We stand on the brink of yet another holiday party season. So, what are we going to do about it?
Trot out the tired old cocktail weenie recipe for the annual eggnog bash? Or, work ourselves into a party-planning tizzy trying to make like Martha Stewart?
Relax and hire a caterer. That way you get to enjoy the festivities along with your guests. The whole undertaking is easier - and more affordable - than you might imagine.
“You would be surprised how many people just open the phone book to the Yellow Pages and start calling around,” said Fery Hagaghi, owner of Fery’s Catering in Spokane.
If the whole notion of hiring a caterer seems baffling, don’t fret. We’re going to walk you through it.
First, it’s important to recognize what a caterer has to offer.
“We can do as much or as little as they want,” said Shelia Collins, one of the owners of Catered for You in Spokane.
A competent caterer is a professional party planner, a great cook and a charming server all rolled into one. They provide a sense of freedom for the hosts.
“The American lifestyle is so busy that people have forgotten how much fun it is to entertain,” Haghghi said. “You can go out any night you want, but it’s more intimate having a party in your home.”
Caterers arrange for various events by making suggestions on food, decorations, arranging for linens and plates, setting up and serving the goodies they’ve prepared or even arranging for a valet to park cars.
Of course, all those extras can add up fast. And the first thing people usually ask when they call a caterer is how much it’s going to cost.
“That’s like asking how much a new car is going to cost,” said Kris McIlvenna of Greenbriar Inn Catering in Coeur d’Alene.
Before calling, come up with a rough idea of how much you want to spend on the food and what kind of wingding you’re going to host. Obviously, having subs at a Super Bowl party is going to be less expensive than a sit-down five-course feast.
If you’re intending to serve a variety of finger food for a cocktail party, you should plan on spending at least $10 per person; full dinners are generally $18 to $20 for each guest, said Collins.
McIlvenna suggested thinking about what you might spend going to a nice restaurant and then plan on spending a bit more.
“It’s important to remember the time involved in planning, shopping, prep and transportation,” she said.
Also, she said: “You need to be clear about what’s included. It’s like going to the doctor. You need to be a little proactive. Ask questions.” And then get it all in writing.
Among the questions potential customers should ask is whether the caterer will provide plates and napkins, if they will set up and then take out the trash and whether they can provide tables and chairs, if needed. And ask if those services are included in the price quoted.
The queries should go both ways.
“I try to gain their confidence by asking a series of questions like who will their guests be? What’s the purpose of the event? What time of the day will it be? What their preferences are,” said Collins.
Once you’ve established a relationship and hammered out a a budget, you can start working with the caterer to come up with a menu.
Hagaghi - who has done events for anywhere from 10 to 500 people - said she usually offers at least two suggested menus, including some signature dishes (chicken curry, chocolate mousse cake) from her days at Au Croissant.
Sometimes, though, clients will give her a free hand and then she stretches her culinary creativity.
“I did a Persian dinner for a wedding party and everyone was thrilled because it was something very different,” Haghighi said.
Some folks prefer to stay in familiar territory. And hiring a caterer doesn’t mean it has to be an elegant affair.
“Longhorn doesn’t do things that are really fancy, but what we do, we do well,” said Chuck Stobie, catering manager for Longhorn Barbecue in the Valley and Airway Heights.
That popular outfit has done everything from finger-licking ribs at enormous company picnics (they fed 8,500 people at a Boeing lunch in Seattle this summer) to small dinners in private homes. They once catered the shooting of a commercial in the middle of a field.
“We can go just about anyplace,” Stobie said.
One of the most unusual spots Catered for You’s Collins has ever set up a dinner for two was on the top of Mount Spokane.
“It was a full moon and very romantic,” she said.
For that scenario, food might have seemed almost secondary. But for most fetes, the edibles had better be incredible.
When working with a caterer, it’s perfectly acceptable to request references or ask if they have photographs or samples of the dishes they prepare. Most caterers worth their salt are willing to tackle your cherished family recipes, too.
McIlvenna said people often are looking for something they can’t make themselves.
“I get a lot of requests for beef Wellington or something that’s flambeed at the table,” she said.
From Catered for You’s vast repertoire, a few favorites have emerged.
“One thing that always appeals to people are stuffed mushrooms, even though they are a little expensive,” Collins said.
Trendy nibbles that are quick to disappear include exotic quesadillas - tortillas filled with roasted squash, Mexican cheese and chilies - and herbed, roasted potato skins stuffed with smoked salmon. But deviled eggs and meatballs are perennially popular.
“There’s not a week that goes by when we don’t get a request for Swedish meatballs,” Collins said.
Stobie from the Longhorn Barbecue said he gently steers customers toward a well-rounded meal.
“If they ask for three different meats (like German sausage, ribs and ham) and all of them are pork, we might suggest having turkey or chicken as one of the choices,” he said.
While creating the menu, caterers can also make suggestions on what wines will best accompany the dishes, purchase supplies for a bar or set up for coffee and tea service.
“We’re there to help fill in the blanks,” Collins said.
So, you’ve come up with your game plan, finalized the menu and sent out invitations. Collins suggested the final step for throwing a party that’s as memorable for the hosts as for the guests is one many of her customers are reluctant to take.
“So many people go to the expense of having a party and then don’t allow themselves the luxury of hiring service staff to be there,” she said. “It can make a huge difference. And then you are able to truly enjoy your guests and your party.”
A caterer can make the arrangements for service staff.
Some final words of advice: Plan ahead to secure those prime dates. Many caterers are already booked for the holiday season.
“There are only three weekends in December before Christmas and that’s our busiest time. People need to get on it,” said McIlvenna.
If you can be flexible enough to schedule on a weeknight or a Sunday afternoon, you’ll have more options.
On the other hand, if a caterer isn’t already booked, they can often put something together with as little as 24 hours notice.
Said Collins: “We’ve done something the next day more times than I care to remember.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos (2 color)