One of the biggest elements of your wedding is going to be the food. And one of the first vendors you need to book after getting engaged is the caterer. If you haven’t hired a wedding planner and you’re reviewing catering quotes on your own, this post explains something you really need to understand: the catering “service charge.”
Catering quotes are generally made up of four components:
1) the cost of the food (and drinks)
2) the cost of the staff (chefs, captains, servers, bartenders)
3) the cost of rentals, if your caterer is providing them (plates, flatware, glassware, linens, tables, etc.)
4) taxes and fees.
The “service charge” is found in the fourth category, taxes and fees. The service charge is generally a percentage of the total catering bill. It ranges from 10 percent to 20 percent, so if you are inviting a lot of people to your wedding, and your catering bill is high, your service charge is going to add on a significant amount of money.
TL;DR here’s the video version
Despite the word “service” being in the name, the service charge has nothing to do with the staff providing service at your wedding. It doesn’t cover their labor, and it’s not a gratuity for them either. If you decide to give the serving staff gratuities, that will be on top of the catering quote and invoice amount.
So what is the service charge, then? It’s basically meant to cover the overhead and costs of doing business for the caterer. Restaurants and catering businesses run on very thin margins. That means that the difference between what they charge and what their costs are is not very much. Food is expensive to buy, and it can be marked up only so much before it gets absurd.
Caterers have many other costs besides the food they buy to serve at your event. They have to have physical space—kitchens, commercial stoves and ovens, freezers, storage areas—which is expensive. Plus they need vehicles to transport all of the food and gear to your wedding location. And they need all that gear, like chafing dishes, serving utensils, serving dishes, etc. On top of that, they need administrative staff to handle all the bookings and prepare all the quotes.
In order to cover those costs, they add on the service charge to their bookings.
It’s important to keep in mind that when you review a sample menu or a list of catering packages, the prices you’re seeing (usually listed as a per person price) are for FOOD ONLY. The staffing, rentals, taxes, and service charge are not yet included.
This is why it’s very important that you get a full quote from multiple caterers to compare before making your final decision. Don’t decide based only on their sample menus. You will be underestimating the total catering cost by a pretty wide margin if you do.
If I can help even one person avoid this mistake, then this post will have been a success! (Obviously I hope it helps more than one person, but you know what I mean.)
The catering service charge is widely misunderstood, and not explained very well by the catering industry. Just remember (and this goes for all contracts you enter into), if there’s a fee or a charge you don’t understand, ask about it. Don’t be afraid of looking uninformed. You have the right to understand what you’re paying for.
And if you’re in over your head with planning your wedding and need a professional, I’m only an email away!