The Hidden Cost of Donated Food

by Kathryn Schwartz

Early in my auction life, I chaired an event where we got all of the food and beverages donated. No one restaurant would donate the entire meal but we were able to get a contribution from several different locations – appetizers from a tex-mex restaurant, bread from a local bakery, entrees from Greek and Italian restaurants, and desserts from a cheesecake maker and a cookie company. We purchased vegetables from the grocery store and had a volunteer prepare trays to serve with the appetizers. The food was tasty even if it wasn’t cohesive. We had volunteers who displayed and served the food as attractively as possible. We also had volunteers who acted as bartenders with a keg of beer donated by a local microbrewery and cases of wine from a member of the organization who was also a wine distributor. We purchased soda and bottles of water at a warehouse store. The line item for our food budget was really low and it seemed like a great way to save money.

The next year, with me again chairing this organization’s auction, the committee decided to move to a ballroom that required using their in-house catering. We were concerned about the food budget – which did skyrocket – but in reviewing the overall expenses, I was surprised to see we hadn’t spent that much more.

This is because when we had all of the food donated, we had to buy paper plates and napkins, and plastic cups and cutlery. We had also paid a room charge for the venue and had to purchase a permit to serve the beer and wine (as required by the ballroom). Additionally, we had volunteers procure, pick-up, garnish and serve the food and, at the end of the evening, we were responsible for all of the clean-up. Years later I still remember folding up tables and taking out the garbage well after midnight.

It was very different with the catering provided in-house by the business that owned the ballroom space. The first change I noticed was that we were able to redirect volunteer planning efforts from procuring food to procuring items to auction. At the event, the all of the tableware (real china, glass and flatware!), linens, wait staff and bartenders were included, saving us money and giving our event a more elegant feel. The venue waived the room charge because we were a nonprofit organization, and with their professional bartenders we didn’t need to get a liquor permit. And at the end of the evening the venue staff swept the floors, put the tables away and emptied the garbage while auction team loaded their cars.

Having a caterer was worth what it cost – and looking at the big picture, it didn’t cost that much more. I’ve come to believe that it is better to save money by being direct when talking to your caterer about your budget, and to ask for ideas to help keep costs down.

One place you can save money without a lot of extra work is get donated wine and/or beer to serve. First ask the caterer, whether in-house or not, if you can bring in donate wine or beer. You may be charged a fee to uncork the wine, open the beer or tap the keg, but this should be significantly less than it would cost to buy the beverages from them.