You don’t need that much cake, and other things I’ve learned from catering weddings

Guest post by Haley
Wedding drip cakes
Photo by Tennille Fink Photography | Planning And Design: Him and Her Events | Cake by Hansel & Gretel Specialty Cakes

I have very limited experience with weddings from the guest side of things — like maybe five in my entire 31 years of living. But I have a ton of experience from the vendor side of things, allowing me to see a wide range of budgets and styles in the wedding world.

I thought I'd share a few observations that seem to be universal about weddings…

Most people don't have a lot of decor at their wedding

Maybe it was just our clientele — I worked at a non-profit catering company whose main venue was a bookstore so the customers were typically at least a tad offbeat — but it seemed like upwards of 90% of the weddings we catered had very minimal decor. Certainly very few had large/grand centerpieces. I'd venture to say about 75% of the clients that used our venue opted to just have stacks of books and votive candles, sometimes with the addition of flowers or herbs. Off-site weddings weren't much different. Nine out of ten opted for just tablecloths with no overlays (or no tablecloths at all if the tables were pretty).

This is what the majority of real weddings I worked at did. For real people. Not for magazines or TV shows or what-have-you. Since most of my previous experiences with weddings involved television or movies, this really surprised me at first.

A staffed buffet can actually save you money

_3004737wPeople will pile way more food on their plates than they are capable of eating if you let them self-serve. Hiring the additional two or three staff members to man your buffet will reduce your food costs by a good chunk. Yes, we had to charge more for food for people who didn't have staff for the buffet because we knew it meant we needed to make at least 25% more food, most of which went straight in the trash. People could always get seconds or thirds with it staffed, and we never ran out. Bonus: the line tended to move faster.

Family-style dining has the same staffing and food volume needs as a buffet, so the costs are comparable (slightly more platters, slightly fewer plates, almost a wash there). In my opinion, a staffed buffet is a cheap way to “nicen up” your reception.

Go outside your caterer for special food needs

If you have just a few guests with specific food allergies/restrictions, it is often cheaper to order them a meal from somewhere else than to have your caterer make something extra for them. This might be much easier to do in larger cities than elsewhere, but it worked really well all the times we did it. Gluten free, vegan, low sodium, kosher — we could do all of this for a whole menu, but to make just one item fit these needs was always an expensive option for the clients, and a pain in the ass for us. We handled the whole thing by ordering, picking up, and re-plating for the guest.

Children's meals are easy

While special dietary needs are hard, making something that can be plain for the finicky eaters and small children is easy. This can be as simple as having the pasta/chicken/whatever not tossed in the sauce beforehand. Usually there is no problem doing this. Just ask your caterer to do so BEFORE your wedding day.

You don't need that much cake

If you have a full meal, you probably don't need as much cake as online tipsters say you do. You have no idea how many times I've brought the entire bottom tier of a wedding cake home because no one wanted it after the wedding. And the bottom tier is the largest portion — think about that a moment. But your catering staff will love you for ordering more than you need; cake for breakfast for most of my floor of my apartment building never got old.

No one likes fondant

No one. Especially whoever has to cut your cake. It's pretty, but that's it.

Fairy Food table

If there is a large gap between your ceremony and your reception

Provide snacks pre-meal time. Otherwise the catering staff gets the stink eye and your guests get grumpy. Fruit and cheese is fine. Popcorn is fine. Cotton candy is fine. Just something to keep blood sugar and spirits up.

People will take your centerpieces

They'll especially take the floral ones. Unless you tell them not to. I've seen people alert their guests in various ways: notes on the bottom of the centerpieces are usually good, or tell the catering staff if you don't want them taken. The catering staff can help run interference, but you still need to make it known.

If you DO want to give away your centerpieces, also tell your staff and they can line them all up near the door just before the end.

Your reception will be just fine, no matter what

As long as there is enough food and space for everyone, people will have a good time. Games are nice. Music is nice. Themes are nice. But nice isn't the same as essential. Bare bones will do. Really. It will be beautiful and memorable and your jaded catering staff will still feel that warm tingle in the bottom of their hearts — and they're perfect strangers who do this twice weekly! Any snafus will be instantly forgiven. Any oversights can be overcome.

Sure, true disasters happen sometimes, but that just makes things memorable. In all the hundreds of weddings I saw, nothing truly horrible ever happened. Yes, brides tripped, great aunt Martha hated the chicken and sometimes drank too much to make up for it. But things always felt happy. The couple always looked happy. The guests always seemed happy to be there, loving the couple. Every single time.

Those perfect strangers on your catering staff really do care about making your wedding perfect

They regularly go the extra mile, manage the last-minute request, put up with the lack of three staff members you couldn't afford to hire, deal with all sorts of emergencies you never hear about because that's our job. Treat them like fellow human beings and they will go to the greatest lengths to make your day awesome. Treat them poorly… well, who cares about this wedding. All it takes is politeness when speaking to them and early communication to work out the kinks when possible.

Caterers and couples who have been there/done that: Do you have anymore insider tips for our readers?

photography: Wild About You Photography

Comments on You don’t need that much cake, and other things I’ve learned from catering weddings

  1. Thank you for this! The “Most people don’t have a lot of decor at their wedding” part is very reassuring! I’ve been feeling like we don’t have enough decor, especially during the ceremony…do I need an aisle runner? Flower petals carefully strewn? An archway? Paper lanterns? I had already decided to forgo all of that stuff, but this post validates my decision. And I like validation!

    • I’m actually planning my own wedding and have to constantly remind myself of all of this – that minimal decor is normal decor and it will be just fine no matter what. Glad my thoughts are helping you!

    • I had zero decor :cue pearl clutching: No one noticed. We had a nice looking space to begin with and I was lazy.

      The only person who commented was our photographer, when giving us our photos said that she was happy to do a wedding where 99% of the pictures were of people instead of stuff.

    • Seriously, don’t panic. Our reception is being held in such a gorgeous building, I made the conscious decision not to ‘over-decorate’ – and the closer I get to the big day, the more I don’t want to pile yet more tat into my venues.

      My theory is: if it can’t be recycled, is biodegradable or if it can’t be used again (like those plastic gem table confetti things), it’s not being used. As a result I’m going for hessian and lace table runners – both can be sent for rags if needed, dried lavender and fresh flowers (biodegradable), and small slate hearts for chalkboards to write quotes on, which are actually repurposed Christmas decorations I got after Christmas for 25p each.

      That’s it. That really is it. The bridemaids flowers are wrist corsages on silver bangles (can be reused), the buttonholes for the men are wrapped in a small amount of hessian, and even the groom’s suit is just a really nice suit he can wear again for job interviews or whatever.

      Remember: it’s your day. People are there to see each of you marry the person you love, and for you both to publicly commit to each other. They haven’t travelled all that way to look at an aisle runner or a hired plastic archway – they are there to see you and celebrate with you. Remember that, you’ll be fine.

  2. The last tip resonated the most with me–everyone should think of catering staff (or any staff) as people who are a part of their wedding day, and treat them accordingly!

    We chose to have our wedding at a beautiful old train station that is now an event space with a full catering team. There were so many things right about it, but it’s funny, the thing we got the most compliments for about the venue was the staff–people kept saying how sweet the waitstaff was, how well taken care of they were, and they couldn’t stop raving about Dan the bartender. We got lucky, because we never thought about investigating the quality of the staff, but they wound up mattering a lot as people who were part of the day and made it better. We were so grateful!

  3. I just wanted to say thanks for this post. It’s made me more confident in some of the choices we’ve made for our upcoming wedding (minimal decorations, buttercream icing for the cake) and reminded me not to stress so much about the little things (choosing *just* the right music for the reception playlist, how to package the favors).

  4. I like fondant!
    And (as a vendor) I like being treated nicely by the couple and guests. We’re people, too!

    • I agree! As long as fondant is done right, it can be beautiful and tasty! Besides, some cake toppers don’t sit well on regular icing.

      • Yay for fondant lovers! I have a bucket in my kitchen that me and my husband snack on like candy. Mmmm.

      • As a cake decorator who doesn’t use fondant, I had to chime in – Toppers will sit fine on any cake, as long as there’s support. With a really heavy topper, this usually means a small board on top of the cake, under the icing, supported by dowels or straws.

          • The fondant on our cake was delicious, and everyone loved it. It was also really easy to cut (we did all the cutting ourselves, and allowed guests to self serve what we didn’t cut). It had a marshmallow flavour to it, and the fondant figures that we saved still smell so delicious.

    • i love fondent, alot of my family not so much, and i don’t like fruit cake, so i would eat the fondent and they would eat the cake. yum.

  5. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! These things have been circling in the back of my mind like sharks causing random panic attacks and “Mercury Glass Moments” I’m thinking I will have back ground music, maybe a little dancing but since my beloved does not dance It’s kinda much for us. I’d like a big ol party where we all just hang out and socialize. It’s gonna be a costume party so that should be fun. It’s what I’ve seen happen time and again among our friends with no problem.

  6. Great tips, thank you. In my case, though, I want too much cake (yeah, something weird about me and cakes…. And I like fondant…. I know again, weirdness, but only my baker’s great homemade fondant 😉 ) also I wanted to add thanks for telling us about ordering the special food, I always feel weird and cheap when I decide to get one portion from somewhere else!!!

    • There are a few varieties of truly tasty fondant out there! They just aren’t the norm – at least in my experience. And having lots of cake is awesome! Cake for breakfast the day after your wedding? Yes please. Maybe for lunch too 🙂 I would suggest you prearrange how to transport and store it post ceremony so you don’t have to figure that out on your wedding night.

      • Echoing the figure out how to store and transport the extra cake suggestion. Luckily, I was going home after my afternoon wedding and not spending the night in a hotel, because we a good 30-60 minutes cutting the leftover cake into manageable chunks, wrapping some pieces to pass out to friends/family and wrapping some in plastic wrap and tinfoil for the freezer. Leftover cake is awesome and delicious, but takes up fridge/freezer space.

        Also — I had a decor minimal wedding and not having to worry about transporting decor was great and no one commented on the decorations or lack thereof.

  7. Our caterer was so awesome! We did strawberry shortcake for our wedding cake and the biscuits they made special for it were out of this world! Delicious, HUGE, flaky. My husband and I were eating our shortcake by ourselves in the room where the food was served and we asked the caterers to come in so we could thank them. I realized later they were probably freaked out, being told that the bride and groom want to talk with them in the middle of the reception. Oops! But, we gave them hearty thanks, good reviews online, and bonus tips after the honeymoon.

  8. Thanks for the tip re: decor. We’re just taking over my sister’s house, and I was idly fretting about how to wedding it up, but her place is warm and comfortable – which is one of the reasons we’re taking it over to begin with.

  9. It’s interesting to hear you say that about the buffet servers! I’m sure it really does cut down on food costs, but i went to a wedding a couple weeks ago where they did that and it took SO long to get everybody through! There was a lot of “Would you like mashed potatoes?” “Yes I’d like mashed potatoes.” “Here you go, is that enough?” “No, a little more please.” “Okay, here you go.” Not to mention the fact that people couldn’t go down both sides of the table.

    • A good compromise can be to have a couple of staff for proteins and/or particularly messy items, but let the guests serve themselves the other items. Proteins are usually the most expensive foods on the menu, and the chef will likely have those planned out more carefully according to the number of guests than items like salads, fruits, etc.

    • My sister and I have a catering business. One idea we have to cut down on staff is, we set up stations. We have a salad station, a vegetable station, a meat station etc. guests are free to move from station to station without long lines. We always serve the meats because they’re more expensive, but guests help themselves to the rest of the food…. This seems to go much more smoothly than single line buffets, but it takes a little more space……P.S. Fondant is terrible! I always peel it off and eat the cake only!

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