Ask the Expert| Kate Vilter: The Riverside Inn

Brian Confer Photography

Although the busy wedding season in Northern Michigan is upon us, I recently had a chance to talk weddings with Innkeeper, Restaurateur and Caterer extraordinaire Kate Vilter, Owner of the Riverside Inn in Leland, Michigan. She lends us her advice to assist in the wedding planning process. Enjoy!

How long have you been in the restaurant industry? What attracted you to it in the first place?

I have been in the restaurant industry since I was 13 years old.  Ironically,  my first job was as a breakfast waitress at The Riverside Inn when Kevin & Sue Burns owned it.

Your facility is a gorgeous historic inn which houses quaint rooms and a beautiful restaurant right on the Leland River. What are the challenges you face running an inn, an award-winning restaurant and a spectacular off-site catering operation simultaneously?

The biggest challenge in doing all three is time!  We need to have someone at the inn taking care of guests by 7am, and the restaurant closes at 11pm.  We are 7 days a week for the entire summer.  Taking staff off-site for catering really challenges the restaurant, which is why we do not cater every weekend all summer long.  It just isn't possible to keep everything running if we are catering every weekend.  So, we do have to limit our off-premise events – the restaurant and inn need our attention too much.

In your experience, what is the most important role of the innkeeper? the restauranteur (in this case venue manager)? the caterer?

For all three, it is really making sure the guest feel comfortable.  For the innkeeper, that means that their rooms are spotless, beds are really comfortable, and they have a pleasant person to speak with about the area while having cocktails in the afternoon or coffee in the morning.  For the venue manager, we want the guests to love the beauty of our location, but also to feel comfortable.  This means that they can find their tables easily, have plenty of staff to serve them, and of course, enjoy the food and drink.  For the caterer, the most important thing is thorough pre-planning and staffing.  I always want to make sure their are plenty of staff on hand so that the guests are not waiting for cocktails, the food is served quickly (while it is hot!), and so that if any issue should arise for the host or coordinator – that we can easily help.  Planning ahead for issues such as rain, or time delays, knowing where we can get additional ice or any such thing is really important.

When you are working with engaged couples to create the perfect event, where do you start?

I always start with the question – what is your vision of your perfect wedding reception?  This gives me an idea of what part of the reception is most important to them.  Each couple will have something that has the most priority.  Some may feel the music and dancing is most important.  For others, it is the food and wine.  And for many it is the décor.  Of course, everyone wants all three to be great, but there is usually one item that you realize is the most important.  In these initial discussion, I can find out a lot about how they envision their event, and then I can start to work on a menu that is appropriate for their style.

Brides can become overwhelmed with the nuance involved in a wedding and how this relates to the guest experience.What, in your opinion, are the most important details from a wedding guest perspective? The least?

If you read the magazines and are on various wedding web sites – it can be overwhelming!  From welcome bags at hotels, events for the entire weekend, favors, photo booths, parasols, baskets of flip flops, favors, specialty cocktails.  It goes on and on.  And yes, some are great, but others are just a great photo.  The most important things really are making sure there is a comfortable space for people to enjoy themselves throughout the evening.  This means, plenty of tables for people to place their glass while they talk and eat.  Areas where they can sit down if they need to do so (out of the hot sun), and places for people to watch the dancing – in case they don't feel like participating.

I know your catering and restaurant chefs focus on the use of local and seasonal ingredients. How do you approach building a menu, and how does the use of local foods affect this process?

We do try to use as many local products as we can.  This supports local families, and it brings the best quality food to our guests.  In some respects, this can be easy.  Cheeses, dairy and eggs, and some proteins we can obtain locally throughout the year.  The vegetables and fruits are where you really see the affect of a the season.  Summer and fall are great for us with menu planning as there is such an abundance of produce.  Winter and early spring can be more challenging.  While we try to use local products as much as possible, if a client has a specific menu in mind, we certainly do not force our vision on them!

How do you determine staffing needs?

It depends on the venue (is everything in a fairly compact area?), the menu (is it buffet or plated? How many courses?), and the bar set up (full bar or wine & beer only?  And how many bar stations will there be?)  All of these things affect how many staff I will need.

Your wine expertise is vast. What is your advice to engaged couples on how to select the proper wines for an event?

My ideal is usually 4 still wines and one sparkling.  I usually suggest having one lighter white such as a pinot gris or sauvignon blanc and then a richer white such as a chardonnay.  The same works for red – a lighter style such as a pinot noir and then a heartier one such as a malbec, cabernet, or syrah.  I always suggest having a sparkling wine, even if it not being used for the toast.  Some people really do love their bubbles.  If it isn't being used for the toast, you won't need much, but it is a nice thing to have on hand.

I always suggest using our local wineries for their terrific sparkling wines, pinot gris, rieslings, and chardonnay.  It is what we do best in our area, and it is a great way to introduce a local product to your out of town guests.  Plus, wine tasting at the local tasting rooms is a fun part of the wedding planning process!

What is the single most important piece of information you can give to engaged couples?

Plan ahead for weather problems!  And then the biggest one, either hire professional coordinators or have 2 friends who can be point people for the entire weekend. If you do not have at least one person who knows the plans for all the events happening, you will not be able to enjoy your wedding weekend.  While you are having a manicure/pedicure – do you really want to be fielding phone calls about where the cake table is supposed to be placed?