What’s the Best Way to Serve Food at an Event?
If you are busy deciding what type of food to serve at your next event, you should also be considering how you are going to serve it. With so many options from passed appetizers to buffets to table seating, with everything in between – it is something that should definitely be on your list of things to think about!
As with all event decisions, this is one you need to think about before you start calling venues, caterers, and entertainment providers. There may be benefits to one service style with respect to event themes, networking opportunities, use of space, etc. so a little planning goes a long way.
So, what are your options when choosing service styles? We have come up with 3 main options – as always, there are variations on these but these will definitely give you something to think about and get you going in the right direction:
1 – Passed Appetizers
These are foods that are prepared in a kitchen and then passed on trays by servers. These should consist of easy-to-eat finger foods that are easy to handle and hold up well. Guests should be able to eat them in one to two bites without the use of utensils.
Great For: Networking events such as afternoon receptions and happy hours where guests are expected to circulate and carry on conversation while eating (and potentially holding a drink).
2 – Buffets
There are several types of buffets (which I have outlined below) in which food is available for guests at various tables or “stations” throughout the room or venue. Simple buffet service offers food which is arranged on tables for guests to serve themselves. Drinks are then served tableside by servers. Some variations on this include:
Action Stations – Buffets where chefs prepare and serve foods at the buffet (rather than in a kitchen). Foods that lend themselves well to action stations include wok stations, fajitas, pastas, grilled meats, omelets, sushi, flaming desserts, and the like. These stations may also be referred to as “performance stations” or “exhibition cooking.”
Great For: Events where food is part of the entertainment or where food is used to stimulate conversation among guests. Buffets in general are really good for getting people to circulate and talk to other guests.
Cafeteria Service – Buffets where people line up and walk through the line but do not serve themselves. They are served by chefs or servers from behind the buffet line. This is a good way to control cost and portion size.
Great For: Fancier buffets where you want to have some control over total cost.
Plated Buffets – Pre-plated foods are set on a buffet table or roll-in cart or table. Guests walk through the line and pick up a plated (or boxed, etc.) meal. The roll-in can then be moved from room to room facilitating working/entertainment sessions.
Great For: Working meals or conferences where guests are expected to listen or participate while enjoying lunch, dinner, or snack.
Reception Service – Light foods are served displayed buffet-style on a table. Guests usually stand and serve themselves and normally eat while standing. Finger food works best for this service as guests are often juggling food, drink, and conversation.
Great For: Networking and/or happy hour/cocktail events.
3 – Table Service
This is where seated guests are served food at their tables.
The most common, efficient, and economical way for this to work is called “American style” service in which plates have been pre-prepared and pre-apportioned in the kitchen and then served by servers. In American-style table service, food is served from the left, beverages are served from the right, and used dishes and glasses are removed from the right.
Great For: Weddings, conferences, and other events where there isn’t a lot of choice and the food needs to be served quickly and efficiently.
Other variations on this plated table service are:
Family Style Service – Guests are seated and large serving platters and bowls are filled with foods in the kitchen and set on the tables by servers. Guests then help themselves from a lazy Susan or by passing the foods.
Great For: Events where guests know each other and food is best enjoyed family style. Sometimes guests are hesitant to start the food passing or don’t want to ask for things from people they don’t know BUT, it can also break the ice in groups where people aren’t familiar with each other as they offer food to one another.
Pre-set Service – In this situation, food is already on the dining tables when guests are seated. This works best when food can maintain sanitary and culinary quality when left at room temperature for a period of time. Bread and butter, salads, and dessert are foods which are commonly pre-set as they can sit for a while without affecting the quality of the food.
Great For: Lunches or dinners where guests are encouraged to sit down and wait for a presentation. They can eat their salad or appetizer, the presentation can be delivered, and then the main course can be served American-style.
Hand Service – This highly elegant and personalized service method features one server for every two guests and all guests at a table are served at precisely the same time. Servers wear white gloves and pre-prepared plates are fitted with dome covers which are all removed at the same time. The servers then stand behind their assigned guests throughout the meal to present or remove courses. This is a very elegant service and also can be costly.
Great For: Smaller events where the host wants to impress his or her guests and the food is a big part of the event presentation. Hosts and guests are often very wealthy and expect the most personalized and highest quality of food and service.
The Wave – This quick and dirty method provides service to large numbers of guests very quickly. All servers start at one end of the room and working straight across to the other end. Servers do not have their own work stations but all work together to service the entire event. There is no individualized service.
Great For: Large events where a large number of guests need to be served quickly and efficiently and where individualized service is not important.
Many events can be served by combining some of the service styles listed below. For example, a reception may begin with passed or plated appetizers, move to pre-set salads, and then to plated table service. Each style offers different features and benefits to clients and cost and level of service should be considered when deciding what type of service to offer.
Service styles play an important role in the success of a catered event. A little up front planning can make a big difference!