June 1, 2011

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

A June wedding

It’s June, and love is in the air. Some say the month is named for Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage, which is why it’s considered good luck to be married in June. In ancient times, June’s abundance of flowers was not only decorative but helped mask body odors not banished by the traditional “annual bath” in May. June weddings also gave soon-to-be-pregnant brides time to recover from the following spring’s blessed event before the fall harvest. So, all bases covered — except for the catering.

If you’re getting married this June, this advice may be too late for those who are organizational geniuses. You’ve probably got all this stuff on lockdown already. But pay heed, 2011 late-niks and geniuses wisely organizing for next June: You have more options for wedding catering than you may think.

Many wedding venues have a list of “approved caterers” they’ll require you to use … but others don’t. With no such restrictions, you don’t have to limit yourself to businesses listed under “catering” in the phone book, nor to the results of an Internet search. Get creative. Be proactive.

Ask yourself a couple of questions: First, what is our favorite restaurant? Maybe it’s the place you had your first date. Perhaps it’s your go-to couple’s-night favorite. Make a short list of your top four or five local independent eateries (you’ll know from their advertising whether corporate chain restaurants offer catering) and jot down their phone numbers.

Then ask yourself Question No. 2: Does this restaurant excel in the sort of food our invited friends and relatives would enjoy? You and your fiancé may appreciate adventurous sushi, but your guests, by and large, may not. Know your target market. If you have to cross out that sushi restaurant, move on to the American bistro or barbecue joint you also love.

Now, before you start dialing, look at the clock. Is it 6:30 on a Friday night? Don’t call now; during their “rush,” you may not get good answers to your inquiries about catering. Call on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday at 3 p.m., the best time to catch the attention of a head chef or manager. You’re not likely to get them on a Sunday or Monday, when many restaurants are closed. Nor is it a good idea to call when they’ve just walked in the door or when they’re on their way out. And calling on Friday or Saturday might make you seem like an amateur. You wouldn’t call Wall Street at 9 a.m. on a Monday, would you?

Open with this: “Hi, we’re getting married! You’re one of our favorite restaurants, and we were curious — do you do any catering?” You may be surprised how often the answer is “yes,” or at least “sure, sometimes.” Most well-rounded chefs have a lengthy catering résumé. It’s an integral part of our business. And many good restaurants do a healthy catering operation alongside their brick-and-mortar service establishments, even if they don’t advertise as caterers.

If they seem interested, ask for the person who books catering events or make an appointment to meet them. Have a list ready of your favorite dishes from their menu. Their representative will have plenty of other ideas, as well. However, don’t make the mistake of asking them to do food completely outside their area of expertise. Don’t ask that Greek restaurant to serve individual Hot Browns, and don’t expect an Italian restaurant to make a great duck taco. Be realistic. You’ll want a fabulous spread — not a lame menu tortured by unrealistic expectations.

Finally, guess what? This advice is not just for brides. It’s the same if you’re planning a wedding, graduation party, prom dinner or anniversary celebration. Your favorite restaurant may hold the key to your dream event’s culinary component. Don’t limit yourself; the possibilities are endless.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef at the residence hall Gardiner Point.