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How to Set up a Buffet
Whether you’re cooking for a girl’s camp, graduation party, your church youth conference, or a wedding reception, you’re likely setting up a buffet. There are a few tips and tricks that most caterers (and people who do this a lot) use to efficiently process a large number of people as quickly and effectively as possible.
Just follow these easy steps and your buffet service will flow smoothly, professionally and headache-free!
Your First Consideration in Serving Large Groups or Catering a Dinner: Speed
Regardless of the size of your event, your goal is to process as many people as possible through your buffet line, as quickly as possible. There are 3 reasons for this:
- Your meal may be part of a larger schedule. In this case it is critical that people are able to eat within the time allotted without impacting the schedule.
- The longer people have to wait in a line to get their food, the less fun the event and the greater chances for the food quality to suffer (cold items heat up and hot items cool down).
- And finally – the more time people have to wait in line to get the delicious food you’ve prepared for them – the less time they have to enjoy it!
The best way to handle this is to serve from 2 sides of one or more buffet tables.
If you set up 4 lines (2 sides of 2 tables (24 feet of tables each line)) you can process 230 people through a buffet in 15 minutes, serving them 6 or 7 different items. I have confirmed this repeatedly.
If 45 minutes is allocated for mealtime, this still leaves even the last person in the line 30 minutes to eat. This set-up is pictured below.
Things to speed up the throughput:
- Servers to speed folks along if multiple choices of a certain dish are present
- Individually wrapped, single-serving butter pats
- Pre-cut buns
- Condiments in easy to serve squirt bottles
- Thicker items, such as Ranch Dressing or sour cream, thinned down slightly with milk for easier serving
Your Second Consideration: Space & Location
The 13 foot wide hallway in the image above is the minimum width you can get away with for 2 buffet lines. There are 6 serving tables (2 rows of 3 tables each), each table is 18 inches in width.
Width of Serving Space
The width of the hall is just slightly more than 13 feet. The distance from the outside walls to the tables is 27 inches. The distance between the two table rows is 5 feet 6 inches.
These are the absolute minimum dimensions which will work. This barely enables servers to replenish the food, and even then only from in between the two tables. Bottom line: an absolute minimum of 13 feet in width is needed assuming both serving tables are no more than 18” wide. While you can get away with it, this not optimal as it makes access to replenish the food items very tight.
Length of Serving Space
The length of these serving lines is 24 feet. That’s made up of 3 tables each 8 feet long. You can see in the pictures that’s about the minimum length to attractively serve 7 items.
You should allocate several feet at each end for line monitors and as much room as possible for people to queue at the start of the line.
Location of your Buffet
Ideally your guests will arrive in the dining area at one end of the buffet line and finish the line right where their tables are located. Enough room needs to be available for your guests to queue up at the beginning of the line.
The location of the buffet lines in these pictures is perfect because they funnel guests from the start of the buffet here….
…right into the dining area here.
Here are some things you’ll want to keep in mind when determining the location of your buffet line.
Your buffet line should:
- Have a large staging area before the start of the line where people can assemble and queue
- Have a clear starting point and and a clear ending point
- Have an absolute minimum of 27 inches clearance on each side, and preferably 36 inches
You should avoid:
- Buffet lines that cross traffic patterns
- Buffet lines that lead guests into a dead end
Your Third Consideration: Order of the Food on your Buffet
There are many ways to order your food, but my preference is in the order in which it is eaten, with the salads and rolls at the beginning of the line, your side dishes in the middle and your main entree at the end. I think this just makes sense to people and it has the added benefit of putting your least expensive foods first.
An exception to this would be if you’re serving make-it-yourself sandwiches, in which case the breads and condiments should go with the meat platters. Here are my guidelines to ordering food on a buffet line.
Guidelines to Order of the Food on the Buffet Line
- Start with the plates and bowls. NOTE: Here’s an important rule – Do not put the silverware and napkins at the beginning of the line (like I did in these pictures). The only thing that should be at the beginning of a food line are plates. All silverware, napkins -and anything else that has to be wrangled – should at the end of your line (or, even better, on the tables where people will sit down and eat).
- Many caterers put the most costly items last in line, since plates are full by that time and people take less.
- Always pre-cut any food requiring individual servings, such as pies and cakes, so it is easy to take from the serving plates. This also helps with portion control.
- Use chafing dishes, roasters, slow cookers or plate warmers for hot food. If your food will be sitting out longer than 30 minutes you’ll want to use ice baths (large bowls of ice to hold the smaller serving bowl) for food that must be really cold, and change out trays of un-iced cold foods every hour. This is especially critical outdoors or in hot weather.
- If space permits, and it’s a more formal event, having saucers available to rest serving tools on may be easier than having them placed in the food. It also keeps your tables cleaner.
- And finally, you’ll want the utensils and napkins at the end of your buffet line. This also makes them easier for people to access if they need another fork or extra napkins instead of having to interrupt the buffet line to get what they need.
If possible I serve the dessert on a separate table(s).
Your Fourth Consideration: How many Tables are Needed?
At least a few days before the event, you’ll want to set up several tables and lay out your buffet arrangement with every one of the serving dishes and utensils. I generally do this several weeks in advance because I don’t like last minute surprises. You should set up everything you plan to put on the table, including all decorations. You also need to include all slow cookers, roaster ovens, extension cords, and electrical power strips that you plan on using. This helps you see if the serving arrangement you planned is workable and if you have all the equipment you need.
Make sure you take into consideration:
- sufficient space for each item, including the large roasters and slow cookers
- room for signs with the item name
- decoration and items to vary the height of the finished buffet. Be careful of putting hot items on any risers. In the photo above, you’ll see I used upside down wooden crates. These were on sale for $10, they were sturdy and they have the added advantage of being great carry totes as well.
- the location of outlets to see how many long extension cords, power strips and short extension cords are needed for the slow cookers and roasters. This will also help you know where these cords will run.
- space for the power strips and short extension cords on the buffet tables if necessary. I like to hide these under foliage or decoration.
- If you have multiple roasters and slow cookers on your table(s), you’ll need not only extension cords to them, you need to make sure you have enough outlets to plug the extension cords into. You may also need a short extension cord for each roaster and slow cooker and a power strip into which to plug the short extensions cords.
It’s also nice to provide space here and there for people to put down their plates while serving themselves.
Doing this set-up planning in advance enables you to see what’s missing, make sure everything fits on the table(s) enabling you to get more if required in plenty of time. This has caused me to catch mistakes in planning beforehand and is well worth the time it takes. You may find certain things don’t fit or that you’re missing key serving pieces, etc. I always attach a sticky note to each serving platter indicating what goes in it. This way I can delegate the actual set up or at least remember what platter is for what dish if I don’t delegate.
When you are finished, all your buffet items need to go all together in your ‘event’ box or bag. It is very easy to have a last minute problem due to missing extension cords, etc.
While this may seem like overkill, you do not want to be flying without a net (at all) in front of a large group of people.
Here’s a list of things you either need to make sure you HAVE – or DON’T NEED.
Things you need to Serve a Crowd
- Tables to seat all guests plus a few extra, if possible, just in case (unless it’s an informal outdoor event)
- Chairs to seat all guests plus a few extra, if possible. If it’s an informal outdoor event, I always call for “bring your own chair”. But I still plan to have extra for those who forget.
- Serving table(s)
- Dessert table(s)
- Drink table(s)
- A place where your guests can put their plates when they’re finished eating, especially if it is a stand up event. It looks very unattractive to have plates filled with food scraps intermingled with the serving dishes. You could use a trash can or a table for dirty china, etc.
- Table cloths for all eating tables
- Table cloths for all serving tables
- Table cloth clips for all serving tables if it’s an outdoor event. These clip over the edge of the table to keep the table cloth from blowing off. They will make a HUGE difference in your stress level. GET A BUNCH.
- Trash can(s)
- Trash can liners (you’ll thank me for this one)
- Plates (and bowls if applicable)
- Dessert plates or bowls if applicable
- Dessert fork or spoon if applicable
- Dessert napkins
- Cups (and markers if it’s a party and you’re serving teens or childern)
- Serving spoons, ladles, tongs, pie servers, knives, etc. NOTE: Make sure you have 2 sets of serving utensils for each item (one for each side of the table)
- Serving platters/bowls – NOTE: If serving a large group, you’ll want at least one platter/bowl for every item for each table. If you have 2 platters/bowls (one for each line on each side of the table) you’ll have to replenish less often).
- Extra serving platters/bowls – NOTE: These ‘back-up’ platters/bowls allow you to have a filled platter/bowl ready in the wings so that when your platter/bowl on the serving line runs low you can simple swap it out with the filled ‘back-up’ platter/bowl. This is not a necessity. But if you have the extra platters/bowls and are serving a lot of people, it makes things run smoother. In lieu of this you can simply replenish the platters/bowls on the serving line from whatever you’re holding the additional food in, such as roasting pans, baggies, etc.
- Baskets and cloth napkins are nice for bread items, but not necessary.
- Enough slow cookers and roasters to keep the hot food hot, while you’re waiting to serve it and while it’s sitting on the serving line – NOTE: Even if I’m serving outdoors, I keep the food holding in slow cookers and roasters and simply unplug them and set them on the serving line when ready to serve. (Hide the ugly cords.) This does a fair job of keeping the food hot or warm. ROUNDING UP ENOUGH OF THESE IS OFTEN ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT THINGS TO COORDINATE – SO START SOON and GET THEM IN YOUR HANDS IN ADVANCE.
- Extension cords for the slow cookers and roasters if serving indoors
- Electrical power strips and short extension cords so all slow cookers and roasters can be plugged in
- DUCT TAPE – to tape down the extension cords if they cross traffic patterns if you are serving indoors
- Music play list on your mobile device, speakers (and extension cords/electrical power strips if necessary) NOTE: People LOVE having tunes at events. Music really helps make the events, adding a whole additional dimension! Make sure you test out your sound system IN ADVANCE. More on Tunes later.
- Table Decorations
- Area Decorations
- Lighting, if necessary, and all plugs, cords, etc. for your lighting
- Extra Disposable Roasting Pans (You’ll appreciate this one!)
- Aprons for all food volunteers. We avoided a major problem when one of our servers spilled a large amount of hot queso down her front. Her apron kept her from being burned.
- Box of large size freezer zip top baggies (You’ll REALLY appreciate these when you are dealing with leftovers afterward)
- Extra serving utensils
Here’s one of my crates being used as a cute serving bin for the chips. I also really like these buckets for a cute way to set out your silverware. I got these in honor of the Western theme for this event. I made the mistake of putting them at the start of this serving line. It would have been better if I’d placed them at the end. I try not to get too fussy with the silverware and plates. There’s no need.
Food Staging Area
When serving a large group of people, you will not have room to put out all the food on the serving lines initially. The extra ‘replenishment’ food needs to be in a holding area. The closer you can stage the holding area to your buffet line, the better. This makes filling the platters/bowls on the line quick and easy.
The holding area also needs to have a sufficient number of electrical outlets. AND – you need to determine if these are on sufficient CIRCUITS to prevent fuses blowing and your power going out. We had this problem at one of the Youth Conferences. In the picture above most of the electrical outlets on the long counter were on the same circuit. We found this out only when the power started going out to the slow cookers. We had to move them throughout the building. Not fun.
As you’re planning your food team, in addition to prep and cooking, you’ll also need to plan for buffet line monitors. Your cooks can certainly have this assignment, but you definitely need to schedule someone to monitor the buffet lines. You’ll need people for the following:
Assign 2 people per line to watch the food quantities. When a food item begins to run low (but not out), one of the monitors should be in charge of fetching the replenishment. You will need to be prepared to bring the extra food out quicker if you serve from both sides of the table, so the replenishment food should be located nearby in slow cookers or roaster ovens to keep warm.
The line monitors can also be watching for those who need a little extra help. Think of that person on crutches (there’s almost always one) or the person with shaky hands.
There may be certain food, that due to portion control (expensive popular items – think meat, chocolate milk, etc.) or fragility (think taco shells), are best handled by servers. Servers can be assigned to hand out the desired quantity. This can be accomplished by placing that item at the end of the table and having the server stand in front of it at the head of the table (not on the side) so as to not impede either line. If the item needs to be placed closer to the beginning of the buffet, or if you have more than 1 item requiring portion control, you can split the buffet table line and put the servers in between tables.
The picture below shows the servers standing in the middle of the serving line, between the tables. This enables them to hand out the taco shells ‘mid-line’ without being in the way of the lines on either side of the table. This works very well.
You’ll want to keep the buffet line, dessert table(s) and drink table(s) clean. It’s easy for the drink table(s) to accumulate drips, spills, and piles of disposables. Make regular swings by the drink table(s) to mop up and keep them looking refreshed. I keep several bar towels at the drink table(s) for this purpose.
Trash. It’s an obvious, yet often mysteriously overlooked, component of an event. Don’t make the mistake of forgetting the trash cans! How many parties have you attended without a trash can in sight, and a disposable plate which needed to be, well – disposed of. Make plans to have plenty of places for guests to discard their food and eating items. If you don’t give your guests a specific place to put their trash, they’ll likely find a place, and it’s probably won’t be where you would like. Also, don’t put the trash cans near the buffet line. They are really not appetizing….
It’s a small thing with a BIG impact.
I always use food signs. It doesn’t take that long and people LOVE them! It’s one of those seemingly ‘minor’ things that takes your event from good to ‘over-the-top’ extraordinary. Not only do they add a fun element, but it gives your guests an idea of what to expect from the dish they are contemplating taking. If I’m including nuts in the recipe (which I NEVER do for large group youth events), I always make sure ‘nuts’ is included in the food sign. Here are some of my favorites.
I like to have one or more separate dessert tables. This enables your guests to get dessert when they are ready for it at a different location from the main buffet line. This speeds up the buffet line and gives your guests one less thing to carry to the table with their dinner plate. I try to locate the dessert table away from the buffet line. This encourages mingling and reduces traffic jams.
Getting a drink is a different process from getting food in a serving line. To accommodate it you should plan on a separate drink station. You’ll want to make it easy for people to get their beverage without waiting in the buffet line. If possible your drink station should be near the kitchen for easy refilling of heavy beverages and ice. Additionally, you’ll want to store extra full beverage bottles under the drink station, hidden behind the table cloth, but within easy reach.
One trick I often use is to put the drink table(s) at the far end of a large room, opposite – or at least some steps away from – the buffet table. This helps people spread more evenly throughout a large space.
It’s also a great idea to pre-fill the glasses with ice and your beverage so your serving is not delayed with your guests having to take the time to do it themselves. Having the glasses pre-filled is also a far less messy presentation since you can wipe up any spills before people arrive.
It’s also nice to provide space on the drink table for people to put down their plates while serving themselves. This is especially important at a drink table if there is ice to be placed in glasses or tea to be poured. These are not easy one-handed.
You’ll want to provide a trash can near the beverages, to collect empty glasses, bottles or cans. It’s also a good idea to place some bar towels at the drink table, to wipe up any spills.
If you’re at a party, plan to either have a server label the cups (especially for youth and children) or plan on THREE to FOUR cups for each guest.
Cost Control and Portion Control
There are several ways to handle portion control:
- Expensive items can be put at the end of the buffet tables.
- Starting the line with the breads and salad choices also helps fill the plate and encourages reasonable portions of the meat. The meat server can also reassure folks to “feel free to come back after everyone’s been through if you’d like to try seconds!”
- Be mindful of the size of your serving spoons. Try to match them to the serving size you planned on. Also, never put large tongs or large spoons with the expensive or fast-to-go foods. Small tongs are an excellent option.
- Servers can be assigned to hand out the desired quantity.
- You can pre-portion the expensive food into mini-bites. It also helps keep the line moving and, more importantly, is easy to style attractively.
- Keep an eye on the food and switch locations if you notice certain items are not moving well. You may notice people skipping over the veggie and hummus. If you have plenty of these, move them to the front of the line, to equalize things a bit.
You’re not just creating a meal. You’re creating an event. And to do that you need to set a mood and create an atmosphere. A fun and upbeat play list is how you’re going to do that. Have you heard the song “Hot, Hot, Hot”? I guarantee you that if you have a play list which starts with “Hot, Hot, Hot” people will be dancing up to your buffet table. There’s no way anyone can be in a bad mood with this song playing and your fantastic food on the table.
NO item can be left on the line for more than 2 hours. If you are serving all day, you MUST change out the trays and dishes at least every two hours.
Getting Ready to Serve
Be Ready to Serve 15 minutes BEFORE Guests are Due
Your serving line should be set up well in advance of the meal. Whatever your actual serving time is, you need to plan on having everything done 15 minutes in advance. As far as your food service team is concerned that EARLY time is the ACTUAL time. This gives you a nice cushion for unexpected events.
Your buffet line should be set up and ready. You do not have to bring the refrigerated food out quite this early or the hot food out, but you should make sure every thing else is ready to go.
The Final Thing
The last thing I do before the guests arrive is make a quick walk down the buffet lines with: 1) a damp towel, 2) a roll of heavy duty tape, and 3) a handful of extra serving utensils to make sure:
that all food is ready for serving,
all serving utensils are in place,
all spills are wiped up,
all condiments are set out,
any electrical cords are taped down,
and that everything is ready to go.
This is the one item I don’t delegate. I do this myself without fail.
I promise you, if you follow these basic guidelines, your wonderful recipes will be presented at their best, your guests will be thrilled and you will be stress-free.
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