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Your Position: Home - Furniture - How does buffet service work?

How does buffet service work?

Buffet style service is one of the most common ways to serve a meal at any event, especially for larger groups. This arrangement allows guests to pick and choose from a variety of food options, and even offers the opportunity for seconds (and thirds if there is enough left over), leaving everyone satisfied.


The History of the Buffet Table


The idea of a buffet table is thought to have originated as far back as the 19th century, when a lighter “supper” was served late at night during grand balls – long after the main course had been served. These late-night meals were often served in a “buffet” style, since not all guests would indulge in the late night snack, and allowed those who did want to eat to do so at their leisure.


Types of Buffet Tables


It is safe to say that pretty much anything goes when it comes to the style of buffet service; they can range from very simple to very elaborate. A traditional buffet often consists of long tables, end to end, with plates and silverware at one end and people in a line. In some cases, there are servers on one side of the buffet tables, while some are self-serve, and may be one or two-sided. While these sorts of buffets are still fairly common, it is not what we typically see at more upscale events.

What we see more of today (especially at upscale events and weddings) are “station buffets”; these buffets often have staff behind them to serve, but not always. Instead of a typical buffet, which has an entire meal on one long table, the stations usually have one type of food. There may be a carving station with ham, turkey, and/or roast beef, or a sushi station, or a taco station (which would probably be self-serve), a salad station, a dessert station, a make your own sundae station, a beverage station, etc. (We’ve even seen a baked potato station where you can load a baked potato with all sorts of toppings).

For outdoor events, there is often a grilling station where people can get something right off of the grill. With station buffets, people are encouraged to “graze”, typically starting at one station, then moving on to other stations. Some people go to one station at a time while others may get food from several stations before they sit down to eat; this is the great thing about buffet stations – there are no rules!

Station buffets are nice for a number of reasons; there typically are not any long lines, and people can choose the sort of food they want in the order in which they want it. The station buffets are spread out around the event space, which encourages people to get up and move throughout the space; it’s very casual and informal.

Unlike a traditional buffet, station buffets often use a variety of shapes and sizes of tables. We often see a large round table set up as an antipasto table, or a salad station. A carving station or a sushi station may be set up using banquet tables in a “U” shape or an “L” shape, or possibly a combination of serpentine tables (1/4 round) and banquet tables.



Why Choose a Buffet Table for Your Event?


Buffet tables are a convenient and efficient method of serving food to a large number of guests. Because all guests are offered the same selection, large quantities of each dish can be prepared in advance. Buffet style service eliminates the extra work of receiving meal selections, and making sure the right meal arrives to the correct person during the event.

In terms of cost, there often isn’t much difference in cost between a seated (served) dinner and a buffet. The served dinner usually requires more staff, however, the buffet style dinner requires more food, as you can’t know in advance how much of any one dish you are going to need. As a result, you need to prepare more of everything so you don’t run out.


How to Set Up Buffet Service


Now that you’ve chosen a buffet style service, it’s time to consider how you’ll set it up.

  • Consider ease of use. The easier your tables are to navigate, the more efficiently your guests will move through them. As you set up the tables, consider the foods that will be served. Make sure there will be space for guests to put their plates down as needed along the way. Be sure all containers have been opened and serving utensils are obvious – and be sure to pre-cut meats, desserts, and anything else that may require it. In most cases, guests should not have to pickup silverware or napkins at the buffet stations; usually the only thing they need to pickup at the buffet is a plate, and sometimes, a fork; the size and style of the plates, and the forks, may vary at each station, based on the type of food on that station. In some cases, the silverware will be at each place at the dinner tables, along with a napkin.
  • Get organized. When setting up a traditional buffet, be practical about where you place items on the buffet. Plates and silverware should be at the beginning along with salads and appetizers. Sides and the main course should follow, and then desserts should come last. In fact, we suggest having a separate dessert or cookie table, especially if dessert will be enjoyed at a later time. Condiments should either be placed near the foods they accompany, or at the end where guests can dress their foods as they wish.
  • Make it presentable. Décor can go a long way in making your table look put together. Beautiful linens and centerpiece(s) will add interest, while chafing dishes will keep food warm. Heat lamps, soup kettles, and coordinating serving utensils are both functional and add a professional element to your buffet table.


Looking for some buffet table inspiration? Check out our gallery, here.

Buffet-style food service has long been a staple of wedding receptions, and for good reason: It’s an economical and efficient way to feed a lot of guests with different dietary preferences at once. But in the age of socially distant weddings, certain changes will need to happen to ensure the safety of both event guests and catering staff.

What Is a Buffet-Style Reception?

A buffet-style reception features one menu that is set up on a large table in one area. This differs from a station-style reception, which will feature multiple menu concepts scattered at multiple displays.

We talked with catering industry experts Ro Cantrell of Cantrell Occasions and Leila Miller of Constellation Culinary to gather everything you need to know about hosting a buffet-style wedding reception. 

Meet the Expert

  • Chef Ro Cantrell is the founder and lead chef of Atlanta, GA catering company Cantrell Occasions. He is a member of the National Personal & Private Chef Association and the American Culinary Federation. 
  • Leila Miller is a Philadelphia, PA-based senior director of sales for Constellation Culinary. Miller has over 20 years of experience in the event industry and specializes in weddings, mitzvahs, and social events.

Buffet-Style Wedding Reception Cost

When it comes to the most common forms of event catering, buffet-style is typically a more affordable option than plated, station, or family-style. “With plated, you have to hire more staff to take orders and carry plates out to guests,” says Cantrell. “With a buffet, you might need half the amount of people to serve food.” In addition to requiring more staff, Miller notes that station-style and family-style catering also typically require more equipment and serveware to pull off, which further ups the pricing.

For Cantrell Occasions, the cost per person for a basic buffet-style reception typically falls within the $16 to $19 range, but pricing can vary widely based on menu selection and the addition of other services, such as passed appetizers during cocktail hour. For Constellation, Miller says that buffets typically start at $165 per person.

Pros and Cons of a Buffet-Style Wedding Reception


  • Informality. A sit-down, multi-course plated meal conveys a certain level of formality at a wedding. If yours will be a more casual affair, a buffet-style meal will add to the vibe. This is especially true if you aren’t interested in assigned seating for your event. With a buffet, guests can feel free to mingle, hit the bar, and fill their plate at their own pace. 
  • Flexibility. A buffet gives guests the freedom to make their own plates according to their own preferences. Added bonus: Vegetarians and vegans can skip meat dishes and fill up on accompaniments like truffle mushroom risotto and farro salad without having to put in a special request for an alternative meal. 


  • Longer wait times. Waiting for your table to be called up and for others to serve themselves can mean it’ll take longer for guests to get their food. To ease bottlenecks, Miller prefers to set up double-sided buffets, so twice the amount of people can build their plate at the same time. 
  • Abundance. This is both a pro and a con of buffet weddings. Guests that require more food will leave your wedding feeling satiated, but that also means more food will be prepared in general. “With [a plated dinner], if guests RSVPed then I know the amount of food I need,” says Cantrell. “With a buffet, we have to prepare more than enough.” That can lead to excess food waste, but as you’ll see below, there are ways to mitigate that.

Buffet-Style Wedding Reception FAQs

How can I minimize waste?

There are several ways! For more intimate affairs, Cantrell likes to introduce takeout containers so guests can depart with leftovers. “When things are starting to wind down and everyone is full, we’ll make the announcement,” he says. Cantrell has also worked with Atlanta-based organizations (Goodr is especially well-known in the city) to pick up leftover food and redistribute it to homeless families. 

Food donations do come with specific requirements: “Once something is out for a certain amount of time or passes through a certain amount of hands, it’s not food safe,” explains Miller. So caterers have also started composting dishes they are not able to donate.

What foods work well for buffets? What foods don’t? 

“Dishes that have a lot of moisture are good for buffets,” says Cantrell. “Shrimp and grits, chicken with gravy—dark meat holds better than breast—and things with sauces, like meatballs, can handle a beating of heat.” Chafing dishes—metal pans that use an outer layer of hot water to keep food warm—are a staple of buffet lines, but they can dry out foods like salmon and broccoli when they aren’t served in a broth. Per Miller, a buffet menu typically includes salad, bread, two proteins, and accompaniments. The accompaniments, or sides, are often a combination of veggies, starches, and grains selected to complement the main proteins.

How many buffet tables will my event need? 

Miller plans for one buffet table for every 50 guests to keep things moving efficiently. Wherever possible, the buffet tables should be double-sided. Events with a large guest count may include more than one buffet table, but all of the buffets will feature the same dishes.

How should guests get their plates and utensils? 

Miller prefers to stack plates at the beginning of the buffet line rather than setting them out on tables. “It’s annoying to go to your table and then go to the buffet,” she says. However, if you are hosting a socially distant wedding, plates will likely be filled with food and distributed directly to guests. Expect flatware to be rolled up in napkins and picked up individually as well.

How Buffet Service Will Change

“All [Constellation] buffets will be chef attended, and there will be plexi screens,” says Miller. Constellation is also making changes to the seated parts of a buffet reception: Butter, cream, sugar, salt, and pepper will be available upon request in single-use servings, and when water is pre-poured, it may be set with a protective lid.

Constellation has also added several additional health and safety procedures to their event playbook. Staff will have their temperatures checked upon arrival and will wear masks and gloves throughout the event. Timers will direct event staff to wash their hands every thirty minutes, multiple hand sanitizing stations will be placed throughout kitchen facilities, and high-contact surfaces will be regularly disinfected using CDC-recommended cleaning solutions. Each event will have a designated “Safety Champion” on-site tasked with managing and overseeing these processes.

Cantrell has also shifted away from self-service. “You can have a buffet set out, but guests won’t be allowed to come up to the line,” he says. “We’ll plate their food and take it out to them.” This will require more staff, so couples should anticipate adjusting their catering budget accordingly.

Wedding Buffet Menu Ideas 

Here are a few sample wedding buffet menus from Cantrell and Miller:

Southern-Inspired: Roasted or baked chicken and roasted pull roast; rice pilaf; green beans cooked in broth; mac ‘n’ cheese.

Jamaican-Inspired: Curry chicken; rice and peas; mac ‘n’ cheese; preceded by an appetizer of plantain chips and jerk chicken skewers.

Asian-Inspired: Peking duck carving station; moo shu pancakes; lo mein with napa cabbage, cured baby carrot, and garlic chive; edamame, ginger pork, and chicken and lemongrass dumplings; Korean beef BBQ and shiitake skewers.

New York-Inspired: Reuben sliders with caraway sauerkraut; everything Frank in a blanket; potato knishes; mini falafel and lamb and beef shawarma pitas; mini bagel tower with smoked salmon and accompaniments; Hamptons chopped salad with tarragon ranch dressing.

Comfort Food-Inspired: Korean fried chicken, Beyond burger, ricotta chicken meatball, and cauliflower & chickpea sliders; buffalo chicken meatballs with blue cheese sauce; fried cheese curds; Applewood bacon mac ‘n’ cheese; shoestring fries; Tex-Mex tater tots.

How does buffet service work?

Buffet-Style Wedding Reception: Everything You Need to Know





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