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Planning and Setting Up Buffet Lines and Tables

First, a word about the budget; decide how much you want to spend, then reduce that amount by 15% to create a budget buffer. Treat this 85% number as your operating budget. The buffer will be used up by taxes, tips, or other miscellaneous emergencies later on.

People Space

Limit your guest list to the number of people that can be accommodated in your space. At a standing reception, you will need to allocate about 6 to 10 square feet of floor space per guest IN ADDITION TO THE SERVING SPACE and any dance area.

Standing reception and seated reception guest space:

  • With 6 square feet, guests will feel a bit close and they will have a bit less ease getting to the food and beverage stations. As a result, they may eat and drink less. Six square feet per person is also the minimum for events with seating in rows.
  • Seven and a half square feet per person is considered “comfortably crowded.”
  • Eight square feet per person allows some seating, and is also good for tea parties, cocktail parties, and the minimum for dinner seating at the standard 8 foot rectangular tables.
  • Ten square feet provides more than ample space for guests to mingle and easily visit the food and beverage stations. It is an appropriate amount of floor space for a luxury-type standing reception and is the necessary amount for dinner seating at the large 10 foot round tables.
  • The dance floor should allow 2-4 square feet per guest, depending on dance styles.

Serving Space

To estimate serving space for a buffet, you have to figure out how much space for one line (service for the full menu) and then how many lines. So, you look at both the menu and the number of people to be served.
  • Plan to set up separate table(s) for drinks/ beverages, or have cups and glasses and pitchers and thermal carafes filled with drinks already at the tables. Unless it is a small group, setting up desserts separate from the main table is also wise.
  • An 8-foot-by-3-foot banquet table is 24 square feet; it requires about 60 square feet for aisle space if the table is against the wall, and about 100 square feet for aisle space if the table is accessible from all sides. One 8 foot buffet table services only 20 to 30 people. If a service area is set up so people can go down both sides at the same time with the same menu, it can count as 2 lines. Setting up a double line to quickly serve 50-60 people requires at least 3 standard tables (24 feet of line, maximum 12 items.)
  • The menu affects the serving space required! You must allow approximately 2 running feet of buffet table for each food container. For example, every 3 chafers require one 8 foot table. So, if you want to display three hot offerings, three cold offerings, and a bread basket, you should plan to set up a buffet table 14 feet to 16 feet long.
  • If you set up two standard 8-foot rectangular banquet tables as the serving area, you will need about 48 square feet of floor space for the buffet tables and approximately 150 square feet of standard 3-foot aisle space surrounding the buffet table. The total allocation for each of these setups, then, is about 200 square feet. For example with 200 people, you need 4 serving lines, that is 800 square feet for the serving area.
  • If you are going to have more than twenty people, set up the serving tables so that people can serve themselves from both sides of the table. Also, each fifty people require their own double serving line; 200 people, means 4 separate 2-sided serving lines. Remember, set up separate table(s) for drinks/ beverages, or have cups and glasses and pitchers and thermal carafes filled with drinks already at the tables.

Arranging the buffet

  • A few days before the party, lay out the table with every one of the serving dishes and utensils. Place a card showing what is in each dish. This helps you see if the arrangement is workable and if you have all the equipment you need.
  • Flat tables are not interesting. If you are using platters instead of chafing dishes, use books, wooden boxes, milk crates, and so on under the table cloth to create raised platforms for some of the dishes.
  • Prepare the menu card(s) and dish labels for the event, for each serving line.
  • The day of service, place the beautifully printed menu on a stand or next to the plates at the start of each buffet line, so people know what is offered and can decide what they want. Show the complete menu with vegetarian options, common allergens and any other important information clearly indicated, so the diners can make good choices. Placing small labeled signs at each dish allows guests to quickly identify foods.
  • Put plates at the beginning of the table and napkins and silverware at the end. Wrapping the silverware in a napkin and tieing it with a ribbon helps people serving themselves. For a sit-down event, smaller (9 inch) plates rather than 10 or 12 inch plates are easier to handle, and people take less food. For a standing event, 6 inch plates are best.
  • Arrange the courses on the table sensibly. There are many ways to order these foods, but this is probably the most economical: start with breads, appetizers, salads, soups, starches and other side dishes, then main courses, unless you have servers for the meats. In that case the meats can be placed at or near the front of the line.
  • Exception: If serving sandwich makings, the breads and condiments go with the meat platters.
  • Group all the vegetable choices together. If you have both hot and cold dishes for a course, group the hot next to the hot, and the cold next to the cold. Most caterers put the most costly entree last in line if there are several entrees, since plates are full and people take less.
  • Always cut any food that needs it into individual servings in the kitchen, so it is easy to take from the serving dishes. This also helps with portion control.
  • Have chafing dishes, roasters, crock pots or plate warmers for hot food. Use ice baths (large bowls of ice to hold the smaller serving bowl) for food that must be cold, and change out trays of un-iced cold foods every hour. This is especially critical outdoors or in hot weather.
  • 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.
  • Set out small saucers on both sides of the table in front of each serving dish for the serving spoons, so the table cloth stays clean.
  • Beverages slow the line. Set up a separate table with drinks on it for each 50-100 people, or have cups or glasses and pitchers filled with drinks already at the tables if it is table service. Provide a trash can near the beverages, to collect empty bottles and cans. It's also a good idea to place some bar towels at the beverage center, to wipe up any spills.
  • Have a separate table for desserts, with small dishes at the beginning and napkins plus any needed silverware at the end of the table.
  • Set up 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.

Decorations for the buffet

  • Once you have laid out the serving dishes as described above, you can decided where and what decorations you want to placr on the table. Remember, the food itself should be the primary attraction.
  • Tall dishes and centerpieces are OK when decorating a buffet, because they will not block people. Make the buffet table more interesting by arranging foods on cake stands, tall platters and large bowls. Tall decorations can be placed down the center of the table if using a 2 sided arrangement, or against the wall for a one-sided arrangement.
  • Stick to a small color palate for added decorations. Pick at the most three colors, and stick to them. For example, a simple but striking arrangement is to drape tables with red tablecloths and use white candles of varying heights to set off the food. Using masses of candles is customary in Sweden, and also allows you to add any flowers that your guests may bring. Think about the purpose of the get together. If you are celebrating a specific holiday, a birthday, or other special occasion, you can decorate with colors that compliment the event.

      Traditional Colors for Party Decorations

    • New Year's- silver, deep blue, gold and black
    • Valentine's Day- red, white, pink and purple are all great colors
    • Mardigras- green, gold and deep purple
    • St. Patrick's Day- green, white, and gold
    • Easter- pastel green, yellow, pink, purple or lavender, and blue
    • Fourth of July- red, White and blue
    • Halloween- orange, black and White. Yellow for accents.
    • Thanksgiving-brown, gold, yellow, orange, maroon, and deep greens
    • Christmas- red, green and gold or silver, white
    • Birthdays- the person's favorite colors
    • Baby showers- pastel blue, pink, lime green or yellow
    • Fiesta or Italian- red, green, white, yellow
    • Anniversaries- many already have traditional colors. 10 and 25 years, silver; 40 years, ruby red; 50 years, gold; 70 years, platinum; and 75 years, diamond white
    • Weddings- white, silver and/or gold, with accents of the bouquet or bridesmaids' color

Here are other tips for setting and decorating the table

If your buffet is informal, and requires few utensils, you can place a crock or basket filled with forks on the table next to the plates. Stack the plates with napkins next to them in one corner of the table; otherwise, they distract from the food.

Place decorations (candles, flowers) in the center of the table if it is a two-sided service, or along the wall if it is a one-sided service; the food should be the star on the buffet table. Reserve the most prominent spot for the feature dish.

If you are serving deluxe items, such as smoked salmon or shrimp, your guests will tend to station themselves near these foods and eat them up first. Be sure you order enough, then make smaller trays and replace them at intervals throughout the party so that everyone has the opportunity to have some.

Baskets filled with an assortment of dark and white breads and rolls, with plenty of real butter, are a treat for most party goers and reduce the amounts of other foods taken. Slice them at the last minute (or freeze them sliced and arrange while still frozen, so they don't dry out. It is attractive and convenient to place baskets on the individual tables or at the head of the line. If serving sandwich makings, place the breads alongside the meats, with mustard, mayonnaise and condiments (for help with quantities, see the Sandwich event page).