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Buffet, Just Appetizers, Plated, Family Style, Action Stations – How you serve your guests is an important decision in planning your party
Just as parties come in all styles, sizes, and reasons for celebration, there are a variety of great ways to serve food at your event.
The most common are all appetizers, buffet service, plated service, family style service, and action stations. Each format and style has its own benefits and reasons why it fits a particular client’s style and budget. Here is a description of the most popular styles of service and some of the pros and cons of each one. Read up, but don’t worry, we will help you determine which style is right for you. And remember, not matter what you choose, the food will be awesome (you’ve got Main Course California cooking for you!) and the service will be impeccable (there is a reason why everyone tells their friends about us!).
* Click on Photos or Bold Service Style Name for Sample Menu Selections *
Appetizers Only (Heavy Hors d’ Oeuvres)– This works great for spaces that don’t lend themselves to sit down service (an open house, an art gallery, a yacht). It is also great when you want to create a more party-like atmosphere where the food is the star of the show, everyone is impressed with the beauty and flavor of the chef’s creations.
Trays of hors d’ oeuvres are continually passed throughout the duration of the party. The passed hors d’ oeuvres – all one to two bites at the most – may be supplemented with several stationary platters of heavier appetizers, such as artisanal charcuterie and cheese boards.
When on a budget, many clients think that they’ll save money by ”just” serving appetizers. However, this is usually one of the most expensive types of service, since each elegant appetizer is like an entire mini entree with each one needing to be cooked, assembled, garnished, sauced & plated. Add to this that you will need lots and lots of each beautiful hors d’ oeuvre.
Most appetizers only parties take place during meal time. Even though you’re not serving a main course, we still have to make enough small bites to fill your guests up (be a great host!). And, your cocktail party may very well last longer than a standard dinner would. So while a dinner service might start at 6 and be done by 7:30, people will have cocktail parties from 5:30-8:30pm or 7pm-11pm and expect food to be served the whole time. That means we have a lot of little bites to make! You need variety, and you need volume.
A standard measure is 1 1/2 to 2 pieces of each appetizer per person. So, if you are having 7 different appetizers, that means we have to make each guest 12-14 individual, composed pieces of food. For a 75 person party that’s about 1,000 appetizers!
You will also need lots of hands in the kitchen plating up these delicious, flavor packed little beauties. If you’re on a budget, but have your heart set on an all appetizer party, try adjusting the hours. 8-11pm or 2-5pm. This basically tells guests to have lunch or dinner first and come for a bite after. Or shorten your even 6-8. or 7-9. It is often less expensive to have a few appetizers and buffet dinner than 3-5 hours of appetizers! For those who have the budget, this is one heck of a great party!
Buffet Service – When a full, vibrant meal that is served beautifully and efficiently is called for, a well-planned and expertly prepared buffet is perfect!
Buffets are especially great for brunches and lunches. They are also perfect for dinners in which you want your event budget to include lots of décor, lighting, a full bar, entertainment – you know, when you need to spread the love!
This style consists of platters and chafing dishes of delicious foods artfully arranged on central tables – usually one or two identical buffets. You can have artisan breads a variety of salads, one, two, or many entrée selections, and several side dishes to make a hearty and crowd-pleasing dining experience. Guests usually move along the buffet line and serve themselves or an attendant will assist with the main courses if desired. Servers usually provide beverage service at tableside.
The pros/cons to this style of service is you have lower wait staff costs. However, your food cost may be higher than plated service, since you don’t know what the guests will select, and they control their portions and can come back for seconds. You will also have buffet equipment and décor to budget for, as that buffet sure is more exciting when you make it look amazing. And, you may have guests waiting in line for their dinner if some basic event protocols are not adhered to. The key to the success of buffet is to call tables one by one rather than having all 200 guests in line at once.
Another way to offset the waiting is to have the bread and first course, usually a salad, pre placed when guests arrive to their tables, so guests have something to eat/do while waiting for their turn at the buffet line.
Time and again, this style of service is the most cost-effective in serving delicious food for large and small events, especially when the buffet selections are curated to a traditional dinner variety such as bread, salad, one or two entrees and two sides. If you add on more selections, we probably don’t need to tell you that your budget will need to allow for that increase.
Sit Down-Plated Service – With a formal sit-down dinner, your guests sit at tables and the meal is served to them by professional, attentive wait staff. This is considered more formal than any other type of service. It looks elegant and stylish, and guests will eat the dish the way it was designed to be eaten, with the right amount of sauce and appropriate side items. Another big advantage of a sit-down dinner is that it gives you more control over the timing of your reception. You can plan the exact time for each element of your reception (from wedding couples with introductions, dances, and toasts to fundraising galas with speeches and live auctions).
Another compelling aspect of this service: your guests don’t have to wait in line to get their food.
Great news for your budget: you won’t need to budget for any buffet equipment or décor, and your food cost will often be just a wee tad less because the chefs can portion everything appropriately.
Ok – here is where your money goes: your staff costs will be much higher, as you will need at least 1 server per 1-2 tables (many more if you want synchronized service), plus one or more service captains, plus many more kitchen staff (compared to a buffet meal) to execute the plating in an efficient and timely manner. If your event is at a venue that does not have a full kitchen with warming boxes, you will also have additional equipment needed such as enough tables to hold all of the plated salads and warming boxes to ensure that each plate we use for dinner service is piping hot, thus keeping your entrees warm as they travel the often long distance from the kitchen to your dining table.
Family Style – We love this style of service. Popularized by our good friends at Outstanding in the Field, and close to our Executive Chef Rachel’s southern-girl heart, family-
style service is perfect for a more informal event where the food needs to shine, but it takes equal place with conviviality at the dining table. Think a private farm dinner with Edison Bulbs strung among the avocado trees, long wood banquet tables in a rustic historic barn, or a wooden lazy susan laden with your family’s favorite meats and sides at your wedding. However, this “casual” style of service is…ready for it?….surprise!, the most expensive!
First off, you need more food, since every platter needs to look plentiful when it’s placed on the table. And since everyone can serve themselves, including seconds, you have to have enough of each item for every person. Plus you need lots of wait staff to bring all the platters to each of the tables. You don’t want the risotto and grilled vegetables to get to the table and get the braised short ribs and cedar plank roasted salmon five or ten minutes later. Lastly, the cost to rent all the platters and serving utensils needed for each of the menu items, for each of the tables, can be very high. And, that kitchen you need for plated service? You’re going to need more hot holding cabinets for family style.
With that said, if you’re looking for a relaxed, casual environment, where conversation is lively, the food shines and guests have more control over their meals, family style might just be perfect for you!
Chef Action Stations/Food Stations…The Food Is King! The Fun is Everywhere!
Similar to a buffet, except Chefs put the finishing touches on and serve foods at the buffet. Adding a couple of action stations to Buffet style of service can help alleviate the long lines at the main buffet, plus it adds a fun interactive element to the event and guests love the chance to interact with the chef. The food is as fresh as it can get because it is finished right in front of the guests, and guests can have the chefs make the food just the way they want it. Picky eaters and food fanatics at the same party? You want an action station!
Chef Action Station foods that lend themselves well to this style of service include stir fry/wok stations, traditional or fusion tacos and fajitas, pasta and risotto stations, carved grilled meats such as tri tip, rack of lamb, and New York steaks and tenderloin, salad stations, made-to-order sushi, oysters & ceviche raw bar, sgourmet burgers and sliders, griddled sweet potato or corn pancakes with a selection of pulled pork, bbq short ribs, or creole grilled shrimp and a variety of toppings… We get excited about food stations!
For brunch events, a gourmet omelet bar is such a great idea, and it is an excellent value. Crepe and waffle stations are fun for bridal and baby showers as well as birthday parties.
You can have stations without the action chefs, too. It is a great way to add lots of interest to your event but keep chef labor a little lower. Sometimes, all we need to do is to separate the “typical” buffet into two or three stations, adding a little more food variety (two or three salads instead of one, two or three meats instead of one, etc…) to round out the stations. Other foods that make a serv-yourself station fun: mashed potato bars, gourmet tacos, bbq slider stations with two or more meats and lots of customizable toppings like crispy onions, veggie slaws, and house made pickles, cold seafood bars, chips & salsa bars or a southern relish tray, pimento cheese & creole shrimp dip with crackers….did we mention we get excited about food stations?
Extra cost associated with these types of stations are one or more chefs for the station(depending on guest count), extra grills, stoves, pans and tools for cooking and plates & silverware at each station for each serving. You’ll still need that kitchen in the back that no one sees, but it might be a bit smaller. And you will need more buffet station tables and equipment. Your chef fees can double, triple, or more depending on the kinds of stations you choose. But hey, if the chefs are going to be at the party, why not make them part of the party?