Organizing a big event means pulling together a lot of different vendors, working out logistics and making sure everything stays within the expected cost range. One of the biggest concerns for any big event is the food. Estimating catering costs can be tricky, but with some basic understanding and a good relationship with your caterer, you can end up with a good working estimate going into your event.

Catering Cost Breakdown

For the caterer, an important value for the business is food cost per serving, which is exactly what it sounds like: the cost of the food included in the meal. For example, if the food on the plate costs $5, then that’s the food cost per serving.

Why does this matter? Because the cost of the food isn’t anywhere near the full cost of the service. There needs to be an additional charge to represent the overhead of the kitchen as well as the cost of labor, which might include an upcharge based on skill set. Then, on top of that, some kind of profit margin needs to be added as well for the catering company.

Catering Costs Calculator

Standard catering industry sites suggest that food costs should represent around 30 percent of the price, with 22 percent to 34 percent being the suggested range. This means that for a plate where the food cost is $5, the caterer should look to charge between $14 to $23 per serving to cover all of the background expenses as well as profit. This can also help customers back-estimate what the food costs of their order might actually be.

Caterers normally select their pricing strategies from two options. Fixed pricing works simply, with set prices per plate or per appetizer round. Tiered pricing changes the per-plate price based on the number of guests. Since working in larger quantities often provides savings in both materials and overhead, tiered pricing takes advantage of that. For example, a plate might be $20 per person for a party of 50 but only $18 per person for a party of 100.

In addition, caterers have to calculate quantity as well so that they avoid running out of food at events. At least a 10 percent buffer is recommended for caterers. This will safely cover potential kitchen mistakes and unexpected guests so that all guests get the meal they are expecting.

Estimating Catering Pricing

To estimate prices before choosing a caterer, you can use industry average values for a benchmark placeholder cost. The cost per person depends on the quantity, quality and service style of the catering. For example, an average plated meal can be anywhere from $30 to $120 per person, and for a fancier event or wedding, plated service can cost anywhere from $70 to $250 per person on average. Plated meals usually mean the caterer cooks specific orders and then the company serves them to the guests.

Buffet Food Cost Calculator

Buffet-style catering is less expensive, mainly because the serving aspect is mostly eliminated. Average buffet costs range from $15 to $50 per person and mostly depend on food selection. In this case, servers may be responsible for clearing tables, but guests serve themselves. There are also options in between these two, such as family style service or cocktail service, which will be up to the specific catering company in question.

Adding in costs like appetizers, beverages and/or dessert items will obviously increase that per-person cost no matter what type of service is chosen. Catering companies should be able to provide estimates for these add-ons as well. Using these guidelines, you should be able to determine what kind of service you want for your event, what it might cost overall and what sort of specialty menu items fall within your budget.