridal party? Their going on their honeymoon and some live out of state.
The time a groom didn't have his checkbook but wanted to generously tip the staff, would mail me a check......$360 out of pocket thank you.....been 1.5 years.

Find a rental company that will send out people promptly if something is missing....ie clips for a surpentine tablecloth, bar riser......have a tool box with dbl tape, T pins, sticky gunk, matches, lighters, foil, ziplocs, corkscrew...whenever you work a party and are missing something remember to add that to the box. Oh yeah and don't forget to take pictures....or check your camera for batteries/open space on the disc. One of the prettiest parties I catered did not get photographed because the camera's battieries were out.

Set-up or at least check in the rentals several hours prior to the event so you can get in replacements......

Planning menus that make sense to the equipment/site......clients have wanted somethings made at their homes......yeast rolls, cooking meats.....now throw in a dozen family members, some teenagers, usually a dog or two....

Early is better than late......I can't remember ever sitting around twiddling my thumbs waiting for a party, and have always found the time valuable.

I subcontract table setups from artists for highend parties.....worth every penny!!!!

timelines with staff job info.......that way you don't have to verbally direct as much.

NEVER assume your staff knows food.......one young cute bartender worked a Spainish party for me and didn't know what flan was......I asked where he was when I was explaining the printed menu, says he zones out because it's like a foreign language. Some things we find basic others find "gourmet".

When a buddy asks you to return a favor by cooking for the outdoor wedding make sure to ask what you'll be doing......one of my dearest friends, even to this day and I'm still wondering why......set me up at a commercial fryer outside and it started raining.....not drizzle, rain. holding a umbrella, frying.
the runners going the 75 yards were sliding on the mud bringing me more fish/shrimp.....they had a full house in the restaurant and a 150-200 wedding outside. Big night....big pain.....

Many clients don't understand all that goes into a catering business......rent, supplies, utilities, insurence, advertising, cars, learning time.....food is just one part of the cost.

Chef Julie
cooking with all your senses.....
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cooking with all your senses.....
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post #9 of 26
Wow Kelley! {hugs}
Great advice from Tigerwoman and Shroomgirl!!! Learning curves are the pits. But as you said, being able to make the changes you need to make and protect yourself in future and being able to leave this in the dust and move forward feels sooooo positive, right?!

Glad it's over for you!
post #10 of 26

more points

great advice as usual Julie
by the way another really important point is to do a site inspection before the event to go over all the potential pitfalls including how to get there (better to get lost on a day when it doesn't matter rather than when you are crunched for time)

check the kitchen facilitities, take along a thermometer even at some one home and check how the oven runs and works. Again easy to figure it out before hand rather than at the last minute and be able to bring along suplementary equipment (and charge for it) rather than run around like a chicken without a head trying to get it done at the last minute.

DOGS - if the client has a dog, you must insist in and put in your contract that the dog must be out of the kitchen and party space. We helped Sarada do an event in Vermont and the house dog was deaf and didn't move until you literally tripped over it, dangerous and annoying both and the owners REFUSED to put the dog upstairs or in the garage because he was old and frail. urggggh....

and repeat after me- volunteer labor is not reliable so make sure you have enough paid staff that you have control over.

control of any event is key - the more control you have the less that goes wrong because it is in your control - you end up with the responsibility anyhow, so you might as well get paid for your expertise.
Chef Tigerwoman

Stop Tofu Abuse...Eat Foie Gras...
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Chef Tigerwoman

Stop Tofu Abuse...Eat Foie Gras...
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post #11 of 26
DOGS - if the client has a dog, you must insist in and put in your contract that the dog must be out of the kitchen and party space. We helped Sarada do an event in Vermont and the house dog was deaf and didn't move until you literally tripped over it, dangerous and annoying both and the owners REFUSED to put the dog upstairs or in the garage because he was old and frail. urggggh....

Last summer, we did a small wedding forf 60 in the field of a beautiful old inn. The owner had a big Doberman who was just a young dog and didn't have any manners. Neither did the he. He sat on the tailgate of my van watching the entire service and allowed his **** dog to wander in and out of the tent. Mostly in since that's where the meat was. When the servers started bringing back the dishes, the dog stood there and licked them. I was furious, but afraid of the dog so I didn't want to push him out. I asked the owner if he would mind taking the dog out while we were working. He did and spent the rest of the evening sitting just outside the tent WITH the dog. It would have served him right if the dog bit someone and he was sued.

We recently did another wedding and the couple were unsure if they were going to have the service and reception at that inn or at a friend's home. At the last minute (actually a month before the wedding) they decided to have the pre-wedding luncheon-a drop-off- at the inn and the wedding elsewhere. Thank God!

I'm not a dog person to start with, but even if I was, I'd hope I'd have the decent common sense to keep the animal away from the caterers and from the guests!

People are stupid.
post #12 of 26
"People are stupid."

Particularly when it comes to their dogs, Lentil.

At least 90% of the pet dogs in this country are not under control. But, at the same time, 90% of the people who own them will swear that their dogs are always under control. Go figure!

And, just for the record, I am a dog person. And because I am, I resent those people even more than you do.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #13 of 26
My bro-in-law swears that his dog behaves better than most children. That may be true in some cases, but when he says it to me, I get a little cranky. Especially since my kids are pretty darned good!

He and my sister DO have wonderful animals, though. They work out of their home, don't have any children, and spend every waking moment with their dogs. They are very well trained and are pleasant to have around. Unlike many dogs. Now I wish I could say the same about BIL.:suprise:

My husband's cousin comes to my shop and thinks that her smelly, half blind, and mostly deaf dachound (spelling?) should be welcomed into my kitchen. Um...no, I don't think so. She gets rather indignant and says, "He's on a leash!" I make her leave him on the porch. I don't even like him in my house!
post #14 of 26
Thread Starter 
LOL - ah, yes. The dog issue. We *are* doing a wedding in October for a couple who are including their dog as one of their "flower girls" but she's a little cutie pie and she's very well mannered PLUS they've already made arrangements to have her occupied elsewhere while we're prepping.

Here's the latest from the "weddingzilla" family. They have "consulted a friend that was at the reception" who is "in the catering business" and that friend told them that the cost of food per plate "should have been $40 per plate" (maybe... if you pay retail prices, dummy) and that, since we charged $50 per plate (a huge bargain), we should still have profited. This is the point where Kelley nearly loses it and screams at their stupidity. First of, Mr and Mrs Clientzilla, if you're going to "do your homework" then do it well and realize that food costs are generally 25 - 35% of your plate price, which, by your own account means that I should have charged anywhere between $120 and $160 per plate. And do feel free to add in any rental costs that we incurred plus staff salaries. Please do.

We are in the process of paying an immigration attorney for my husband's adjustment of status and a family law attorney due to an idiot ex-husband who is trying to get custody of our daughter now that she's nearly 17 and the work of raising her is done :mad: so, lucky for weddingzilla family that there is no money left for dealing with them in a court of law. I finally decided that the most cost effective thing to do is give them the stupid refund, chalk it up as a HUGE set of lessons well-learned and move on.
post #15 of 26
If you're going to give in and give them the refund, then may I suggest that you do it in $5 weekly payments?

And why didn't they hire their "friend in the catering business" if she's such an expert?

Again, let me say...."people are stupid".:beer:
post #16 of 26
Have they paid you? Or are you taking the amount off the bill?

If they have paid you, tell them no, clearly and professionally, sit back and wait. It may not go any further. If they really think they have a claim they will have to convince an attorney and have him write a demand letter, (they must write a demand before suing) then call the attorney and offer half to settle. I bet the attorney tells them to take it.

Don't worry about what some else said the cost should be........that's a very old trick.
post #17 of 26
If the freind is in the catering business then why didnt the freind have his place do it?
post #18 of 26
um contract? !!!!! helllo.......contract or letters of agreement??????
cooking with all your senses.....
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cooking with all your senses.....
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post #19 of 26
Thread Starter 
*chuckle* We're doing $10 weekly payments. They asked us to write a letter of apology - our response: No. They asked us to do this through their attorney - our response: H-E-double hockey sticks No.

Our response was similar. The clients' selective listening talents are remarkable and they've not given us an answer to our question. *shrugs* I really don't care - it was a dumb comment made by someone who obviously isn't in the business.

I'm done with these fools and the positive I'm taking from this is that it was certainly an educational experience.
post #20 of 26
I would be somewhat selective in my ranting about clients, especially since a link to your website is posted. People from all walks of life frequent this website. They may not all be on your side. Whether the client was wrong or right doesn't matter as much as how the public perceives your professional demeanor. If I stood outside my restaurant and verbally ran down a guest that just left, how many people would be attracted to enter my restaurant. When I have waitstaff that complain about the tip that just got left by a guest, I set them straight real quick, that is not acceptable behavior on their part. Complaints about guests should be kept to themselves. Just some food for thought, as your identity on this website is not anonymous.
Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.
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Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.
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post #21 of 26
Thread Starter 
*chuckle* Point taken. I appreciate your comments and I don't take them lightly; I do need a place with some anonimity where I can vent out loud, cycle through my thoughts and hear others' viewpoints (even if I don't always agree with them) so I've removed my signature.
post #22 of 26
That's why my signature isn't on here. That and the fact that my website pales in comparison to some of them here.:blush:

Good for you to send them $10/week! And what on earth did they want a letter of apology for???? No good could have come from that!
post #23 of 26

Lessons of a Caterer

I read the bridezilla post and many lessons that I wanted to pass on for you to have:

1. We are responsible for the event no matter what phases of the party the client decides to have control over. Do you know why? We will get blamed for any mistake or omission. Of course, we can justify our not being in control or responsible but the end result is if you have to justify or explain, you LOSE!

2. We are not just caterers but seen as the event planner, responsible for the smooth flow and vibe of the party. Responsible for the Food + Staff + Bar + Rentals. We are seen as the advisors for the event, so if you make recommendations for your client to have a tent (having checked the Farmers Almanac online, which I find to be 85-90% accurate, or generator rental, lighting, umbrellas, or even a golf cart to transport guests from a far distance venue – and they don’t heed your advice, then you have two choices. This is either an indication that it is going to be a tough client/gig OR you need to be fine if something goes wrong and get ready to be blamed.

3. After having done a site inspection (I believe that’s referred to as Tigerwoman Rule #6, you assess that lighting needs to be included, you need to be very clear that you are responsible for the safety of your staff. This is not a negotiable item for me.

4. With the site inspection, charge extra for those two flights of stairs you and your staff will have to negotiate as well as those long distant walks from the kitchen to the venue 300 feet away.

5. A word about contracts, if you are flying solo in this biz without an iron clad contract, then don’t complain when you are not paid within 10 to two weeks before an event. Contracts need to include everything from guest count minimums, charges for extra guests and estra staff hours worked beyond the contract terms, cancellation policy, leftovers (which you are not allowed to leave because of health restrictions and because your insurance carrier said so), even that I am not responsible for the safety or service of any food item that the client decides to provide, responsibility of the clients guests with regard to alcoholic beverages. Here is where you can upsell a late night grazing tray of hors d’oeuvres like mini sirloin burgers on brioche for those aggressive drinkers. The bread with soak up those cocktails before they depart. I have separate line items for Food, Staff, Bar, Rentals and 20% grats. If after the end of an event, the client asks if the staff has been tipped, I always answer that as per their contract, grats have been satisfied. However, if they feel that the service was above and beyond expectations, they can feel free to acknowledge their waitstaff personally (which usually results in an extra $20-50 per person)

6. I work with a rental company that gives me 15% off the rentals for parties I refer to them. Even if the client orders directly as a result of my referral, they still honor our business partnering. For large events, I order extra for those dropped forks, broken dishes or glassware overuse. (generally 2 ½-3 x per head count) and also for those surprise guest counts. If there is difficulty in collecting for additional head count, put this in your contract that we perform a headcount during the event to be able to finalize any additional services due.

7. For those clients who want to do some part of their affair, I have developed a Checklist that is sent to them for reminders of kquantity of ice, to remember to have Pelligrino for their guests, music or CD recommendations, guest gifts, etc.

8. After every event, evaluate what went well and what went wrong. The mistakes are always an opportunity to create a new system or new policy for your company.

Bottom line, (and I am simplifying the matter) I think that as a chef, to use butter and cream makes things taste wonderful, but that doesn’t make you a fab chef. As a caterer, to pull off an outdoor event in perfect weather conditions, where there are no glitches, doesn’t make you a fabulous caterer. It’s in the moments when something goes wrong and you have grace under pressure, when the power goes done two hours before an event, where the client forgot to get ice and a guests walks into the kitchen and blames you, that you respond, handle the emergency and become a HERO. That’s the stuff that makes a client remember you forever. It’s not just about all that we do but how we make our guests FEEL.

And that takes time and experience. So don’t rush it. If you can’t stand the heat (of responsibilities) then get out of the kitchen!

PS
And I keep wincing over that refund philosophy. Please don’t do any more than you already have done. It has already cost you. Stand up for yourself because there is absolutely NOTHING you can do to make this family happy at this point. Have some internal satisfaction that you only had a day with her and her family….the husband will have to deal with her for a lifetime (ugh!)
La torche de l’amour est allumee dans la cuisine.
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La torche de l’amour est allumee dans la cuisine.
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post #24 of 26
Oh good gracious. Good luck with that. Dealing with USCIS can be a nightmare.
post #25 of 26

Pound Sand

It's always wise to get a CASH or CHECK payment well in advance of the wedding. Then you can tell the responsible party to pay or to pound sand. Then you can get Tony and Syl out after them.
post #26 of 26
get their money AND send the mob? isn't that alittle overkill? :)
cooking with all your senses.....
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cooking with all your senses.....
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