When hosting a wedding or other special occasion, the caterer can make or break the guest experience. Your event should be an affair to remember for all the right reasons, not unforgettably dry chicken with a side of remarkably bland green beans or poor/not enough service providers.

However, just because your beloved cousin Katie whipped up a tasty spread for her last dinner party doesn’t mean your celebration is the time for Katie to try out her dream of opening her own catering business. Caterers are professionals and there’s much to consider when hiring a caterer for your special event.

When we consult with brides and other clients of our “rustic chic” event venue in Virginia, we recommend working with an experienced event planner who can help you select the best caterer to suit your budget, palate, and style.

If you are looking for a caterer for your wedding or party, here are 5 helpful tips for choosing an ideal vendor:

1. Bank on Your Budget

Catering is often the biggest ticket expense of any event, and if you’re not careful the costs can get out of hand quickly. We don’t mean to put a damper on your caviar dreams; but before getting ahead of yourself, always start with determining what amount you’re able and willing to spend on food and beverage for your event.

Some critical cost factors will include your number of guests, timing of activities, and whether you’ll be having a sit-down meal, buffet style service, hors-d’oeuvres, full open bar, beer and wine, or specialty cocktail stations.

If you have champagne taste on a beer budget, that’s perfectly okay. You can still find a caterer that can work with you to develop a menu that fits within your means. And if you’re able to splurge, it’s still important to find a vendor who can live up to the expectations that come with a higher price point.

Many caterers charge “per-head” or based on the estimated number of guests. Make sure you know exactly what will be covered in that rate so you are not surprised by unexpected costs at payment time.The catering company should be able to provide a detailed breakdown of expenses and fees.

2. Research Their Reputation

To select a caterer with a stellar reputation, start by seeking recommendations from your event planner or event venue, but don’t stop there. Although these professionals are not likely to knowingly risk their own reputations on a poor referral, also keep in mind the caterers are their friends and colleagues so relationships will naturally influence their suggestions.

To stay on the safe side, you should always do your own research on all vendors and the caterer is no exception. If your event is local, ask around among your friends, family, social circle, and co-workers. In addition to reading the predictably glowing testimonials on the caterer’s website, check online reviews posted on Google, Yelp, WeddingWire, and other review sites as well.

A good caterer will have a reputation which precedes them, as will a bad one. So don’t shy away from looking into their background, asking probing questions, ensuring they have sufficient experience under their belt, and looking out for red flags.

3. Hire Consummate Professionals

Make sure the caterer you’re considering hiring takes their job seriously and puts their most professional foot forward starting with your first contact. Your money and lifelong memories are on the line, so your catering vendor needs to be a company who handles business like a pro.

If the caterer doesn’t respond to your calls in a timely manner, is late for meetings, seems distracted and disorganized, or doesn’t treat you like a valued potential client, listen to your gut and steer clear. The event industry is a high-pressure business and you want to hire vendors who are up for the job. Plus, you will be working closely with the caterer over time, so you should choose someone you like and trust.

To protect yourself. confirm that the catering company has the appropriate paperwork in order, including certifications required by local health departments, proper licensing, and insurance. They should also have clear menus, pricing, and contracts detailing everything which will be covered for your event.

4. Tastefully Done

It should go without saying, but be sure the caterer you’re considering provides taste testing. Don’t allow yourself to be swayed by beautiful photographs, descriptions, and presentations without giving the food a try for yourself.

See if they are willing to adapt to your taste preferences and special requests. Will they use fresh, local, organic ingredients if this is important to you? Are they willing to kick up the spiciness? Hold the onions? Add more sauce? Accommodate dietary restrictions?

Even if the caterer comes highly recommended, it’s important to know in advance if you will be pleased with your selection. If you’ve heard rave revues about their rack of lamb but you want to serve salmon, you might discover their seafood is subpar. Don’t wait too late to try the food or there’s a chance you will be disappointed.

5. Can They Deliver the Goods?

Pulling off a catering event successfully requires significant staff and logistics, so you’ll want to ensure your caterer is able to deliver the goods.

Most importantly, you need to confirm your date is available early on in the process. Also, if the caterer has never worked with your venue before, they should always scope it out carefully far in advance to determine how to prepare.

How far will they need to travel? Will the food be prepared off-site? Does your event venue have a kitchen they will use? Will the caterer need to bring special equipment for on-site prep? How many servers, runners, and bartenders will be needed to take care of your guests?

No matter what their capabilities are, it’s essential to determine whether they are able to meet your expectations.

Overall, many factors come into play when selecting a caterer for your wedding, party, or special event. Don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you need to determine whether or not each vendor you’re considering will be a good fit for your needs, budget, and taste.