How to hire the best caterer for your wedding, in light of the Moveable Feast and reBar fiascos

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The longtime exclusive caterer of the Prospect Park Boathouse disappeared unexpectedly this summer, but weddings went on as scheduled with new caterers, like this one shot in September. Photo: Loreto Caceres Photography

The now defunct Brooklyn venue reBar hosted 800 weddings in their heyday and was a favorite amongst couples in part due to their Sunday Wedding Package Special. The offer was an all-inclusive wedding for up to 100 guests for just $10,000. Couples willing to pay in cash also received sizable discounts. For many, it was a dream come true until May of 2014, when the dream turned into a nightmare. A sign was unexpectedly posted outside the business reading “reBar is Closed and Bankrupt. Do not enter.”

The owner Jason Stevens vanished, taking with him the deposits for 200 couples along with the wages he owed his staff of 35. Stevens is now in prison, having pled guilty and charged with grand larceny and tax fraud. While justice may have been served, none of the couples, including one of our contributors, ever got their money back.

Reminiscent of the reBar fiasco, this summer, Movable Feast, a family-owned, full-service event design and catering business that was known and loved by the Brooklyn community, shuttered without any notice, leaving couples scrambling and out of their deposits. Movable Feast’s owner Jackson Berson allegedly disappeared without a trace, stiffing his staff and taking with him deposits for all the upcoming weddings at the Prospect Park Boathouse, where his company had been the exclusive caterer for over a decade.

“Movable Feast continues to be non-operational, and we’ve had no further contact with them,” The Prospect Park Alliance, which manages the Boathouse, told Brooklyn Based in a statement in August. “To help clients who had booked a wedding at the Boathouse, the Prospect Park Alliance made available three catering options (Bon Soir, Raging Skillet, and Steven Brown Caterers), each of which was part of our approved caterer list at the Prospect Park Picnic House. In addition, the Alliance is forgoing the venue fees clients normally pay for events at the Boathouse. We anticipate putting out an RFP for new catering services at the Boathouse by the New Year.”

The Brooklyn D.A.’s office is still investigating Berson, who has yet to reimburse any outstanding deposits or the roughly $200,000 he owes the Alliance, which has since filed a complaint in Kings County Supreme Court against his company. But many of the couples were able to get their catering deposits back.

Colleen Schafer, whose Boathouse wedding is not scheduled until 2018, is one of those brides. Like the other couples, she paid Moveable Feast the deposit for both the venue and the catering using a Chase credit card, and Chase in turn reimbursed the portion slated for Moveable Feast ($2000).

Schafer is happy with her new caterer, Raging Skillet, which has been catering NYC weddings for over 26 years. “The fact that the Boathouse only offered one caterer was a downside for us and this was kind of a blessing in disguise,” she said.

Even the tiling inside the Boathouse is landmarked, which lends itself to using one exclusive caterer, according to the Prospect Park Alliance. Photo: Loreto Caceres Photography

Ultimately the venue has already returned to using just one caterer, Bon Soir, for new events booked through the end of the year and is not considering offering a choice in the future. “Due to its landmark status, use as an Audubon Center and other logistical challenges, this space lends itself best to an exclusive catering agreement,”  Deborah Kirschner, the Prospect Park Alliance’s Assistant Vice President of Marketing and Communications, explained by email. (The Alliance’s other property, The Picnic House, is much more flexible, with multiple caterers on its preferred vendor list and options for cold and warm weather weddings.)

If there is a lesson to be learned from the reBar and Moveable Feast frauds, it’s that no matter how well established the company, or whether or not you have a choice in the matter, you need to do your homework before hiring a wedding vendor.

We spoke to the owner of Raging Skillet and two other veteran Brooklyn caterers for their thoughts on how to find the best caterer and what you need to do before signing a contract. Here are their tips.

Ask your wedding venue for a list of preferred caterers.

Not only is your vendor providing you with a recommendation, but these caterers also know the space, which is a big advantage. As Chef Rossi, the owner of Raging Skillet explained, not being familiar with the location and layout of a venue can cost time and money. For a summer wedding at the Boathouse, she did multiple walkthroughs, had staff arrive an hour early to ensure there were no delays, and hired more expensive vendors than she normally works with simply because they knew how to find the venue and she could feel confident that they wouldn’t get lost on the wedding day.

So, you can choose a caterer new to your venue. Just make sure they will invest more staff time for walkthroughs and an early arrival on your big day.

You need to fall in love with your caterer, even if you don’t have a choice.

“If you’re dealing with a space that doesn’t give you a choice, you can’t just fall in love with the venue, you also have to fall in love with the caterer,” said Chef Rossi, in light of the Moveable Feast incident. One could see how easy it would be to overlook this part of the decision process, but it’s essential whether you’re dealing with an exclusive caterer or multiple ones.

“Choosing a caterer is like falling in love,” echoes Loren Michelle, chef and owner of the longtime catering and event management company, Naturally Delicious.

“Initially, it’s like a first date. In the beginning, you ask around about them, find out what kind of reputation they have and ask where they can be found. Then you read their reviews and if it all checks out, you show your interest in them. How a caterer responds to you is a telltale sign of how your relationship will go. How quickly do they follow up? Are they distracted or do you have their complete attention? Are they too busy? Is their aesthetic and philosophy in line with yours? How do they make you feel? A great caterer truly gets who you are and what you’re envisioning for your big day right away,” says Michelle.

“We aren’t just people who show up with food and leave. We create a memory and an experience,” she adds. “Business is not just about numbers. There’s a holistic part too. How you feel overall with your choice should be the determining factor when selecting a caterer to work with.”

Get personal recommendations.

Ask friends, family and colleagues about their good and bad experiences with any caterers they have worked with in the past.

Check reviews and ratings.

Check online reviews on The Knot, Wedding Wire and Yelp. You can also check a company’s rating with your local Better Business Bureau. (Moveable Feast’s current rating? D+)

Lock in a date with a deposit.

Once you have your wedding date, make sure the caterer is available on that date and lock it in on their calendar. A fifty percent deposit is a standard amount to secure your date. While that might seem hefty to pay in advance, Ryan Brown of Ryan Brown Catering explains, “The reason a caterer and a lot of other wedding vendors charge a 50% deposit is because, as small business owners, we are not taking on other business, or at least severely limiting the business we take on, on the day of the wedding. Weddings book far in advance, so a large deposit means that the client has committed that money and we can confidently turn down other work.”

Pay by credit card if possible.

Using a credit card may not guarantee that you’ll get your money back if your caterer reneges, as the bank may not deem it credit card fraud if you willingly issue your card to a vendor. But you could get lucky. As the Prospect Park Alliance informed us, “To date, we understand that many patrons were able to recover funds from their credit card companies.”

It’s fine if you choose to pay in cash, but if the caterer offers you incentive to pay in cash, chances are they aren’t paying their taxes so avoid them at all costs. Brown reminds couples to “Be sure to receive receipts for any payments made, including cash payments.”

Determine when final guest count numbers are due.

The standard clause is usually two weeks before the wedding. It could be a red flag if the caterer wants your guest count a month or longer from the wedding date as most contracts stipulate that you pay according to your final headcount, which may not be accurate a month out.

Confirm the start time of the event and ensure it’s listed in the contract.

Any wishy-washy behavior around agreeing to time is not the sign of a professional. Have an agreed-upon time of the event start in the contract.

Get it in writing.

Make certain everything you discuss is in your contract and any changes you agree to are also put in writing and initialed by both parties.

Make certain you are both insured.

Confirm the caterer has insurance, and purchase your own event cancellation insurance through a top insurance company like Markel, Wedsafe or Wedsure. Should your wedding be cancelled or postponed because of vendor bankruptcy or vendor no-shows, the cancellation insurance (as opposed to liability insurance) should cover these costs. Just make sure to review their policy and make sure you understand it before signing.

As dramatic as Moveable Feast’s abrupt disappearance was, it’s not the norm in the wedding business. Photo: Loreto Caceres Photography

Taking these precautions can give you the peace of mind you need during the often-hectic wedding planning time. But ultimately, as all the caterers we spoke with stressed, a wedding vendor skipping out on their clients is a high profile, but pretty rare occurrence.

“Caterers running off with their clients money are a little bit like plane crashes—they are horrific when they happen, and get a lot of coverage, but in reality, flying is an extremely safe way of traveling, more so than other forms of transportation,” says Brown. “The vast majority of the caterers and other wedding professionals I know are hard-working small business owners who want nothing more than to have happy clients who sing their praises after an event.”

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