Feast Budget -Or- Calculating the Costs of the Feast

You have bit the bullet. You have submitted a feast bid, and have been chosen to put together the feast! Congrats!!! Even before you were given the bid, you were probably given some numbers that included the expected budgeted funds and the number of diners you were expected to feed.  Before we go into the budget and calculating the cost of the feast, let's talk about the expected number of diners.

Many times the number of diners you are given will not be easily divisible by the number of servings per table (usually 6 or 8). This can create a potential problem when it comes to serving your food at feast.  So please be sure to find out from the individual who is hosting the event how many diner's are expected to sit "per table" before you discuss budget. Most SCA feasts will expect tables of 8 diners,so the numbers of diners  you will be expecting to feed should be easily divisible by 8.
Budget $400
Expected number of diners: 60
Number of seats per table: 8
Cost per diner: $8.00 
Question: Does the number of expected diners include or exclude head table?  How many diners are you expecting at head table?

Using the example above, and assuming that number includes 8 seats for head table.  The expected number of tables that you will be cooking for is 7 1/2.  A half table? 😕

One of the tables that will be seated will only have four diners. This means it will only need half the amount of servings of food then the other 7 tables. To avoid this dilemma, you should ask the autocrat, or the person you are in contact with regarding the feast, to either increase -or- decrease the number of diners you are expected to serve.   By increasing or decreasing the number of diners to a number that is easily divisible by the number of seats per table, serving will be a breeze. There is no need to calculate for half a table, nor is there a need to worry about the half servings going out to the wrong table.

When do you calculate the cost of your feast? How do you calculate your costs, and what numbers do you need? What happens if you are over budget? Is there a way to offer the feast you want without sacrificing the menu?

Before you submit the bid it is always a good idea to do a preliminary cost analysis so that you have a rough of idea on what you will be spending. However, once you have been given the bid, you will want a much better set of numbers. Remember, at this point the menu proposed will not be the "finalized" menu.

My preference is to calculate my numbers after I have expanded the recipes and know what I need.  At this point in time my menu's are usually very fluid and are not concrete.  There are two numbers I rely on at this point to make sure I stay within budget; the cost per table and the cost per person. With these two numbers I have an easy way to check if  a specific dish will be within or out of budget.

Helpful hint:  When calculating costs, it is important to remember that approximately 25-30% of your budget will be items that are -not- food related.These items may include; serving plates, or serving ware, trash bags, first aid kits, kitchen timer's and thermometers, storage bags, aluminium foil, plastic wrap, dish washing liquid  etc.  which are not food items, but necessary to a successful feast.

At this point I have a rough idea of what I want to serve on the menu.  Menu planning is a class in and of itself so I won't be discussing it here. In order co calculate my cost per table and my cost per person, I want a detailed list of my grocery items, including non food items.  I always round up to the next available whole and I -always- calculate the cost of the items I intend to purchase at the full, not the sales, cost.

Ideally, when preparing a feast  there is at least two months lead time. Many vendors are happy to donate items to a NPO--but many require at least a six week lead time to get approval from home office.  The more lead time, the more availability of donated or discounted goods, the more you can offer on the menu.

Why do I calculate a cost per table and a cost per person? Some items, like bread, are easier to calculate on a per table basis.  I usually plan for 1 1/2 loaves of bread per table.  In our scenario above, 12 loaves of bread will be enough to feed the diners.  Other items, like meat are easier to calculate on a "per person" basis.  Roughly 4-6 ounces of meat, per course per diner is the usual allotment. To feed 64 diner's roasted pork in the second or third course, I would need roughly 16 pounds of roast pork, divided into two pound portions. 

Once I know I am within budget, I can finalize the menu, post it at least four weeks prior to the event, set clear expectations on a cut off date (usually two weeks prior to the event) for special accommodation requests, and post an allergen chart. Now the fun begins, purchasing the grocery items--take advantage of the sales, bogo's, donations and mark downs!

If you find that you are over budget and you don't want to sacrifice your menu there are ways that you can fall back into budget.  As mentioned above, sales are a good way to stay under budget, as are donations from organizations willing to donate to NPO's.  Another tip is to look within the menu for things you may have budgeted for but can make yourself.  For example, bread crumbs made from bread purchased on the mark down bin, or stocks that you make yourself. 

I often find myself planning ahead with an eye towards "the next feast".  Occasionally I have purchased items seasonally, prepared them and then served them later in the year at an event.  Examples of such items include vegetables or fruit bought in seasoned, prepared and then frozen or canned towards a future event.  A lot of dishes that are preserved get better with time. I have also purchased premium meats seasonally or on sale and kept them frozen with an eye towards the future event.

I have also donated items to an event.  I enjoy making jellies, pickles, fruit pastes, candies and comfits.  I find them relaxing past times and they make great gifts for family, friends, co-workers.  I almost always have some on hand.  I like rounding out my dessert course with a selection of sweets.

If all else fails, tweak the menu.  Remember that pork roast? There are times when pork roast can be cost prohibitive.  However, pair that pork roast (chunked or sliced) with meatballs made from ground beef, and you can use less pork per table then you expected to. Serving a high end cheese at the end of the meal, which was done in period, rather then at the beginning is also a budget saving strategy.  People will eat less of a premium item at the end of the meal then they will at the beginning. How you serve an item is as important as what you serve. Items that are pre sliced, or chunked look like there is more there then an item served uncut. Look at it--if it looks like it is enough, given it's placement in the meal, it probably is.

Cost per table: Budget/# of tables
Cost per person: Budget/# of diners 
Number of tables: Diners/Number of seats  
Number of servings: Number of Tables + Kitchen + Servers + head table 
Number of Diners should be divisible by Number of Seats per Table