If you've already started planning your wedding, you probably understand what you've heard from family members, friends, and coworkers for years—weddings are expensive! Of all the expenses brides and grooms encounter as they plan their ceremony and reception, the one line item that surprises almost everyone is food and beverage. Why do meals and drinks cost so much more when they're on your venue's or caterer's package? The short answer is that it's complicated, but we'll start with the fact that the actual number your pros have quoted you goes far beyond the baseline costs associated with purchasing the necessary ingredients for the cocktails, appetizers, and main dishes you've selected. "Ultimately, the labor is what causes the price to soar," explains Clint Elkins, owner of SB Value, a food purchasing program for event caterers. "There are 13 total steps necessary in creating, executing, and finishing a catered wedding, and the labor, regulations, restrictions, licenses, fees, and travel are all part of the final cost of the wedding's food and beverage."
It's important to understand that your venue, caterer, or bartender will all think very carefully about the orders they place for your wedding. In fact, a great deal of effort and planning goes into ordering refreshments for an event as large as a wedding. "For every wedding, we need to make sure we have enough of each beverage for all guests—more specifically, if there are five types of beer on the bar, we need to make sure we have enough of each beer to not run out for the evening," explains Hilary Saurer, Director of Sales at River Roast Restaurant in Chicago. That means your pros may need to purchase more food and drinks than they think your guests will actually consume.
The type of meal service you choose also impacts the quote you'll receive from your pros. In the past, buffets were typically more affordable, but this isn't always the case anymore since your pros will have to create enough of each dish to keep everyone fed. "Buffets have become the industry's way of increasing customer satisfaction by really knocking the socks off of their clients with some incredible offerings. With these revamped menus the costs have to increase as well," says Tommy Waters, owner of The Renaissance, a wedding venue in Virginia. Since your caterer will know exactly how much of each item is necessary for plated meals, you may actually see a cost savings with this style of meal service.
It's not just the meal service that matters, though. As you can imagine, the type of food your serve significantly impacts the price. This is mainly because some items are more expensive than others—just like they are at the grocery store. "Typically, in the wedding industry, prime rib, surf and turf, filet (or any of the finer cuts of beef), lobster, and crab dishes are some of the more expensive options, just as they are at your local restaurant," says Waters. "An open bar with all premium liquors or a beer and wine bar with imported and domestic beers may be a bit pricier. Full open bars are almost always going to be pricier than an open bar with just beers and wines."
While there are many factors that impact the cost of food and beverage for your wedding, there are some clear-cut ways to save. Elkins explains that creative menu planning is key when it comes to lowering your food costs. "The right caterer can help you find fantastic foods that aren't as expensive to produce, transport, and serve," he says. "For example, if crab is a must, you could consider backfin crabmeat versus jumbo lump crab, which will be less expensive." Additionally, he recommends being flexible when it comes to cuts of meat. His secret tip: "A sous vide Eye of the Round will result in a medium rare cut of beef resembling tenderloin at half the price."
Another way to save big is by revisiting your bar plan. Even if you very slightly reduce or adjust your beer, wine, and liquor offerings, you might be able to shave off a few hundred dollars from the total. "If you switch your bar plan from a full open bar with premium liquor to a full open bar with a mix of premium and non-premium selections, you'll save without your guests even noticing," says Waters. "Additionally, switching from a full open bar to an open bar with just beers and wines can help you save as much as $10.00 or more per guest."
A full open bar isn't essential for every couple. If you look at your guest list and can identify more than a handful of guests who don't drink alcohol at all, a prepaid consumption bar might be a better fit for you (and an easy way to help you save money). "Your bar will still seem like an open bar, but your bartenders are actually working off of an amount provided by the client for drinks their guests actually consume," says Waters. "Most venues will cap the bar at what the open bar price would have been so, before choosing this option, make sure you're fully aware of the consequences of what happens if your bar costs go over what you have prepaid."
If you've tried these savings tips and are still struggling with the cost of food and beverage, you may need to think about your guest list. While it's one of the most difficult things for brides and grooms to do, reducing the number of people you invite might be the only way to get the menu you really want. Unfortunately, this isn't an option if you've already mailed your invites. At the end of the day, your best bet is to work with your venue and caterer to try to find a menu that satisfies both your wishes and you budget. While food and beverage costs are far from cheap, it is possible for you to hit that sweet spot—scoring a great deal and getting delicious food in exchange!