Should You Have a Buffet-Style Wedding Reception?

How will it change in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic?

Wedding Buffet

PHOTO BY KRISTIN LA VOIE

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, from its basic structure to how it will be reimagined in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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

Pros

  • 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. 

Cons

  • 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? 

Pre-pandemic, Miller planned for one buffet table for every 50 guests to keep things moving efficiently. Wherever possible, the buffet tables would 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? 

Pre-pandemic, Miller preferred 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. Now, 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

Buffet-style service will change significantly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. “Until there’s a vaccine, there will not be any self-serve buffet food,” says Miller. “All [Constellation] buffets will be chef attended, and there will be plexi screens.” 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.

Related Stories