Some things in life you learn the hard way.
Just ask Blake Goldsmith.
Eight years ago, the owner of Fiske Caterers was preparing for a wedding reception at the Kittamaqundi Room in Columbia. The bride had made it clear: She wanted a swank Friday night affair with champagne and hors d'oeuvres.
But hours before the event, the mother of the bride ruled otherwise. Serve a real meal or else, she said. So, as panic set in, Mr. Goldsmith found himself racing through the supermarket buying dinner for 175 people. The experience reinforced for him a valuable lesson: When it comes to wedding receptions, communication is key.
For brides and grooms, however, the idea of dealing with a caterer can be daunting. Many have never taken part in a party as large -- or as personally important -- as this. Questions abound: What exactly will a caterer do for me? How much food is enough? And what should I expect to pay?
Rest assured, say local caterers. While this may be your first wedding, for these professional party throwers, it's familiar turf. The secret, they say, is to do your homework, work with someone you trust and relax.
"People should think of themselves as having a relationship with a caterer," says Nick Sheridan, president and owner of Cuisine Catering in Woodlawn. "What's important is that they have an event that really expresses them and gives wonderful pleasure to their guests."
Before meeting with prospective caterers, it's important to make several key decisions. Know where the service and reception will take place. Plan your guest list, budget and the style of your wedding. Do you prefer an afternoon or evening affair? A buffet or sit-down dinner? Something intimate or grand-scale?
"Think about weddings that you've been to," says Mr. Sheridan. "What have you really loved about them and what didn't you like."
For popular months such as May and June, caterers advise getting together as far as nine months before the ceremony. But be forewarned: Halls, museums and other facilities often give a list of approved or recommended caterers, which may severely limit your options.
Restaurants have also become popular reception sites in the past five years, says Marcia Harris, executive vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "Many people look upon a restaurateur as a friend," she says. "That can be very comforting during one of those important life events like a wedding."
When you first meet with a restaurateur or caterer, it's standard to be shown photo albums or videos of their work. In addition to preparing the food, many caterers can also coordinate other parts of the wedding -- from the linens and decorations to the music and floral arrangements. The best way to find out about a prospective caterer's skills is to ask plenty of questions.
The first one to pop up is usually: What will my money buy? That can vary dramatically based on the length of the guest list and style of party. Sit-down dinners are typically more expensive than buffets or hors d'oeuvre receptions. And evening affairs usually cost more than those held in the afternoon. Prime time is still considered Saturday night, although receptions often begin earlier now, with 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. quickly replacing 8 p.m. to midnight. The grand total can range from $20 to $100 per person.
Some caterers prefer to have parents and grooms along for that introductory session. After Mr. Goldsmith's experience at the Kittamaqundi Room, he strongly recommends that brides and their mothers meet with him. "It's typical for the bride and the bride's mother to disagree," says Mr. Goldsmith, who is also president of the Grand Caterers and the Off-Premises Catering Association of Maryland. "It's up to us to balance that."
Caterers may also make it a point to offer advice based on their experience. Mr. Goldsmith, for example, dissuades brides from having hors d'oeuvre receptions on Friday nights when most people are arriving directly from work. "Their appetites are full-steam ahead, and their expectations are very high," he cautions.
After price, food -- and the amount needed -- is the next area that often proves confusing for brides. Bunny Dwin, president and owner of Bunny Dwin Catering in Fells Point, regularly plans on at least three of each kind of hors d'oeuvre per person. She also makes sure to have seconds of the entree available for the extra hearty appetite. You should also check with caterers about the accommodations they make for guests who may be diabetic or vegetarian or have other special needs.
It's important to trust the instincts and experience of your caterer when selecting a menu, Ms. Dwin says. "One thing I'm always amused about is that brides will get hung up on whether it's snow peas or broccoli," she says. "Sometimes they go by what they like or don't like, rather than look at theoverall group."