A long time ago I read a blog post about the Olive Garden Rule and it stuck with me. I wish I could remember where I found it, but it’s the easiest to understand reason why Mitzvah catering costs will likely be your highest event expense, especially in the DC-area.
Let’s walk through 6 typical catering expenses.
Imagine with me for a minute… You’re going to a moderately priced sit down restaurant, say, the Olive Garden. You go in expecting a nice meal. You’ll have one of everything! You order an appetizer ($10 for a delicious sampler platter with a few different options), salad ($6), main dish ($17.50 for chicken carbonara), dessert ($6.25 for a slice of cake). You have a glass of the house wine ($5) and a soda ($2.50), plus a coffee with your dessert ($2.50). Nothing too crazy or extravagant, right? Well that adds up to $49.75. Multiply that number by 100 guests and you’re already at $4,975 for just the food!
However, not only do you have the cost of the food itself and preparing it, but you likely have the cost of transporting or delivering that food to your event venue (unless you’re having your event at a restaurant, hotel or other place with an onsite caterer).
Don’t forget the tax! For our example meal, the tax on $4,975 in DC is 10%. That’s almost $500 in tax alone!
Many places have an 18-20% gratuity that is part of the fee that you pay. Again, on our example meal, that’s nearly $1,000.
You’re going to need someone to serve that food. Even if you’re planning on having a buffet meal (which requires less staffing) you’ll need a few waiters to put out the food, keep an eye on the buffet to refill food and clean up the dirty dishes. You’ll need a bartender who is TIPS certified (trained in responsible service, sale, and consumption of alcohol) because you do not want the liability if someone drinks too much and there are problems. A reputable caterer will have a TIPS certified bartender. Unlike at the Olive Garden, where the staffing fee is shared among many diners, you’re paying for it all by yourself. Say you have 5 waiters/bartenders total for a buffet meal. They’ll work for a minimum of 6 hours (1 hour set up, 1 hour breakdown plus a typical 4 hour party) and cost $15/hour each (and that’s a low figure for the DC area). That adds up to $450 in staffing fees.
Now what if your party is at the synagogue social hall or at a community center or some other place that doesn’t have an onsite caterer? You need to put that food on something and eat it with something and put your drink in something. Say you want to go with the most basic china, glassware and utensils. You don’t need anything particularly fancy, right? For plates you’re looking at a cost of $1 each and you’ll need 3-4 plates per person (appetizer, salad, dinner and dessert). For glasses, you’ll need a minimum of 4 glasses per person (water, wine and 2 other beverages is the standard) at $1 each. Then you’ll need utensils (a minimum of a salad fork, dinner fork, knife and dessert fork) at about $.50 each. Serving coffee? Coffee cups and plates, plus spoons will be another $3 or so). That’s another $13 per person and I haven’t included the prices for renting chafing dishes for the buffet or plates for passed or stationary hors d’oeuvres or table linens or napkins.
Food and Beverage Minimum
So you’re thinking to yourself, “Self, I’ll just have my event at a place with a onsite food service like a restaurant or hotel. I can save money that way!” Nope. At a restaurant or hotel you’ll run into food and beverage minimums. If you’re using space at a restaurant or hotel, it means someone else can’t and your party is their main source of money for the night. Reasonable right? However, that means that the venue needs to make a certain amount of revenue from your party to offset the income that they would make if you weren’t there (for a restaurant) or to keep a giant kitchen and building running (for a hotel). If your event is during prime time (think: Saturday night) that number can be pretty high.
Let’s add up the lower end priced catering example we went through above.
Olive Garden meal ($4,975) + Tax ($500) + Gratuity ($1,000) + Labor ($450) + Rental Items ($130) = $7,055 for an estimated 100 people. Add in more people and your costs will go up even further.
Please understand that this is not a comprehensive estimate and does not include items that I’ve found my clients want such as open bar, several entree or dessert options, different food options for kids and more. This article is simply meant to serve as a realistic starting point for understanding catering costs and creating your budget.