Catering ‘Service Charge’ Explained

It is the most commonly asked question – what DOES the service charge include?  It doesn’t always mean servers, which we know can be confusing.  Most catering companies (and venues) have a lot of odds and ends that cost them money to make your event happen, and in turn, will apply a percentage to your event in order to cover those costs.   In lieu of sending you a 4-page breakdown of every single item they are charging you for, the end result is the service charge line on your invoice.  Typically this percentage ranges between 18–20% for offsite catering, and 21–23% for exclusive catering at a venue.

Your service charge includes the following:

  • Serving Items
    This includes things like chafers to keep the food hot, large salad platters, bowls for dressings, large serving spoons and other items at the buffet line.  Some caterers will also bring stands to elevate displayed food – not only does it look cool, but it is actually practical in making the most of the table’s space.  Passed hors d’oeuvres need something to be set on when they are moving around, such as platters and trays.  All of these extra items can really add up, so instead of listing every single spoon, tray, and pan, they are included under the umbrella of the service charge.
  • Large Equipment & Delivery Vehicles
    When your food is prepped at the catering kitchen it still has to travel to you and most times your event isn’t around the corner. Large warmers/ovens and refrigerated trucks keep your food at the appropriate temperature so it tastes just as fresh as it did the second it came out of the oven. This equipment requires purchasing and maintenance, just like your daily driver, our trucks need gas and routine oil changes/maintenance.  The service charge contributes to these costs, ensuring your caterer is able to afford to properly execute your event.  No one wants to eat a wilted salad or ice cold chicken parmesan!
  • Behind the Scenes Staff
    Before your event, operations staff prep and load the trucks with all the rentals and equipment needed to execute your event.  They are loading dishes that were cleaned by dishwashers and food prepped by prep cooks.  It takes 6–8 hours of pre-production before your caterer even arrives at your event. Before you, your family or your wedding planner see the caterer set foot at your venue, there have been at least 10 people already involved in the making of your event that day.  Once the event is over, staff unloads the equipment, sends the dishes, silverware, and glassware to the dishwasher area and it starts all over again the next day.  These staff members receive a wage just like any other job and the service charge contributes towards these pre and post event production costs.
  • Event Staff – MAYBE
    This one depends on the caterer and venue.  Most offsite caterers will have a separate line item for labor, and this is partly due to the fluctuation in venue layout, dinner style etc. The floor plan/number of floors at the venue, number of event hours, travel time, style of dinner, rentals, and other extras like wine service influence the off-site labor calculation. In this scenario, they charge on the lower end for service charge.  When a venue has an in-house caterer, they may only charge for EXTRA staff, such as security guards, or additional chefs, bartenders or servers if the event’s menu or special services require it.  A lot of venues include a certain time frame for your event time with your rental (ie: 4 hours of the event included in rental, $250 per additional hour). This helps them balance the costs of staff with the service charge alone and they don’t need to charge anything more than the 21- 23% service charge. When they are the exclusive caterer, they are able to store things at the venue as well, which eliminates the back and forth transport of many items that your offsite caterer has to bring every time.

So there you have it, the mysterious service charge line in your quote or invoice explained.  Every caterer may do things slightly different so it never hurts to ask them about all they include in their catering quote.  No matter what the case, there is A LOT that goes on behind the scenes of your event.  We understand you don’t do this every day, and we expect questions so don’t be afraid to ask!

Wedding Catering FAQs

With wedding planning comes questions – and you are not alone if you have a long list to ask! Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked wedding catering questions.

  • How much is a wedding for 200 people?
    I am starting with this one because it seems like it would have an obvious answer, but it really doesn’t.  There is a common misconception when it comes to catering costs – in reality, there is not a flat rate per person for catering as a whole.  Whenever I get this question, I can only answer with MORE questions because there are so many factors that go into a quote.  Did you want a plated dinner, action stations or buffet? Any food for cocktail hour? Open bar, consumption bar, cash bar or bartender only? How many hours will your event be? Where is your event? The list goes on…
    Every caterer has their own style, not only with their cooking but with their execution. When you are looking for quotes, start with your date (or tentative date).  Ask the caterer if they are available that date, and ask them what they need from you to generate a quote.  If you don’t have answers to some of their questions, tell them what you think you would like, but that the detail is still flexible/TBD.  Vendors need a starting point in order to give you an estimate.  Telling them you are “unsure” to half of their questions will not get you the quote you want.  If they have to fill in the gaps for you, you may end up with a quote that is totally opposite of what you had in mind, and it could scare you away from an awesome vendor.
  • Do I need to include all guests in the head count?
    YES, 1,000% yes.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  If a guest is coming to your reception, they are assuming they are getting fed with everyone else and you should want to feed them!  You are hosting an important event; everyone that made it onto your guest list is important to you, and therefore you want to treat them as such.  There are two exceptions to this:
    1. “Cocktail Reception to Follow” – These are the only four words that will help you reduce the amount of food provided without disappointing guests.  When guests see this on their invite, it implies you will not be providing a full meal at the reception. In this scenario, you are ordering hors d’oeuvres by the dozen and/or a variety of displays that will each only feed around 75% of your guests.  All guests will still enjoy some items, but not every guest will be able to enjoy every item.  I get a lot of couples with the mindset of “when it runs out, it’s out”, and that’s okay as long as you are okay with some guests not eating a little bit of everything.  With this style, you want to make sure you are still covering at least 75% of your guest count.
    2. Action Stations/Specialty Items – We often get couples that want to feature an item that is special to them but know not everyone will even want to try it.  As long as your main meal has everyone included in your count, it is okay to have a partial count for the unique item. We want you to add your personal spin to things, after all, it is YOUR day!  Don’t be afraid to add in the cool Asian Taco Fusion Station – you just need to make sure everyone is fed outside of that.  You should also consider including a few extra people in the unique item count – you never know who may branch out and love the cool new food you just introduced to them!
  • Can I try the food before my wedding?
    Absolutely!  Every caterer has their own approach to tastings.  Some provide a private tasting, where you try only the items you are considering for your day. Others host group tastings or open houses.  With these types of tastings, you are trying a variety of items from their menu.  Some of it may be what you are considering for your event, or it may not. There is less customization with group/open house tastings; however, there is a bigger variety to help you try a little bit of everything.
    If you wish to try the food before signing with a caterer, ask them about their policy and potential pricing.  Just like the booked event tastings, caterers all have different approaches to tastings prior to booking. 
  • What is included in the service charge?
    The service charge is a percentage applied to overall event costs, which is why it can fluctuate as you tweak your menu and event details.  On average, the service charge is 18 – 22% of your total cost.  It covers all of the back-end costs that go into the event aside from the food itself.   Most companies do not charge for the large cooking/serving ware, tastings (after booking), walk-throughs, meetings, food/rental transport and delivery, insurance certificates, etc.  This fee offsets all of the costs to ensure your event runs perfectly!  Many believe service charge is the staffing and/or gratuity, but that is not always the case.  Labor typically is a separate charge and unless stated, gratuities are not included.  In my opinion, gratuities are never expected but always greatly appreciated!
    Sometimes it can be hard to stomach such a hefty charge – but consider all that is needed to feed your guests.  Imagine trying to cook Thanksgiving dinner in a field for 15 – 25 people. What would you need to make it happen?  Now multiply that 10 times.  It adds up faster than you’d expect!  Caterers are essentially restaurants on-the-go, and the service charge helps cover the “go”.
  • Do I really need the amount of staff you included in your quote?
    If a professional caterer recommends it, trust them! They do this all the time and know what it takes to execute your event.  If you have quotes from four different caterers, and one has double the staff that the others have for the exact same type of menu, it’s okay to ask that caterer how they calculate their staffing.  The same goes for a caterer who quoted far less staff than the others you are comparing it to – the last thing you want is an understaffed event.  Caterers typically staff 1 server for every 25 – 30 guests with a buffet dinner, and 1 server for every 15 – 18 guests with a plated dinner.  These ratios can vary depending on the timeline, venue layout, rentals provided and menu.  It never hurts to ask, but know that most caterers staff only what is necessary to make your wedding run smoothly.

So there you have it, five of the most commonly asked wedding catering questions!  I hope these answers and explanations help ease your mind and maybe even make your wedding planning a little less stressful.  It is easy to get overwhelmed by a vendor’s quote if you don’t understand what all the charges mean or all the work that is going into the task at hand.  It is important to not let these charges take away any of the joy or excitement of your special day.  A great caterer will be able to work with you and your budget in order to compromise on getting you what you want at a price you can afford.  Don’t be afraid to shop around for a caterer you can trust and feel comfortable with, you want to be able to enjoy not only your wedding day but the whole planning process.  Happy wedding planning!