Craig Tara Ayers has begun preparing for wedding receptions that will take place in and around Steamboat Springs this summer. Over the next few months, she will meet with potential clients, hammer out dinner menus and make big lists to help her organize the food, the setup and the staff.
Ayers is the catering chef at Creekside Cafe and Grill. The big day for brides and grooms also weighs heavily on the minds of caterers, Ayers said.
"I definitely get that rush off of it," Ayers said. "I'm thinking about that wedding long in advance. It has become a part of my life."
Caterers across the Yampa Valley vow to make that day as big as their clients want.
The cost for food at a wedding reception probably will fall somewhere in the broad range of $12 to $30 per person, depending on a variety of factors. But caterers won't hesitate to go beyond that range and indulge their clients' grandest visions.
Chef Melissa Cartan is part owner of Bluebonnet Catering in Steamboat Springs. Cartan said she would never discourage a bride who had her heart set on a particular dish for her wedding reception.
"It's their day," Cartan said. "If they want it, they got it."
Beth Fischer, of Beth the Chef in Steamboat, said her prices range anywhere from $12 per person to "the sky's the limit."
While caterers don't limit their clients, certain choices are predictable.
Lighter fare is more popular now, according to Josh Lawson, owner of Bad to the Bone BBQ and Grille in Craig.
"We're designing menus around lighter, healthier food, not necessarily less food," Lawson said. "Banquets are incorporating healthy, flavorful foods. They don't need to be boring. You can get creative with herbs and spices."
"We don't do a lot of beef in the summer. It's more fish, chicken and grilled seasonal vegetables."
Ayers just priced out a fresh trout dinner for a summer wedding. She also booked a reception at which fruit, chicken, vegetable and shrimp kabobs will be served.
Some choices might be appetizing, but don't make sense for large gatherings. Crab legs, for instance, require extra utensils and can get messy. "You want food that is easy for guests to eat in a social setting," Cartan said.
Brides are usually conscious of that anyway, Cartan said. They are tuned in to the comfort and convenience of their guests.
"They sit around 24-7 and think about what could happen," Cartan said.
For most couples, the catering menu is the starting point. It can clear up a lot of confusion about the options and the prices.
"It's by no means all that we do," Ayers said, "but it's a good starting point. It's easy to read and it gives them a good idea about what they're getting into."
Customers face a maze of choices.
Creekside's menu lists nearly 80 items, detailing selections for hot and cold appetizers, sandwiches, wraps, salads, entrees with chicken, seafood or beef, potatoes, rice and pastas, as well as vegetables, desserts and even breakfast items.
Aside from the food, numerous other decisions must be made.
Bluebonnet provided examples of menus from weddings it catered last summer. Those menus offer a glimpse of what needs to be decided.
Where will the tables be set up and will there be place cards on them? Who is responsible for trash removal? For an outdoor reception, what is the rain plan? What is the specific timing of the night, in terms of the reception, dinner, toasts and cake cutting? Will the servers pour the champagne?
Luckily, caterers said they advise clients about those issues and walk couples through the process.
Lawson said he can get everything he needs from a client in one or two meetings.
"We can do it pretty quickly and painlessly," he said. "You take the worry and stress out of a wedding when you go with an experienced caterer."
The process might require a longer planning period when clients live out of town, Ayers said.
The menu and the venue also factor into how much planning might need to be done. A reception at a rural ranch will take more time to set up than one at a facility in town, for instance. But before couples get down to the specifics of the day, they need to choose a caterer.
The process of choosing a caterer usually begins with an initial meeting at which the caterer outlines the price ranges and menu choices. Many couples speak to several caterers, who prepare bids or price estimates.
Lawson said he always recommends that his customers ask for bids from several companies.
"All of my clients do approach several caterers," Cartan said.
Although couples may have their hearts set on a date when they begin looking for other services, the date may be determined less by the couple and their wishes than by the availability of caterers, venues and entertainment.
"You need to secure a location first and foremost. No one should get hooked on a date unless they are planning a year or more in advance," Cartan said.
Location can also play into the type of service a caterer recommends. If planning a wedding at a remote location, it may limit a caterer's ability to provide a full-service, sit-down meal.
At a wedding at a ranch last summer, Ayers and her clients opted for a buffet-style dinner.
Another issue to consider is the utensils, plates and cups. Some caterers provide the dishes, while others don't. The cost of renting the service could be as high as the catering bill, Cartan said.