Even the most experienced pros need checklists and reminders to be certain they’ve covered all the bases for big parties. To include everything you’ll need to properly cater a large event, think from the planning stage all the way through cleanup.
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Knowing who will be attending is critical to pulling off a large event successfully. Large events requiring professional catering can range from weddings to graduations, birthdays to funerals, and everything in between. Host and caterer should discuss the age range and preferences of guests who will be attending the event. It’s one thing if you’re certain all guests will be of the same generation, and quite another if everyone from toddlers to grandparents will be present.
The style and tone of the event influences how you choose everything you’ll need to cater a large event. Formal sit-down dinners require different equipment, staff, and kitchen arrangements than do informal buffets. Event hosts may have their hearts set on a particular theme, and will want it reflected in everything from the linens to drinks, appetizers, entrees, and desserts.
The style of the event also impacts food preparation and safety: hot food on a buffet requires vigilance and special equipment to ensure it stays at the required temperature. Cold food must be kept cold. It’s easier to monitor and maintain proper food temperatures when food is plated just before serving for a sit-down event. Buffets require tending and replenishment.
There are more special dietary restrictions to be considered for large events, based on the sheer number and diversity of the guests, and an overall greater attention to dietary needs. It may be necessary to offer several different entrees that accommodate food allergies, vegetarian or vegan preferences, religious requirements, or gluten-free needs. Careful menu planning will include consideration of these various needs.
Consider the amount of time you expect guests will be enjoying drinks and appetizers, a buffet, or a sit- down meal. The nature of the event will also affect the timing of how and when food and drinks will be served. A fast-paced business conference may schedule as little as 30 minutes for participants to grab boxed lunches, or combine a continental breakfast with a working session. Under those circumstances, food is going to have to keep in edible and healthful condition for as long as it sits on the tables where conference goers grab it.
By contrast, a full sit-down dinner will likely start with a cocktail hour (and these do truly last a minimum of an hour, to allow for mingling and chit-chat), possibly with passed appetizers. When the guests move into the ballroom or the tent to sit down, expect dinner to last 90 minutes to two hours from soups and salads through the desserts, whether presented on a dessert trolley, buffet, or served at the table after servers clear entrees. Then there is also time for lingering over coffee or tea.
Buffets fall somewhere in between. Depending on the number of guests and the layout of the buffet (e.g., if it’s situated up against a wall or out in the center of the room where guests can approach it from all sides) buffet dinners usually last about an hour. The most important consideration is preventing long lines from forming and finding a way for guests to fill their plates from the buffet without causing a back-up that delays the event.
Obviously it’s critical to know how many people to expect, in order to plan how much food and drink to have on hand. Padding the supplies a little is a good idea: you’ll simply create delicious leftovers for guests to take home, or for hosts to savor for several days after the event is over.
Staff for a large catered event will include bartenders, servers, and bussers. Find out well ahead of time how the venue expects you to handle garbage and who is responsible for breaking down tables and collecting soiled linen for cleaning. A large event may need several servers per table, each with a specific task: offering beverages from red or white wine to coffee and tea, delivering bread baskets and salad dressings, offering gravy or sauces for entrees, and serving desserts.
Consider placement of bus trays and traffic patterns for guests, servers, and bussers. While many large events put 8-10 guests at tables out of necessity based on available space, it’s still important to lay things out to avoid collisions and spills to the greatest extent possible.
Equipment is as important as food and staff. Imagine every stage of the event, from food prep and delivery through service and cleanup. Find out how much of the necessary equipment the venue provides, and how much the caterer is expected to supply.
For sit-down dinner events, consider:
- Table linens: Every table will need a tablecloth and napkins. Make sure spare napkins are readily available to replace any that guests drop, or use to dip in water glasses and dab off spills.
- Dinner china: Formal dinners need dinner plates, salad plates, bread plates, coffee cups, and possibly matching or complementary pieces like gravy boats, salad dressing bowls or oil and vinegar cruets, and even finger bowls.
- Utensils: Beyond forks, knives, and spoons, your menu may need special silverware like butter knives, soup spoons, fish forks and knives, or serving spoons for passed items.
- Crystal: Water and wine glasses, salt and pepper shakers, and sugar bowls must find their places among all the other items on the table, including centerpieces and place cards.
- Serving bowls or baskets: Bread baskets lined with linen napkins, or serving bowls that guest will pass containing side dishes may be required.
Buffets are another matter in terms of necessary equipment. If you’re catering a large event that offers buffet services, you’ll need:
- Chafing dishes: Whether warmed by flame or electricity, you’ll need chafing dishes to keep hot foods hot.
- Ice: If you’re serving cold food, such as shrimp cocktails, smoked fish, cheeses, and salads on the buffet, they’ll have to rest on serving dishes cooled with ice. These serving pieces must ensure that melting ice doesn’t create a watery mess on the table, so they should contain any melting ices until the platter can be switched out.
- Rolled utensils: At the buffet, guests have to carry their own plates, and may have to return to a table that isn’t set with dining utensils. Be sure to prepare forks, knives, and spoons rolled in napkins.
- Tongs: For self-service from chafing dishes and serving platters, tongs, serving spoons, and large serving forks are necessary.
How the food and drink looks is almost as important as how it tastes. Trays on the buffet must be attractively organized, and the buffet table decorated with floral arrangements or other decorations that enhances the visual appeal of the food without interfering with self-service. Food or desserts that must be prepared as single-servings for guests to choose can be arranged in attractive, high-quality transparent plastic serving cups or glassware.
Plating for a sit-down event gives the caterer more control over presentation. Severs should be trained to preserve the look of the plate while moving it toward the table and placing it in front of a guest.
If you’re preparing food offsite, you’ll have to transport it from the kitchen to the venue. Disposable food tray suppliers offer attractive, covered plastic trays that preserve the presentation of fruit, vegetable, and dessert trays. These can go directly on a buffet table, and servers can remove the covers just before the buffet opens. When the event is over, the covers can be replaced to preserve leftovers, or if the trays are empty, they can go in the recycling bin.
Everything you’ll need to cater a large event includes what you’ll be serving, what you’ll be serving it on, and how you’ll get it there. Here’s hoping you have a wonderfully successful catered affair!