Often the style of service will influence the types and varieties of foods the caterer can offer. For instance, foods that will be passed on trays by servers during an afternoon reception must be easy to handle. They also must be able to hold up well. Sauced items, which could drip, should not be served, but easy-to-eat finger foods would be appropriate.
Additional service styles that can be used for a catered meal function are:
Reception Service. Light foods are served displayed buffet-style on a table. Guests usually stand and serve themselves. They normally do not sit down to eat. These type of events are sometimes referred to as a “walk and talk.” Food is “finger food” and/or “fork food.” It is inappropriate to serve food that requires a knife or is difficult to eat while standing.
Butlered Hors d’ Oeuvres Service. Food is put on trays in the kitchen and passed by servers. Guests serve themselves, using cocktail napkins provided by the server. This is a typical style of service used for upscale receptions. This style of service is only appropriate for “finger food.”
Buffet Service. Foods are arranged on tables. Guests usually move along the buffet line and serve themselves. When their plates are filled, guests take them to a dining table to eat. Servers usually provide beverage service at tableside. A very elegant buffet would have servers carry guests’ plates to their tables for them.
Action Stations. Similar to a buffet. Chefs prepare and serve foods at the buffet (rather than in the kitchen). Foods that lend themselves well to action station service include wok stations, mashed potato bars, fajitas, pastas, grilled meats, omelets, crepes, sushi, flaming desserts and spinning salad bowls. These stations are sometimes called “performance stations” or “exhibition cooking.”
Cafeteria Service. Similar to a buffet. Guests stand in line, but do not help themselves. They are served by chefs and/or servers from behind the buffet line. This is a way to control portion sizes. Sometimes the inexpensive items, such as salads, will be self-service, and the expensive meat items will be served by an attendant.
Plated Buffet Service. Selection of pre-plated foods, such as entrees, sandwich plates and salad plates, set on a buffet table. They may also be placed on a roll-in (a i.e., rolling cart or table) and then moved into the function room at the designated time. Because of individual plates, trays are usually used. This is a particularly good idea for groups who want to continue “working” meals while they eat.
Plated (American) Service. Guests are seated. Foods are pre-portioned in the kitchen, arranged on plates and served by servers from the left. Beverages are served from the right. Used dishes and glasses are removed from the right. This is the most functional, common, economical, controllable and efficient type of service. However, if foods are plated too far in advance, they could run together, discolor, or otherwise lose culinary quality.
Family-style (English) Service. Guests are seated. Large serving platters and bowls are filled with foods in the kitchen and set on the dining tables by servers. Guests help themselves from a lazy Susan or they pass the foods to each other. Occasionally, a host would carve the meat.
Pre-set Service. Food that is already on the dining tables when guests are seated. Since pre-set foods will be on the tables for a few minutes before they are consumed, you must pre-set only those that will retain sanitary and culinary qualities at room temperatures. Most common are bread and butter, but often the appetizer will be pre-set as well. For lunches with a limited time frame, occasionally salad and dessert will be pre-set.
Hand Service. Guests are seated. There is one server for every two guests and all guests at a table are served at precisely the same time. Servers wear white gloves. Foods are pre-plated and the plates are fitted with dome covers. Each server carries two servings from the kitchen and stands behind the two guests assigned to him or her. At the direction of the captain or maitre d’ hotel, all servings are set in front of all guests, and their dome covers are removed, at precisely the same time. This procedure is may be followed for all courses. This is a very elegant style of service that is sometimes used for small gourmet -meal functions. This style is sometimes called “service in concert or synchronized service.” Here is a video I took of a variation, where instead of the whole room, each table was served at the same time.
The Wave. This is a 'quick and dirty" method of serving where all servers start at one end of the function room and work straight across to the other end. Servers are not assigned workstations. In effect, all servers are on one team and the entire function room is the team’s work station. The wave is typically used in conjunction with plated and pre-set service styles. Large numbers of guests can be served very quickly, usually using less labor. It does not provide individualized service for attendees.
Service styles play an important role in the success of a catered event. Clients can choose those that may be less expensive (such as pre-set), or can splurge with French or Russian service. Furthermore, some service styles (such as action stations) are very entertaining and can contribute significantly to guest satisfaction.
For variety, you can mix service styles during a single meal function. For instance, you might begin with reception service for appetizers, move into the banquet room where the tables are pre-set with salads, rolls and butter, use French service for the soup course, use Russian service for the entree, and end the meal with a dessert buffet.