May 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions: Building a Better Buffet - May 2000 Current Issue
May 2000

Building a Better Buffet

Tempting choices, creative decor and smarter setups add to the appeal of serving yourself

By Amy Drew Teitler

Serve a plated meal to a large group, and you can bet some guests will go hungry or at least leave griping. But a creative buffet with tantalizing options should leave even the fussiest diners with little cause to complain.

Forget visions of hungry attendees lined up, plates in hand, waiting to take their portions from a few chafing dishes. Better buffets are built around creative meal plans and brilliant presentations. They minimize the wait and maximize the options. Another plus: This might be the only way you can serve caviar and brownies at the same function and get away with it.

“Buffets are one of the best ways planners can give groups choice,” says Elizabeth Halt, director of catering at Marriott’s Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert, Calif. “It’s a flexible, beautiful way to present a meal.” Many other food and beverage professionals agree. M&C interviewed some of the best in the business including 1999 M&C Gold Platter Winners to cull their creative ideas in buffet design, food choices and decor options.

Got budget?
If you think the buffet is a more economical alternative to plated meals, think again.

“A sit-down is always more budget-friendly, because you have total control of the whole thing,” says Halt. “[With a buffet], a chef has to have one-and-a-half servings of everything, because people eat more and there’s more waste. They take extra and don’t like everything they sample.”

At most hotels and facilities, server costs are factored in, so unless the plated meal is upscale from beginning to end, experts tend to agree buffets are the pricier path to feeding the masses. This does not mean, however, that a buffet’s costs cannot be controlled.

“Prices can run higher or lower, depending on the items you’d like to serve,” says Frank Michaels, director of banquet operations for The Breakers Palm Beach in Florida, “but you can easily plan delicious presentations with a fish and a chicken and a couple of starches. Prices at a lot of properties can vary by the season as well.” Says Jeff Simms, The Breakers’ executive sous chef for banquets, “The buffet can appear high-end with lower-priced foods. Instead of carving beef tenderloin, you can serve pork. Instead of crab cakes, do black bean cakes. The variety and the action are still there.”

If a client insists on prime rib but the budget allows for burgers, small servings of high-end items can go far. “Use lobster wontons as an hors d’oeuvre,” suggests Halt, “or put lobster medallions on a salad. It will meet your VIP lobster requirements they will think you’re wonderful but the cost stays down. A real catering professional will know how to help you swing it.”

Go with the flow
Crowd control can be a challenge, depending on the size and shape of the room and the number of people eating. The objective of the event also comes into play when designing the setup for the buffet. Will guests be sitting down for a ceremony or speaker? Or is it a reception where they will eat, meet and mingle? If the event is a luncheon, are they heading back into meetings afterward?

“The majority of our luncheons are buffets,” says Erik Jansen, executive assistant manager, food and beverage division for The Ritz-Carlton, Naples in Florida. “It gives attendees more freedom to find something they like quickly, eat, and then have time to make phone calls to the office or handle other tasks before heading back into the meeting room.”

If speed is an issue, design for tighter, straighter lines. “Linear can be quicker,” says Jansen. “Think about choosing a double-sided line with cold selections progressing into hot. Keep desserts out from the beginning, so they can pick them up immediately or, at the very least, see what is being offered. This way, they’ll know what they want to go back for.”

Meghan Ruona, CMP, an independent planner based in San Francisco, agrees. “I will have a few identical line buffets at lunches,” she says. But, because people always seem to think they are missing something, they often feel the need to walk through all of them. “That’s a struggle, because it can back the line up. It helps to have staff members there to direct the traffic.” Ruona also recommends offering ice cream or fruit pops as lunch desserts. “Most hotels have mini-freezers they can put out there. It’s easy, cold, refreshing and they can take it with them as they leave.”

Station buffets (smaller satellite tables placed throughout the room with different selections), particularly those manned with servers or cooks, are popular for dinners or receptions, where the atmosphere is less rushed and mingling is encouraged. Cooked-to-order stations are another lure, promising freshly made items that precisely suit guests’ tastes.

“You almost always see people going out on a scouting mission,” says Keith Spinden, executive chef at the Hyatt Regency Maui. “They go out and bring back a plate for the table. One gets sushi, one goes for tempura, another gets pasta, and they all sample. It’s a lot of fun for them.”

Depending on the group size, most catering departments recommend three or four stations for groups of 100 or fewer. “Spread it out,” says Halt. “And have servers there to give it a personal touch, help guests select and give direction. If there are a million people mobbing the sushi station, having staff there can help get them moving.” She adds that since people have a tendency to check it all out first, then go back to their favorite items, keeping a nice distance between stations can help keep traffic down. “For groups of more than 300,” she says, “make the stations double-sided.”

Stations are also nice when you want guests to get to know each other. “It facilitates more networking,” says Rebecca Partman, manager of meetings and incentives for Seattle-based Metropolitan Travel. “They mingle and discuss the foods, especially at an upscale event where the selection is impressive and varied.”

If mixing is important, planners can ensure constant circulation by limiting the seats. “This way not everyone can sit at the same time. It forces them to walk around and network,” says Hal Scott, director of banquet operations at the Wyndham Anatole in Dallas.

The look
A tight budget does not have to mean skimping on decor. “Fifty dollars a head can look as elegant as a hundred,” says Tom Welther, regional executive chef for Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. “You might not be able to offer caviar, but the appearance of the buffet should not be dictated by the food being served on it,” adds Welther, who is based out of the Anatole.

“Theming is the way when money is tighter,” says Rebecca Partman. “If you find a common thread, you can buy some things in bulk that will work for every table.”

Partman suggests hollowed-out pumpkins for a fall event because they can be used in different ways on buffet and dining tables. “And there is no better way to make an outdoor buffet elegant than to add as many votive candles as possible. Bathing an event in candlelight is almost all it takes.”

Do not underestimate the importance of simple presentation details, like table coverings and staggered levels. “Try to get away from the puffy clouds of linen and table skirting,” counsels Marriott’s Halt. “It takes away from the food. Use slight elevations. You don’t want the levels too dramatic just two or three different ones to allow the eye to flow over it.” Find out if the facility has unique plates, platters and tables on which the food will be placed.

“I thought ice sculptures were out,” says Halt, “but then I read that of style at [author] Tom Clancy’s wedding, there was a huge ice replica of his boat, and I thought, ‘I can’t believe it; everyone’s still doing it.’” Ice sculptures can be whimsical, elegant and intricate all at once. “They are still wonderful novelties for large functions.”

Regional touches can contribute greatly to the buffet experience. The Hyatt Regency Maui uses koa, a local wood, for chafing dishes. Peter Dannemann, director of catering at Marriott’s Marco Island Resort & Golf Club in Florida, says the property always tried to take advantage of the Sunshine State’s natural decor. “When you have beautiful hibiscus bushes or a lovely beach as a setting, you don’t need a lot of props to make an event special,” he says.

“Showcase the food first,” says Frank Michaels of The Breakers. “Accent it with what you have available fresh herbs, greens, vegetables or jars of fruit. If you are inside and you want something formal, be elegant and go with simple, classic silver.”

Decor can be fun and quirky, in some instances. “You have to really know your group, of course,” says Meghan Ruona. She cites a medical meeting where toy stethoscopes were used in the decor, and box lunches were handed out in replicas of old-fashioned doctor’s bags. “You want them to be able to take a step back and relax while they eat. Adding something whimsical is a nice way of easing them out of an all-business atmosphere.”

Bring style to the table: Desert Springs Marriott Resort and Spa Trends and comebacks
Fresh food never goes out of style, and the steady increase of manned stations reflects the desire for well-prepared fare. A growing number of planners are requesting cooking and carving stations in their buffets.

“Guests can ask questions about the food,” says Michaels, “and we’d like them to feel that the risotto is being cooked especially for them.”

Planners and attendees love the extra service action stations provide, and servers can help avoid problems stemming from food allergies or finicky palates.

“[Diners] have optional items that can be cooked into their foods if they want them, or they can avoid a shellfish allergy nightmare,” says Sue Walton, co-owner of Evanston, Ill.-based planning firm Scott Walton & Associates. “Everyone can enjoy the dish the way they want it prepared. And the added service is a really nice touch.”

Those polled generally agree action stations should be available to guests for about two hours, to allow them to peruse leisurely. For unmanned selections, use a place card or some signage to let the guest know what he or she is eating. This can help avoid allergic reactions and minimize waste.

Tastes are becoming more eclectic and upscale. “People are getting adventurous,” says Wyndham’s Tom Welther. “People are asking for sushi and caviar and foie gras. As the economy is on the upswing, people are eating at more fine restaurants, and they want their new tastes reflected in the buffets.” Note: Make sauces and condiments optional where permitted. “People like to choose their own dressings,” Jansen relates. And with dozens of diet trends out there, it will make it easier to satisfy everyone in your party.

If a group is made up largely of European attendees, a cheese station makes a nice addition. Says Jansen, “Make the selections varied and plentiful, as many Europeans like to enjoy cheeses between courses.” Guests from other areas of the world often are intrigued by the custom and will sample the fare themselves.

Carnivores will be pleased to note red meat is making a comeback that some attribute to trendy, low-carb diets like the Atkins program, and despite talk of people eating lighter, comfort foods are gaining new momentum. “Clients are asking for beef, prime rib and turkey carving stations again,” says Partman. “And with it they want things like mashed potatoes and stuffing.”

Knowledge is power
Don’t guess who’s coming to dinner know. Being familiar with your attendees can be the difference between rave reviews and total disaster. “We want to know any past experiences good or bad that you have had with the group,” says the Ritz-Carlton, Naples’ Erik Jansen. “And when you come on-site, meet with the chef. He will know what’s seasonal and available and will have great creative ideas about how to make a buffet more successful.”

Guests’ ages can factor in, says Karen Lauppe, the Hyatt Regency Maui’s director of catering. “Are they a meat-and-potatoes crowd, or will they be open to experimentation? Younger attendees tend to be more into trying something new. They will dip into local Hawaiian fare and find things they like with more ease most of the time.”

Dannemann adds, “You are going to plan a different menu for the elderly, for single guys from the Midwest, for New Yorkers traveling with spouses.”

Planner Sue Walton is a buffet enthusiast for the choice it permits. “It’s an all-in-one fix-it, appealing to everyone from vegans to the attendees who will try anything. meat-eaters can be unapologetic about what they enjoy, and picky people won’t feel as though they’ve been snubbed, which is more of a danger at a plated function.”


Taking a buffet from standard to spectacular is not difficult, particularly with a healthy budget. The following elements can help build an exceptional reception. Some are undeniably pricey, but others only look as though they cost a fortune.

Champagne wishes, caviar dreams. Caviar never goes out of style for an upscale gathering. “For about 85 people, we have ordered 150 ounces of great Russian caviar,” says Erik Jansen, executive assistant manager, food and beverage division, for The Ritz-Carlton, Naples in Florida. “And we generally serve it with French champagne. Use beautiful ice sculptures as decor. This is an event where manned stations are necessary for portion control.”

Fine wines and slick liqueurs. Beverage stations are an increasingly popular alternative to the standard open bar. Martini luge ice sculptures (the drink is poured through the sculpture to chill it), special bars for daiquiris or margaritas, or a variety of local wines can be very impressive, says Rebecca Partman, manager of meetings and incentives for Metropolitan Travel in Seattle. “And it’s not as expensive as you might think,” she adds. After-dinner port selections are also a nice option.

Chefs with showmanship. Professionals who put flash in their pans can make the prep part of the fun. Japanese chefs with hibachi hijinks or quick-draw sushi skills, crêpe masters with fast-flip techniques, or flambé virtuosos will liven up the event and spark guests’ interest in the fare being prepared.


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