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Self Service Food Bars and Buffets
Tips for Better Salad and Sandwich Bars, Taco Bars, Potato Bars

Self service food bars and buffets can provide fast, affordable meals with minimum labor costs. Self-service systems can be used for:

  • Salad bars
  • Sandwich bars
  • Potato bars
  • Soup and sandwich bars
  • Taco bars
  • Pasta bars
  • Breakfast bars
  • Fruit bars
  • Dessert bars
  • Coffee bars
  • Condiment bars
wider food choices
fewer servers needed
food prep done before event
perceived as convenient, fresher, healthier
potential for faster service
potential for waste- challenge of cost control
increased quantities eaten
BIG food safety issues
requires careful planning for both selection and arrangement
requires adequate space and correct number of lines

The basic niceties

  • The food bar is best equipped with a sneeze guard, and standards of good sanitation should be obvious to the diners. For example, a clean plate should be used each time the diner returns to the bar, and the used plate bussed off the dining table as soon as empty.
  • A food bar should look well-supplied throughout the serving period. This is accomplished by selecting appropriately-sized containers and by replacing, not refilling them when they are two-thirds empty. Avoid arranging too few food items on serving plates- they will look empty after only a few servings are taken.
  • Spills, drips, and misplaced food items should be cleaned up regularly. Arrange food containers so spills are reduced and items that are drippy, break apart easily, or are otherwise hard to serve are placed where they will be easy to reach without spilling onto other food. Correct serving utensils will help eliminate untidiness.
  • The food selections should be varied and creative enough to appeal to all the expected diners. If the food bar is a permanent arrangement, the variety of items offered should be changed periodically when serving repeat customers.
  • Serving arrangements and utensils discourage the use of hands for selecting foods.

Arrangement and presentation of the food matters. Plan your display with safety, economy, convenience, nutrition and appearance in mind. If the food bar is the only meal choice, the selection and amounts of food offered must provide sufficient foods from all food groups for all diners.

  • Select equipment in relation to the height of the persons being served. For example, elementary children will need serving equipment that is lower to provide ease of reach.
  • Plan service so you do NOT mix fresh containers with the remains from nearly empty containers. This is a vital food safety issue.
  • Provide separate serving utensils for every single container and display food to minimize spillage of food into other containers. Put foods that will drip or be most likely be spilled closest to the consumer. Select sizes of serving utensils to assist in portion control; use smaller utensils for scarce or expensive items.
  • You need one line for each 50 diners if you wish to have people sit down together at more or less the same time. If serving more than 50 diners, try to arrange a two-sided display with the same items on each side of the table for each 100 people. Diners reaching across the table or walking around to the second side slow the movement of the line.
  • Arrange foods in sections in the order that they go on the plate. For example, on salad bars, lettuce and greens should go first and salad dressings last. On a sandwich bar, breads and spreads precede the fillings. Taco shells have to come first at a taco bar, and potatoes at a baked potato bar. Within each section, more expensive items should be placed last and/or behind less expensive items.
  • Display foods at different heights and/or in containers of varying size. More popular foods should be placed in larger containers so they do not need to be replenished too often.
  • Always assign a server to each line specifically to replenish the food items and to keep the serving line clean.

Traffic Flow

TRAFFIC FLOW is a key element to the success of your food bar. There are three basic patterns which you can choose.

Circular: While it offers some aesthetic possibilities, the circular pattern is not the most space effective and sometimes causes directional confusion with the diners.

Single Line: Due to space restrictions, it is often necessary to use a single line approach. The primary advantage of this design is a more convenient and smooth flowing access for the user. As the size of the group increases, though, good traffic movement suggests setting up separate stations for drinks, desserts, and possibly soups or salads.

Two-sided Free Standing: The two-sided salad bar allows for many creative and dramatic displays. It can be placed in a prominent position away from the wall which helps to put it in the spotlight. To provide for a smooth traffic flow, place matching items on either side of the bar. This also reduces sanitation problems which occur from people reaching to the other side of the bar and dragging clothing or jewelry over closer items in the process.

Consider the placement of the bar. If you want to showcase the food bar, locate it near a high traffic entrance. If possible, place it in full view in a well lit area. Placement will affect the amount you serve and what people are willing to pay per serving, where this applies.


Once the food bar is placed, you consider ARRANGEMENT OF DISHES OR INGREDIENTS ON THE SERVING TABLE. Where costs or food quantities are a concern, plentiful and inexpensive items are placed first, and it should be easy for the diner to obtain large quantities of these items. Medium cost dishes and ingredients should be placed next and necessitate a moderate reach. The most expensive items are placed last in the arrangement and/or located high in the center (for example, under the sneeze guard) where they are more difficult to reach, or a server is provided to control portion size.

Once the arrangement is selected, consider SIZE AND SHAPE OF DISPLAY CONTAINER. Varying the size and shape of display containers on the salad bar encourages diners to take more of one item and less of another. Inexpensive items should be in larger containers with low sides so that the contents are easily visible to patrons. At the other extreme, the most expensive ingredients are placed in smaller or higher-sided containers so items are a little more difficult to see and remove.

Finally, consider TYPE OF SERVING IMPLEMENT. While sanitation considerations are important in selecting utensils for the salad bar, carefully chosen implements can also help control the portions most customers take. Inexpensive items should have implements that can be easily handled and hold a large amount of the product. As these ingredients come first on the salad bar, plates tend to be filled up early so that there is less room on the plate for more expensive items further down the line. Expensive ingredients should have utensils that make it somewhat more difficult to portion out the item. Be careful not to take this to an extreme by making expensive items too difficult to get at. The intended goal should be to make expensive items relatively hard to get so that indiscriminate diners don't load up on crab instead of carrots.

More about Serving Containers, Plates and Bowls

Bowls and plates may be paper or foam, plastic, wood, metal, glass or ceramic. Choose styles and sizes appropriate to the event; a slightly smaller sizes will discourage waste but at a standing buffet or cocktail party people will need to have everything on one plate. Ceramic dinner or luncheon plates are more formal, while oval style platters provide room for larger meals. Glass plates and bowls always add appeal to a fresh salad and will coordinate well with other tableware.

The size, height of the sides and width of the rim of the bowl, plate or platter will determine the number of ounces that can be placed there. As an example, a 9.5 in. x 6.5 in. x 5/8 in. oval platter may hold a maximum of 24 ounces of ingredients. At a salad bar, the quantity taken by the diners will likely average about 18 ounces. Some dishes no more than a maximum of 8 ounces while other pieces will hold more than 40 ounces.

For serving, plastic bowls are available in clear, colors, or simulated wood, and genuine wooden bowls are laminated to meet health regulations. There is also a wide variety of pewter-like bowls and plates from manufacturers who offer many styles to fit a specific decor. Pewter-like and glass serving bowls offer the advantage of maintaining the cool temperature and crispness of your salad ingredients. For permanent set ups or special occasions, consider renting equipment to pre-chill salad plates or bowls at the start of the line.

Ingredient containers are also available in many materials, sizes and shapes. Serve your more popular items in larger containers, and put less-used ingredients and garnishes and the more expensive dishes in smaller containers.


As discussed above, for a cost control measure, provide smaller serving utensils for more expensive dishes. Most diners take 2 spoonfuls, regardless of the size of the spoon.

Serving utensils should match their use. For items such as lettuce and bean sprouts, use tongs. Beans and beets can be drained with slotted spoons. Small dry ingredients such as croutons and bacon bits require a spoon. Pickles and fruit slices are best served with a fork. Keep extra utensils handy and immediately replace any utensil that is dropped or contaminated.


Labor requirements to run a salad bar will vary depending on the degree you promote the concept. One factor that will aid in the success of your salad bar, however, is putting one working staff member in charge of each food bar. He or she should check the bar frequently to keep it clean, re-supply ingredients, and can even maintain a usage log of ingredients to help monitor food costs. Have a back up supply of containers for easy replacement and be sure to store usable foods under refrigeration quickly. Every worker should know that two hours is the maximum time a food can sit on the bar.

Remember, sanitation is not only important for health considerations, but is critical in creating a food bar which is user friendly and desirable. Guest NOTICE when unsafe handling occurs.

Set Ups for Cold Food Bars

How you set up your cold bar is restricted only by your imagination and the needs of your diners. Even if this is an informal, one-time event, you still need to use ice baths to chill the ingredients which must be kept cold.

There are three general types of commercial cold food bars available:

Ice Chilled
Frost Top
Air Chilled

Which one you use will depend on which best suits your needs.


Ice tables are relatively inexpensive for one time use and look very fresh and appealing. While still widely used and quite practical for a single event, the ice chilled salad bar is the least cost effective for repeated use. It requires more maintenance than refrigerated units and the cost of ice replacement as well as the reliance on the ice machine may be too great to be practical or profitable.

Ice tables are relatively inexpensive for one time use and look very fresh and appealing.


The frost top salad bar has refrigerated piping running underneath the top surface; frost forms when warm air makes contact with the cold surface of the salad bar. This provides for a more maintenance free and cost effective set up than the ice chilled bar. However, since the surface of the salad bar actually freezes, any spilled items can freeze and stick to the surface.


The air chilled food bars keep items cold by blowing air over a refrigerated coil in a compressor located in the bottom of the unit, chilling from the bottom. This is the most cost effective type of salad bar to operate. They are typically less expensive than the frost top and use less energy to run. Because food does not freeze to the surface, it is easier to keep clean. Many of these units come in detachable sections which can be removed and rearranged to create different salad bar configurations.

Space and Equipment

While considering different types of cold food bars, be sure to keep in mind practicality. Do you need to remove the cold bar from the floor each night? if so, a food bar on wheels is practical. How much room do you have? Can other space be procured to expand your food bar? You may want to consider an expandable bar for the future. Of course you will also need to consider how the food bar will fit into your decor, what sanitation needs you have and how a particular model of salad bar fits in with.


* Keep cold foods cold by not overfilling containers past the brim, especially mayonnaise based salads. * Replenish often with fresh ingredients, rotate stored food properly (for fresh presentation) to prevent contamination. * Don't let prepared meats, cheeses, or prepared salads sit out at room temperature. * Use concentrated lemon juice and water as a preservative on fruit to help maintain freshness. * Keep dry condiments away from moist foods. * Wash fresh produce and fruit, drain or spin dry. * Be sure that you have a sneeze guard which meets health standards and that it is kept clean.

Special Hints for Specific Food Bars


A taco bar can solve a lot of complications related to the serving of tacos. The cafeteria prepares and displays the ingredients, but the diner arranges the layers in the order he or she prefers.

The biggest challenge at a taco bar is to keep both hot and cold foods displayed with proper temperatures maintained. Crock pots or chafing dishes or insulated carriers will keep meat fillings hot. Sealed plasticware or freezer baggies filled with water and frozen can be places in the bottom of containers of cold foods, or the entire container can be placed in an ice bath.

Arrangement for the taco bar begins with basic line arrangement, as illustrated, and changes with an increase in the number of items or additional toppings served.

Taco ShellsBeans and Rice Meat FillingsVeggie toppingsCheeses, guacamole and sour creamSauces and salsas

Choices of ingredients on the taco bar might include:

  • Taco shells - soft and/or crisp/hard
  • Both refried and borracho (whole) beans
  • Spanish rice, or hash browns for breakfast tacos
  • Meat fillings, or scrambled eggs for breakfast tacos
  • Shredded lettuce
  • Chopped tomatoes
  • Chopped onions
  • Diced avocadoes or guacamole
  • Shredded cheeses
  • Taco sauce, hot sauces, fresh salsa and pico de gallo

POTATO BAR The same procedures used for other bar arrangements apply to the potato bar. The first component will be the whole baked potato, followed by the butter and sour cream, the hot and meaty sauces, and then the toppings. Temperature maintenance is important. Keep hot food items, including the potatoes, hot, cold foods cold using electric roasters, crock pots and ice as discussed in the taco bar section.

PotatesButter and sour creamVeggie SaucesMeat SaucesVeggie ToppingsCheese Toppings

Toppings might include:

  • Meat sauces: chili, Chicken ala King, barbecued beef, barbecued pork, taco meat sauce
  • Broccoli with cheese sauce
  • Butter
  • Chopped onion
  • Bacon bits
  • Diced fresh tomato
  • Chopped cauliflower
  • Shredded cheese


Sandwich bars allow diners to build their own "creations" and offer choices with little extra work for staff. To control costs, it is critical to arrange ingredients in the right order. This sandwich bar diagram is an example of the basic arrangement.

SoupsBreads and rollsSpreads, butter, peanut butter, mayonaisse Lettuce,onion and tomatoSandwich Fillings, spreads and saladsSliced cheesesSliced meats or burgersToppings ToppingsToppings Chips or other side dishes Cookies or other desserts

Some items to serve on a sandwich bar include:

  • A variety of breads or rolls
  • Mayonnaise
  • Catsup
  • Mustard
  • Butter, softened
  • Peanut butter whipped with honey, jelly or jam
  • Meat or fish salads, cheese spreads and other spreadable sandwich fillings
  • Sliced meats and poultry- thin slices or a server reduce the amount taken, or the appropriate amount for a single sandwich can be arrange on a deli paper and stacked- most people will take only one
  • Sliced cheese
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Pickles
  • Tomatoes
  • Sprouts


    Salad bars have their own articles; check out an article on planning and tables for various items.