Couples Personalize Dishes to Tell Their Stories
| 2016 Q2 | story by DEREK HELMS
Ask anyone involved, and they’ll tell you there is no “typical wedding.” No two couples want the same food or drink or décor. For Lawrence caterers, every event is an exercise in patience, managing expectations and going the extra mile to ensure a successful service.
“You have to always be conscious that this is, up to that point, the most important day of the couple’s life,” explains Regan Pillar, of Culinaria Food and Wine. “That’s a big responsibility. I don’t think any successful caterer takes it for granted. I know we certainly don’t.”
Kasey Dietrich, associate director of sales and marketing for Maceli’s, agrees. Dietrich explains the catering of a wedding goes well beyond maintaining warm food on a buffet table. Dietrich and her crew at Maceli’s host more than 80 wedding receptions annually at their facility, in Downtown Lawrence, and cater up to 50 more off-site. Each is a unique experience.
“After almost every wedding, I’m surprised,” Dietrich says. “Even if the wedding isn’t here at our facility, and we are really only providing food, we tend to get involved and end up helping with anything else we can. If we’re involved in a wedding at all, we kind of feel a responsibility to help the couple anyway we can. We want them to remember their experience with us.”
Gone are the days of wedding packages and preselected plans. While most caterers in Lawrence have a few dishes that are very common for weddings (all name steak, chicken and potatoes), most are more interested in personalizing the experience for the couple and their guests. Pinterest boards and modern wedding magazines have given brides-to-be countless ideas. While most of the personal touches of the modern wedding are reserved for décor or destinations, many couples are putting more thought into the food they offer their guests.
Evan Williams, owner and operator of Evan Williams Catering, has been catering for 25 years and says the personalization of wedding catering is a very good thing. Williams and her staff cater more than 30 weddings a year and believe the more involved a couple is, the better.
“I like that couples are becoming more invested in what food is served at their wedding,” Williams says. “I enjoy working with couples that have distinct ideas and a passion for food. When people have an idea for dishes beyond a simple meat and potatoes, it helps us plan a memorable meal service. Also, couples seem to be more interested in making the meal, and particularly the food served, a more important part of the day. They want food to be an expression, not an afterthought.”
A catering plan begins with a meeting with the couple. While budgets are as different as couples, the topic of money is one of the first things discussed. This is a business, after all, and the couples (and their parents) are aware of that. In fact, Culinaria even tries to prequalify couples with a wedding questionnaire before investing too much time. Regan Pillar, her husband, Aaron, and their staff cater up to 40 weddings a year, and knowing which couples they connect with is important.
“The questionnaire isn’t so much about money,” Regan Pillar explains. “It’s more of a way for us to get to know the couple. When we sign on to cater a wedding, we are making a commitment to the couple and to their families. If we don’t think we can meet their expectations or provide just what they want, it’s better to help them find a better fit.”
Dietrich says talking about money is not an issue. In fact, it’s expected.
“I don’t think it’s uncomfortable to discuss budgets,” Dietrich says with a matter-of-fact tone. “Most couples really seem to know what their budget is, where they want to spend their money and are most interested in getting the best food they can. We tend to steer them away from a set dollar amount and have them think in terms of cost per plate.”
Williams says she also strays away from a flat rate and works in terms of per-plate cost.
“That cost per plate helps the couple understand the value in the price,” she explains. “I get them to think about how much they are willing to spend on their guest to treat them to a great meal and event.”
Maceli’s and Culinaria both average around $35 per plate for weddings. That, of course, can fluctuate based on any number of variables. For instance, Culinaria recently catered an event that needed traditional Indian and Chinese dishes, as well as a combination of each cuisine. Chef Aaron Pillar met the challenge, Regan Pillar says, but it wasn’t without some worry.
“Aaron lost some sleep before that wedding,” Regan Pillar says with a laugh. “He spent a lot of time in the kitchen working on dishes to make sure the flavors were represented well. Factoring for time and the increased cost of some of those ingredients, the budget was higher than some other events we’ve catered.”
Williams cautiously discloses that her costs are a bit higher.
“We tend to charge between $40 and $55 per plate,” she says. “I always get nervous to say that number because I don’t always know how people might perceive those rates. But we charge that because we think we provide a service and a product that justifies the expense.”
While Evan Williams, Maceli’s and Culinaria are more traditional caterers, couples are beginning to look to more specific food options to help tell their story. James Ferguson, general manager and events director for 23rd Street Brewery, says they get calls for wedding help.
“You know, we don’t do full catering for many weddings,” he says. “Maybe one a year. But, we get quite a few calls for specific dishes.”
Ferguson says his staff sees more rehearsal dinners.
“I think rehearsal dinners tend to be much more relaxed,” he says. “The crowd is more laid back and less worried about formalities. That works well with our attitude and ambience.”
Ferguson explains it’s not uncommon for a couple to request a big bowl of Bill Self Pasta or a few kegs of their beer.
“The story we hear the most is that the couple either met at 23rd Street or spent a lot of time here,” Ferguson says. “We love it when that happens. We’re here to make people happy. If our food or beer helped bring a couple together, and they want us to be a part of their wedding, well there’s just not much better than that. Most of the time, we don’t make much profit, we just love making people happy.”