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Need help with a 60 person cocktail party on a budget!

My sister's friend who is going to be married is hosting a cocktail party for those who cannot make the wedding, and lucky me my sister volunteered me to cater the event. Don't get me wrong- I love to cook and am totally willing to do it but I'm finding it hard to see eye to eye when it comes to their allotted budget. I remember a Top Chef episode where the contestants somewhat successfully catered a high end 60 person cocktail party for 60 people on $350, but the part of my situation that is somewhat irritating me is the fact that
- the party includes 60 people
- it going to last for 3 hours during the evening when most people would usually eat dinner, which means most likely the food must be substantial enough to serve as a meal
-the budget has to include decorations/ambiance
-the budget moreover is also including all of the drinks!#@*$!

As a result i gave what I thought was a conservative estimate of $10/person, which I thought was actually on the cheaper side, which my sister automatically ruled out as too expensive, so I'm going to have to stay around $400.

Right now the only strategies I can think of so far are:

- leaning towards cheaper proteins: flank steak and chicken thighs instead of breasts for kebabs
- definitely NOT stocking a full bar- I'll most likely have 3 choices of cocktails that I'll make beforehand and shake with ice during the party upon request
- I know for a cocktail party with such a large amount of people one should maybe have around 8-10 different choices but do you think I could save some bucks by limiting the selection down to 5-6?
-This is supposed to be a special event, I know, but I honestly don't think there's a way to reasonably rent or include actual glass/stemware, any utensils or tablecloths. It's definitely going to have to be plastic/disposable drinkware and paper tablecloths
-Luckily I just invested in a lot of outdoor decorations including battery operated lanterns, cafe lights, candles, and a firepit, so most of the decor should be covered
-since I plan on bringing over a portable firepit, I might make a platter for DIY s'mores to offset a possibly small volume of desserts

Any other tips you guys might have to help me out?

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    1. Huh. I've just been reading the meal for $1 / person thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/735189 - you might skim for inspiration.
      deviled eggs or spanish tortilla (an egg choice
      )bites of polenta with a dollop of something on top (a corn choice)
      great dips with bread & crudites (white bean / eggplant / yogurt / chickpea / salsa...)
      Kabobs if you can swing the price
      Something rice based?
      Some form of pasta
      A lentil salad kind of a thing?
      I bet you get some great suggestions!

      2 Replies
      1. re: THewat

        We're talking a cocktail party for 60. I don't think the meal for $1 people are having drinks.

        1. re: escondido123

          No, but once you buy the drinks using that budget, you're down to precious little for food / person. I think the wisdom may carry over: think egg, rice, bean, pasta, corn...

      2. Your sister will do this again and again and think she is doing you a favour if you don't explain the matter to her and ask her to never volunteer you again without discussing it with you first. To be fair, the quote should come with conditions right from the beginning. Oh well, lesson learned for next time...

        I totally agree with your proposed changes. You can also be honest with the couple and say 'due to budget, this is what we're going to have to go with, do you have your own plates, glassware you would like to use instead of disposables?' And you can say, 'these are the choices of alcohol/menu for the budget given (and you can give A & B options for the price point), if you want THIS list (C & D), then you have spend this much more.' I think it's perfectly reasonable to say those things. You aren't telling them they're cheap or taking away from what you can do, you're saying, this is the budget and this is what you get for this price point.

        Also, not quite sure of your menu yet, but I'm pretty sure if you post your thoughts on menu and what you're leaning towards, everyone can chime in with ideas and cost savings. :D I'm not sure of the theme, flavours you're going for, just how casual this will feel, etc.

        2 Replies
        1. re: S_K

          "You can also be honest with the couple and say 'due to budget, this is what we're going to have to go with, do you have your own plates, glassware you would like to use instead of disposables?' And you can say, 'these are the choices of alcohol/menu for the budget given (and you can give A & B options for the price point), if you want THIS list (C & D), then you have spend this much more.' "

          Agree...this is key. Let the bride know what to expect given the budget!

          1. re: S_K

            Agree! You can easily spend $300 on the booze alone. I'd suggest a wine only event with a couple hot and mostly cold hors d"oeuvres. A friend and I once did a $5/head for 150 people --- wraps, dips, cheese and fruit board, Costco brownie bites. Frankly it's an unrealistic budget - don't go into hock for it otherwise they'll ask you again.

          2. I'd consider changing from kabob to satay with the chicken thighs. The thin cut will quickly render the fat and the meat will be great.

            Don't worry about 8-10 options. 5-6 is plenty. I bet you could find a pork butt for a really good price. Braise the crap out of it, shred it, mix it with hoisin sauce, put it in filo cups (you can make a lot of your own filo cups out of one box of filo), top with a sliver of shallot, and that's going to be good and filling. A dollop of garlicky white bean dip served on top of a potato chip is amusing and still elegant, and beans are cheap.

            And for the s'mores, I have fun be allowing people to choose candy bars instead of plain Hershey's. See if you can get Halloween sized Reese's cups, Mounds bars, etc. Should only cost a few bucks, and that way there's enough variety that people feel like it's a special treat.

            1. I used to have to do this sort of event as part of my job years ago with a similar budget. Two things I learned are that, unless they're all hard-core foodies, (A) people want atmosphere more than food at this sort of event, and (B) the appearance of abundance is better and more festive than having limited amounts of more sophisticated stuff to eat.

              My first thought on reading your post is is to ask if there's any way your sister's friend can shift the hours a bit and make it a dessert reception with coffee and a brandy or rum punch. You can pull off something really fabulous for 60 people for $400 that way.

              Otherwise, I'd go with a large spread of mostly cold stuff -- various breads, crackers and cheeses, vegetables and a couple of dips, a lot of colorful fruit -- and I'd spend my energy on just two great hot apps and some killer brownies cut into small elegant little squares (maybe with a little decoration on the top of each). For drinks, I'd keep it really simple, too, --- one special cocktail, a pitcher of gin and tonics with lots of fresh lime and an iced tea or lemonade for non-drinkers. That way really hungry people could put together sandwiches, fruit and dessert, and others could just pick at stuff all evening.

              If you don't have a Cost-Co membership, get someone who does to take you right away and case out what they've got. In addition to being a good place to get fruit, breads and meat for your event, CostCo has a lot of bulk pre-prepared appetizer-y stuff that's cheap and actually tastes quite good. Their frozen mini-quiches, for example, are delicious and could save you lots of time.

              Last, I'd definitely allocate at least $60 for additional table accessories and flowers because I think a beautiful table will be as important as food in this context. Talk to a florist early. If you tell them your dilemma, most good florists can tell you what flowers they can offer you for next to nothing because they'd be thrown out anyway, and it's cheaper if you work your color theme around the flowers rather than trying to do it the other way around. Depending on where you live, someone might even donate arrangements if you offer to lay out business cards and put up a small placard saying 'these gorgeous flowers were provided by so-and-so' . Just one or two really nice arrangements can raise the tone of the whole evening.

              I know all this is probably way more basic food-wise than what you had in mind, but I promise simple, ample and perfect is better than stressed out and fancy with lots of room for disaster.

              Best of luck. I hope it goes off perfectly.

              PS: You might want to let your sister know that National Sister's Day is August 7th, so she can start planning your present now. ; -)

              1 Reply
              1. re: ninrn

                ninrn, I love that last thought!