When Nancy Terp set out to help her son, Jonathan, and his bride-to-be plan their 2009 wedding, she had a budget she couldn’t break.

“Like so many people, we had a certain amount we were able to spend, and we wanted something as nice as we could possibly have for a reasonable amount of money — the nicest for what we could afford,” says the Mesa junior high school secretary.

Terp shopped around, finding the best rates on rental china, buying flatware since it was cheaper than renting it, and making homemade centerpieces for the tables with the help of her daughter.

When it came time to find a caterer for the reception, held at The Trailhead Members Club of Las Sendas in Mesa, the Terps turned to MPS Catering Services.

That’s MPS, as in Mesa Public Schools.

“I think a lot of people hear that and have the reaction like, ‘Mesa schools? A school? Ew!’ ” concedes Terp. But, she adds, “We couldn’t have been happier. In fact, my neighbor next door just had a wedding earlier this month, and she used them on our recommendation.”

Learning that a school district offers professional catering services is a surprise to a lot of people, says Lara Weidinger, supervisor of catering for Mesa Public Schools.

“... (B)ut a lot of big school districts do it. It’s economies of scale. We already have the kitchens, the equipment, the staff. Why not take it to the next level?”

At MPS Catering Services, a core catering staff works out of the kitchen at Mesa Education Center. The team supplies boxed lunches, party trays and buffets for school board and administration functions, as well as to clients such as the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, Arizona Museum for Youth and Mesa United Way. They also cater weddings, parties, intimate dinners and other private-party events.

“Our true advantage is our price,” says Weidinger. “We already have a business — feeding the kids — so this is supplemental for us. We’re not looking to cover a bunch of overhead.”

Prix fixe menus range from $6.50 to $9 per person. Most include a salad, entree, two side dishes and bread. All include disposable serveware and tablecloths. Upgrades, such as coordinating china and linens, can be added a la carte.

“We had 125 people, and I think we ended up paying right at $10 or $11 per person,” says Terp. “I really did my research, looking for the best bang for our buck, and other places were at least $20 and $25 a head. We got a good meal and plenty of food, and we didn’t feel shorted in any way, not by any means.”

Sheila Moffitt, MPS’ catering coordinator (and the primary point of contact for every client), says her staff can be as full-service or hands-off as a client needs them to be. Some couples want to craft a menu from an old family recipe. Other clients simply pick up pre-ordered trays of food and are on their way. Some brides request a waitstaff and custom decorations at venues like The Wright House in Mesa, Ashley Manor in Chandler or Shenandoah Mill in Gilbert.

“We are not a gourmet caterer; most of what we do are buffets, and some full-service dinners, but our main job is to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible,” says Moffitt, a former deli manager for Bashas’ grocery stores.

That peace of mind is what Pat and Brian Mandelbaum like best about MPS Catering. The Gilbert couple have called on MPS the past nine years to cater an annual holiday party for Brian’s employees. 

“We usually have appetizers and cocktails, then a sit-down dinner, and we come up with our own menu,” says Pat. “They come here, to our home, and they do all the prep work. They all wear white blouses and black slacks. They even help me with hors d’oeuvres and plasticware for the afterparty, and they do a complete clean up.”

The Mandelbaums also hired MPS to cater their daughter Kimberly’s wedding, held in 2009 in their backyard.

“It came out to about $75 or $80 a person. Considering that they had to bring in everything from chairs to cups to centerpieces, it was reasonable. I don’t know that we really saved a lot — backyard weddings are not as affordable as people think they are — but we looked at a few others, and (my daughter) came back to MPS. She just thought they would do a better job.”

MPS Catering Services has been in business for 23 years, but its name isn’t widely known since there’s no advertising budget. Clients come through word of mouth, and there are sparse reviews online at sites like WeddingWire.com and ProjectWedding.com.

Moffitt says they do about 12 weddings per year.

“It’s just not something most people comprehend right away, the idea of having a school district cater their wedding, but this is what we do, and we can tailor things and have a lot more flexibility than some of your standard caterers,” says Weidinger.

Arrangements for large catering orders should be made a minimum of two weeks in advance. A delivery charge ($30) and some other fees apply for full-service, off-site events. Rentals, such as tables, chairs, linens, floral arrangements and decorations, are available and may be tailored to your event.

MPS Catering Services closes for the month of July.

For information, call (480) 472-1068 or visit www.mpsaz.org/food/catering.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6818 or azajac@evtrib.com

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