Catering Equipment Checklist for Big and Small Parties

Don't be caught short without these items—and what to do if you are

Woman preparing cupcakes in kitchen
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Some people have nightmares about showing up at work naked. Caterers have nightmares about showing up to a wedding reception without forks. 

You have to be extremely organized to successfully cater any type of function, whether it's a large reception or a simple business luncheon. Lots of items can be overlooked in the rush to get out the door, such as salt and pepper shakers, cocktail napkins—and yes, even steak knives or forks.

This list should help you sleep better at night if you're in the catering business. It includes everything you'll need to cater both large and small functions. You might have a few more items you'll want to add based on the quirks of your own business or your personal preferences.

Table Settings

At a minimum, you'll need dinner plates, bread plates, and salad plates if you're catering a sit-down meal. Will you be serving a soup course? Add soup bowls.

You'll need water glasses and wine glasses if wine is being served, coffee cups with saucers, and utensils. It's always a good idea to have extra utensils on hand.

You're not going to place all this on a bare table, so don't forget tablecloths, napkins, and centerpieces. Include the little extras like salt and pepper, sugar, and butter in attractive settings or holders.

Serving Equipment

You'll have to get your wonderfully prepared food and drink to those seated guests, so don't forget serving trays, bus tubs, and water pitchers. In fact, you'll want extra bus tubs to hold those dirty dishes after each serving has been cleared.

Buffet Equipment

You'll need the same items if you're serving a buffet, but placement will be different and you'll require a few extras on hand. It's more common for items to be inadvertently dropped or broken in a buffet setting.

For example, the silverware can be placed in rolls. You'll additionally need chafing dishes and fuel cells to keep the chafing dishes going. These cells will require a lighter or matches to get them started. You'll need tongs and large spoons for serving, as well as at least one sharp knife. That turkey, ham, or roast beef will require a cutting board, and make sure you have something tucked away nearby to clean up any messes on the spot. And don't forget that buffet tables need decorations, too.

Coffee/Beverage Station

A coffee or other beverage station will require much of its own equipment, including air-pots for coffee, decaf backups for those who don't want to consume caffeine, and a source of hot water. Iced tubs for cold drinks are important, and you'll need an assortment of glasses and coffee cups or mugs here as well. Add a variety of teas and cocoa, and sugar and dairy packets.

A tidy wastebasket somewhere nearby for guests to toss their trash is a great touch and makes cleanup a lot easier for your staff.

Additional Items

You'll need a whole list of practical equipment for off-premise catering as well. You'll most likely need a Cambro or some other type of insulated container to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold whether you're serving indoors or out. A cooler can be a cost-saving alternative for cold foods.

Take along garbage bags to hold dirty linens and disposable containers for food storage. You—or the guests—might want to take leftovers. That cooler will come in handy here as well. Don't forget plastic wrap, tin foil, hand sanitizer, paper towels, disposable bags to cart off trash and garbage.

How Many and How Much?

One of the most common pitfalls involved in catering is taking your customer's word for it about how many mouths you're going to feed. In many cases, they'll give you numbers before all their RSVPs are accounted for. It's always better to have too much of everything on hand than to run out at a critical time.

You Have a List—Now What to Do With It?

Keep the list in your event-planning book and be sure to show it to all staff who are helping you with the function. You might even want to make multiple copies so that everyone can check items off as they're preparing to load up.

When you've scheduled your next event, you can check items off as your staff heads out your door and begins loading everything into your van. Have everyone mark off those items for which they're personally responsible. Then have everyone compare their copies to make sure everything is in place. It might take a few extra minutes, but it will save you a lot of heartburn later.

Even better, invest in a caterer's app. Several are available to choose from for smartphones and tablets. Everyone can literally be on the same page at the same time on their own devices.

Worst-Case Scenario

Despite all your preparation, you've forgotten something. If you're really lucky, the function is taking place nearby your restaurant or catering kitchen. You can send someone to dash back and grab whatever you need and no one will ever be the wiser.

If you're just a little bit lucky, you might be able to run out and buy the missing pieces at a local Walmart or Target. But if you're just plain unlucky, you'll have to make up a convincing story about how nobody uses steak knives anymore and that it's perfectly OK to use a butter knife instead. The guests will at least have to wonder if that's true.

This list might seem daunting, but catering gives you the opportunity to wade into the restaurant business without first making a huge investment. For those who already own a restaurant, catering services offer a way to boost sales and expand your customer base. In either case, it helps immeasurably to be prepared.