We didn’t mean to self-cater. One day, we were looking at an all-inclusive venue. The next day we decided we hated it, hated all the caterers, and the only way to possibly represent our relationship was self-catering. Sure, there were some other discussions in between, but literally, the decision was made in a day. We wanted things the caterers couldn’t provide and we wanted an atmosphere not found in the all-inclusive places.
So we went for it. Our venue included a “caterer's kitchen” (two huge wood-fired stoves, a ton of charcoal grills, and a spigot with running water), so how hard could it be?
It turns out, catering involves a lot more than showing up and cooking food, especially when you’re expecting around 200 guests.
Here are the things I failed to anticipate, in hopes that if you decide to go down this ridiculous path, you can avoid surprises…
Caterers provide more than food
I got an amazing deal on linens from Craigslist ($500 for tablecloths and chair covers for 178 people). I went with eco-friendly disposable (compostable) palm plates and birch flatware, with recycled napkins which came out to around $400 with some incredible online deals. Chafing dishes, beverage dispensers, beverage holders for mixing and chilling beverages before they go out, and rental service items added another $400. That’s around $1300 just for the “stuff” required to serve the foods day-of. I recommend Craigslist, webstaurant.com, and local rental outlets that might have less selection but way better prices. I ended up buying a lot when it was only a few dollars less to rent, because I figured I can use a lot of this again, or loan it out to friends.
You’ll probably overestimate the amount of food you’ll need
And whatever you don’t serve, you have to deal with afterwards. The pickled/preserved route is saving me here. We’re leaving for two weeks on our honeymoon immediately after the wedding, but any jars we don’t open can simply go straight back to the cellar.
You have to be able to store your food
We bought 60 lbs of Columbia River coho salmon only to realize when we got home that it didn’t fit in our freezer (our standalone “fish freezer” had immovable shelves that couldn’t accommodate even a single whole salmon). So, we had to buy a separate freezer just for the wedding.
What you freeze, you must thaw
Additionally, anything you can prep in the days leading up to the event must be refrigerated, along with anything that comes home. We solved most of this problem with one of these. This turns a huge chest freezer used in the months leading up to the event into a huge chest refrigerator for the last week of prep. Additionally, we cheated by going full Viking… We’ve pickled/canned/preserved the bulk of our appetisers and sides to avoid needing refrigeration before, during, or after.
Food has to be held on site
Except for what is being held in chafers, or in ice serving trays, all food has to be held on site. Our venue has no refrigeration on site. See above about how we cheated to get around this. We’ve also purchased large coolers, at around $150 each, to transport fish from where we obtained it as well as to hold prepared foods day-of. Luckily, most of our friends also have huge coolers for various reasons, so we were able to borrow more. Otherwise, these giant coolers rent for around $20/each. Drinks have to be prepared and chilled in larger batches than the 1-3 gallon decorative dispensers, so add a few of those 6 gallon bucket type drink dispensers for preparation and holding.
The less you can prepare day-of, the happier everyone will be
Pies, and similarly sugary pastries, are very robust and can be prepared up to a week in advance, as the high sugar content will keep them fresh. They’re also a lot easier to handle than cake. Lentils and potatoes can be prepared a day or two in advance before serving. Sauerkraut and other fermented/pickled things only need to be chilled when you’re ready to serve. Produce in particular is fragile, so try for recipes that use cooked vegetables that will hold up a bit, or don’t require much preparation.
Breweries have case sales at the end of every season to clear out stock
If you hit these up, you can get craft beer for roughly the same price as mainstream cases. Wineries are less inclined to have blowout sales since their product gets better with age, but you can frequently find great case sales or two-for-one deals through larger volume stores. Watch for sales and rebates on liquors as well, if you want to provide those. Select one or two signature cocktails that you can pre-mix punch-style for maximum savings and day-of ease.
You don’t want to be remembered as the couple that gave everyone botulism
You should probably brush up on safe food handling procedures. In Washington, the online class and exam for a food handler’s permit costs all of $10 and is easy to breeze through. It’s not a bad idea to take it (and have everyone who will be overseeing food take it, too). Food thermometers are cheap, but someone needs to check them at least hourly. To ensure no one gets distracted from monitoring food that’s out and keeping empty dishes rotated, consider hiring help. I’m hiring three students from a local community college’s culinary programme (they’re already licensed for food handling!) at $100/person flat for eight hours of work. $300 is a tiny blip when it means knowing everyone will have safe food readily available.
It’s not always cheaper, but self-catering guarantees you can get what you want
We didn’t necessarily do it “cheap,” but it was incredibly important to us to use locally sourced foods and game foods native to our region. We managed to offset a few pricier ingredients by preparing the rest ourselves and getting good wholesale deals. If we’d done a less fancy menu, we probably could have gotten away for cheaper. It’s all about deciding what’s important to you. Even with the splurges and stuff I can re-use, we still only came out to about $10/head (for food, not including beverages or table settings) for a MUCH nicer menu than what a low-cost caterer could get us.
I hope that if I get folks thinking about these things in advance, you’ll be in a better position to decide whether it’s worth going this route before you’re committed to it. Nothing like realising a week before the wedding that you need to buy a new refrigerator because you lack space for all the prepared foods!
Whatever you decide — good luck! Hopefully your day will reflect all the love and care you’ve poured into it.