Do you want fine china or paper plates? Is a buffet more your style, or would you prefer your guests seated? Are you feeding a handful or hundreds?
When it comes to hosting an event, potential clients have a lot to consider, beginning with what to serve, said Erika Kummer, the owner of SwissAm Fine Catering on East 34th Street.
A native German, Kummer moved to Chattanooga in 1962 with her husband. She was trained by several chefs in international cuisine and began catering 28 years ago, primarily weddings.
During her initial meeting with a client, Kummer said, the first priority is the menu, which in turn determines the final cost.
"They tell us what they visualize, what types of food they want, and we start from there," she said. "Food cost has a lot to do with it, whether they want upscale catering like a seafood buffet or high-priced meats."
Caterers interviewed for this article said that they don't generally post set prices due to fluctuations in the price of ingredients.
"Many people get frustrated because they want to look online like they're buying a piece of furniture and want a price, but I can't do that," said Betty Hubbs, who opened The Catering Company on Signal Mountain Road 13 years ago.
"I don't want to come back to them and say, 'Beef has gone up this week. Sorry.' "
Being firm about RSVPs is crucial because having an accurate head count helps determine whether the per-plate price is in-budget. While some clients prefer to serve their own food, full-service caterers generally offer to hire servers for an additional cost, which is also affected by head count, Hubbs said.
Most clientele know ahead of time where they will be hosting their event, and although caterers said they try to be as flexible as possible in meeting their clients' needs, certain locations can require taking extra steps.
Hosts of outdoor events need to consider access to electricity and water for washing dishes, for example, said Hubbs, who has had to make special arrangements for events held in barns.
Caterers said clients can cut costs many ways, generally by providing their own materials, such as linens and flatware or by using disposable plates and utensils to cut down on cleanup costs.
Ultimately, a caterer's primary goal is to get as close as possible to achieving the client's initial vision, said Charles Darr, owner of the Rossville-based Darr's Chow Time Catering, which has been in operation for more than 50 years.
"You want something that hasn't just been thrown together and delivered there," said Darr, who runs the business with his wife, Luz. "You want something special, and that's why you call a caterer."