Catering Equipment Shopping List

There are certain multipurpose products on the market that virtually every caterer knows and loves.

Bus Pans

Everyone in the food business relies on these heavy plastic receptacles to collect dirty dishes. They are cheap, strong, and incredibly versatile. They can be used to organize materials, carry things, and mix and store very large batches of food. Bus pans cost approximately $5–$10 each and last forever.


Bus pans come in a few different colors, but black and gray are the most common. You don't want to draw attention to your bus pans; they aren't the most beautiful pieces of equipment. Their sheer utility is what makes them obligatory serving tools for every caterer.

Label your bus pans. Keep new, clean ones for mixing food. Use older bus pans to carry supplies and to collect trash from guests. Staff can collect trash and used plates from guests and put them in bus pans placed discreetly behind the bar or in other out-of-the-way places.

Hotel Pans

Hotel pans, especially disposable aluminum half hotel pans with lids, are indispensable kitchen tools.

They stack well, especially if they are full of frozen food and are staggered. You can buy perforated hotel pans for foods that need to be kept cool; simply place them in a larger hotel pan filled with ice. At a cost of about $1 each, hotel pans will be your best friend.


Hotel pans are a “gift from God for caterers,” say Philadelphia food professionals Robert Weinberg and Eric Matzke. They are the perfect size for ovens and freezers, as well as for commercial equipment. They can be used to mix, cook, cool, reheat, and serve food.

Chafing Dishes

Chafing dishes tend to look institutional, but they're still the best way to keep food hot during meal service. Chafing dishes come in a variety of styles and finishes. Some are designed for fancier dining rooms, while others are meant for cafeterias. Consequently, the cost of reusable chafing pans varies greatly depending on how delicate they are.

It's critical to fill the chafers with warm or hot water or it will take forever to heat the water using the Sterno flame, which is only designed to keep the water warm. The same rule applies to food; it's got to be hot to start with or the chafers will never get it up to temperature.

Disposable chafer pans come in sets with half hotel pans, the pans for heating water underneath, and a rack that holds everything plus some utensils and some Sterno. A disposable set will run around $20.

Many of today's high-end caterers have stopped using chafers and elegantly plate food in the kitchen and have staff serve guests off of platters. Discuss the use of chafing dishes with your host. Some expect that you'll use a couple of chafing dishes, while others will demand that they not be used.

Insulated Camcarriers

Camcarriers made by Cambro Manufacturing are portable plastic boxes made to fit hotel pans and keep them hot for hours. This is a great alternative to an extra oven. Many caterers will cook or reheat food in smaller batches in their oven and then place the hot food in hotel pans into the Camcarrier to keep the food hot until it is needed. These carriers aren't cheap, but you can purchase them from almost any food service supply company.


Camcarriers are designed to transport food and keep it hot enough to stay out of the “danger zone” (40–140ºF), at which dangerous bacteria can grow. Their sturdy construction allows them to retain constant temperatures for hours so your food won't cool down.

Camcarriers are a lifesaver if you're catering in a space that's far away from the kitchen. Keep the carriers stocked with hot food in your prep or staging area, and you'll have enough hot food for your guests all night long. Stockpots and Bowls Buy at least one extra-large stockpot and a couple of big stainless steel bowls. You can use the stockpot for everything from the mundane (cooking vast quantities of pasta) to the less routine (boiling whole chickens). Huge stainless bowls are great for mixing large batches of wet or dry ingredients and beating or whipping batters or eggs. Since they are nonreactive, you can use them for almost everything.

Portable Propane Cooking Burners

Every caterer and personal chef should have at least one portable table-top burner that runs on propane. These units come in handy for cooking demonstrations and omelet or other sauté stations at events. They can also be used to cook food if you're somewhere without electricity. These units will last on a single propane cartridge for approximately forty-five minutes of continual use or for several hours of intermittent use.

Plastic Containers

Invest in some clear, covered, plastic containers that can hold items you need as you take them with you from job to job. Have one container for dry grocery items like baking powder, flour, spices, and rice. Designate another container for utensils like tongs, spatulas, mixing spoons, and measuring cups. A third container can hold flavor extracts, olive oil, and other wet ingredients. Rubbermaid sells strong all-purpose containers, and they're widely available at stores like Wal-Mart and Target.

Glassware, Plates, and Silverware

Outsource special requests from clients like patterned dinnerware or colored glassware. However, rather than renting and rerenting the same glassware, dishes, and flatware over and over again, it may make sense for you to purchase a basic set of each, store it, and charge your clients a rental fee. Since you'll be providing the same services as a rental company, you should charge your clients the same fee a rental company would for buying, storing, and washing the tableware.


Inexpensive but adequate-quality dishes, flatware, and glassware can be purchased at stores like Ikea and Target and from restaurant suppliers. If your average party size is 50–100 people, buy enough for 110 place settings to allow for breakage and items discarded by mistake.

Buy solid white dinner plates, bowls, and dessert/bread and butter plates. Choose machine-washable china that will not scratch or chip easily. Buy water glasses and wine glasses in a traditional stem shape. Riedel sells classic stemware for wine and wine tastings. Similar but less expensive glasses can be found at Crate and Barrel stores and online at, as well as from food-service suppliers.

Purchase flatware with a simple, classic design that is easy for both men and women to hold. If your hands are rather small, have a burly friend of yours test several different patterns. The same goes if you have large hands; invite a petite friend to try out your top flatware choices. Make sure the flatware won't easily bend. It doesn't make sense to eat great food with cheap silverware.

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