When looking to hire a caterer you want to make sure you are dealing with a reputable person or business, with experience, and a good record in food sanitation and safety. There are 2 areas to focus on and inquire about when evaluating and researching a caterer or catering service:
1. The business aspect and
2. The food safety aspect.
Here, each set of requirements and requests to make of the caterer are broken into these 2 areas as follows:
The Business Side:
- Cost is usually if not always, the number one determinant in choosing a caterer. Request an itemized list of services, including costs and a food menu. Also many caterers provide chairs, tables, tents etc. to save you an extra step of renting them elsewhere.
- Have the caterer either fill out and send you a preliminary contract including costs (after you give them the basics of what you are planning), or send you a sample contract that includes everything you are looking for. Look for a substitution clause where they may need to substitute certain foods if unavailable on the day of the event (you should choose what the substitutions can be).
- The contract should also note the number of staff that will be working your event or party and how they are presenting themselves or how they will be dressed.
- Request a copy of evidence of insurance and even a copy of their bond and contact the provider to ensure their current coverage. The insurance will cover damages or losses including food poisoning or theft, and the bond should cover your deposit. If the caterer requests a deposit then you should request a copy of the bond.
- Ask for references (more than one) including their contact information, and specifically, very recent clients that had similar types of events and similar numbers of attendees that you are planning. Make those calls to the references and don’t forget to ask them what they did not like about this caterer and what would they do differently if they could do it over again.
- Request to observe an upcoming event or party the caterer will be working. No one should mind if it’s a large event, as long you don’t stay too long.
- Request a tasting so you can evaluate a range of possible foods or meals they’re offering.
The Food Safety Side:
- Ask for a copy, or to see their current public health permit or license and make note of the business name (the same name of the person or company you are hiring), address (location of their kitchen) and expiration date (should not be expired). The only situation where a caterer would not be required to have a public health permit is if you, the customer, or the caterer purchase the food directly from the market and it is taken or stored only in your home or the event site on the day of the event. The caterer then does all preparation and cooking at your home or the site.
In this type of situation, they are only selling their services and not the food. Remember, they cannot do any food preparation, processing or storage out of the caterer’s or anyone else’s personal home kitchen. They either must have a commercial kitchen or restaurant that is licensed/permitted and inspected, or prepare and process only at the location of the event (yours or the event locations kitchen).
- Ask for copies, or to see their latest inspection reports. Look closely for the score or grade, the types of violations noted (any high risk), the date of the last inspection, and the date of compliance, if noted.
- Look them up on the website of your local Environmental Health Food Inspection program or search for them on the web looking for public forums noting comments on their food safety, service etc.
- Request to see their kitchen and look for a well maintained kitchen, orderly storage of food, modern commercial equipment. You do not want to see unattended perishable or potentially hazardous foods left out at room temperate, any evidence of live or dead cockroaches, flies or rodents and employees with good personal hygiene habits. Ask them how they plan to maintain temperatures during transport from their kitchen to your event. Also, determine how far, time wise, is their kitchen from the event, keeping in mind that ready-to-eat, perishable or potentially hazardous foods should not be left out of temperature more than 2 hours.
- Request to see a Certified Food Handlers certificate for the employee(s) or staff that will be working your event. Many states mandate in the health and safety law, that at least one responsible person pass a certified food handler exam at least every 3-5 years. Check with your local Environmental Health Food Inspection program for this requirement.
If the caterer refuses any of these requests, provide questionable information or their kitchen or latest inspection report show high risk violations, I suggest moving to the next business on your list. Any reputable catering business should not have any issues with these requests and questions.
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