Feeding People

Famished in the name of love


A wedding planner dishes on why the cocktail party wedding can be a very bad idea

Google worst wedding ever and you will find it’s always about the food. Bad food, not enough food, no food. Not the decor, nor venue, not even the bride’s dress. I know this is true as I lived through one of the worst catering nightmares ever.

The thought of it still makes me cringe. It was early in my career, I was working at a four star hotel and it was all my fault.

They were a lovely young couple and their parents were paying for the wedding. They wanted a cocktail party with a few hors d’oeuvres, drinks and dancing, primarily because their budget wouldn’t accommodate a sit-down dinner for the number of guests they wanted to have. The ceremony was to start at 7:30pm, with the party to follow.

Right away I was concerned about people being hungry for dinner over that time period, but they assured me they had put the words “cocktail” and “hors d’oeuvres” on the invitation and that everyone would get the gist. They budgeted for six pieces of hors d’oeuvres per person and wedding cake. I expressed my point of view politely, managing to get them up to seven pieces per person. Due to my lack of experience (and confidence) at the time, I let it go at that and thought it would be fine. After all, their invitation was clear, and as they were not worrying about it, why should I?

Cut to mid-party: no food, clearly hungry unhappy guests, a horrified father of the bride saying; “Get anything, please, we’ll pay!”
The kitchen team did what they could but it was too little too late to save the party. Most guests had left by then. The lack of food had unfortunately killed the whole event.

Twenty years later, as an event planner with many great parties under my belt, I still shudder at the idea of a cocktail party-style wedding. Not an actual two-three hour cocktail party that runs from 5-8pm, but an event serving only hors d’oeuvres that runs over the dinner period into the night. I am starting to think most people who desire this style of event have seen too many weddings on soap operas: guests with champagne glasses in hand happily mingling, not eating.

Only on TV. People expect to be fed.

No Food, No Fun
I have actually lost a few potential clients because of speaking up on this issue.

Like this couple: the wedding was going to be on New Year’s Eve at a swanky venue. They wanted to have a party with hors d’oeuvres, not a stuffy dinner. But when they shared their budget, I recommended more of it be put towards food. Not happy with that advice, they booked someone else to plan their wedding. Later, guests I knew who had attended said it had been a complete disaster with over half of the guests leaving before 11pm. On New Year’s Eve! How sad.

Lesson learned: Hungry guests are not joyful nor do they party down.

Know Your Guests
Another big mistake people make is they don’t consider the guest list. Is everyone under 30? Or are there some oldsters who will probably want to sit at some point, especially during speeches?

I did a second wedding with a couple in their forties. They really wanted everyone to mingle and insisted on not having enough seats for everyone, as the assumption was people would sometimes sit and sometimes stand. They did have the budget for plenty of food, so my concerns were assuaged on this point.

However, another important part of the program for this couple was the speeches. Let me just say they had some things to say! Forty-five minutes of speeches later, guests were visibly uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot, listening while balancing a plate and glass. They just wanted to sit down. You could feel the energy in the room dissipate, guests weary from standing and eating, then cranky from standing and listening. When that happens, you see the life go out of their eyes; they lose the mood to party and just want to go home. Which is what happened, with only a third staying to dance, which was a shame as we had a really great DJ.

It can work: I had a couple who loved to dance and wanted a rocking reception- style party with seating for most of the group (we had whittled speeches down to just three two-minute toasts). They had the budget and the guest list for it, so it all worked out well for them.

Having Hors D’oeuvres for Dinner is Expensive
If you want a cocktail party for your wedding, keep in mind that it actually is more expensive than a sit-down dinner. Hors d’oeuvres are extremely labour intensive and made with expensive ingredients—you get less overall food for your money.

Plan the Style of Event Based on What You Can Afford
If it is a budget issue, you can have an inexpensive wedding and still feed everyone, but you need to make food and beverage number one: it should be 40 per cent or more of your overall budget. Expect to show up on the wedding disaster forums if you book the most expensive venue in town and spend big on the décor, the flowers and the dress, but not the food. There is nothing unhappier than a hungry guest who knows the bride spent $5,000 on her designer gown and scrimped on the food.

I have successfully helped friends of mine who were struggling artists plan great weddings events on a budget. For a wedding in a hall we ordered Indian food, with gelato and seasonal berries for dessert—a total hit. Another was in a tent, with burgers, potato salad and wedding cake. Guests loved it and it suited the charming backyard feel of the party. Way back when, most weddings just served cake and punch in the afternoon, which can be delightful. Other options are brunch weddings or afternoon garden parties. Don’t go overboard on your budget if you can’t afford it; your guests are happy to be a part of your day as long as you have managed their expectations and not invited them for a full evening party with not enough food to eat or places to sit.

Heed Expert Advice
If the idea of an evening cocktail party- style wedding still appeals to you, really consider your budget and your guests’ comfort before you opt for this style of event. Proceed with my cautionary experiences in mind and above all, listen to your catering and event manager. They have the experience, have lived through the disasters and have your best interests at heart. Unless, of course, you are the producer of One Life to Live.

Shell Albert is an accomplished event and wedding designer who has worked throughout Canada, United States and Europe. Her events have been featured in Wedluxe, Wedding Bells, Elegant Bride and Style Me Pretty.