Photos by Katrina Hannemann
From the sneeze guard to the entire concept of all-you-can-eat (and you wonder why we have an obesity problem in the US!), buffets are not my thing. For our big day, I envisioned a family-style dinner. Picture it: beautiful reclaimed wood tables, outfitted with pretty flowers. Maybe some mismatched vases. Possibly a butcher paper runner. Who knows, there could be a whimsical candles-antlers-mason jar vignette. All I knew for sure was that we wanted delicious platters of food as the main focal point.
Josh and I met with our friend/caterer Chef Asher Miller of the amazin’ Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen. We talked about our vision and Asher whipped up a killer menu. Crispy romaine salad with shaved radish and ranch dressing, cornbread, cannellini bean ragout, coleslaw, BBQ pork shoulder and pulled turkey . . . how great does that sound? I could just imagine our guests laughing and chatting while passing around plates of simple but delicious food. Asher mentioned that family-style meals can be complicated to pull off, but that he was up for the challenge—a good thing consdiering I was figuratively “married” to the idea of a family-style meal.
And then, over a glass of wine with my former boss, reality set in.
From 1998 until 2006, I worked at a fabulous catering company in Stillwater—the now defunct Tasteful Thymes. The ladies who owned and operated the place taught me how to cook, how to eat, and the difference between parsley and cilantro. We catered tons of events—weddings, bar mitzvahs, grad parties, you name it. I learned just enough about catering to know that it can get really complicated, messy, and royally screwed up if you don’t have a good team in place. They had a pretty good team in place.
Anyhow, I met my former boss, Pam, for a drink a few weeks ago and explained my lovely family-style dinner. It should be less expensive than a plated meal, right? It’s classier than a buffet, right? It’s so easy for the staff, right?
Wrong. She pointed out four specific reasons why buffets trump family-style. Let me paraphrase:
1. Buffet = Less Waste. If you care about food waste, which I do, a family-style meal is the most wasteful option for a large party. Say you have eight people at a table. Each person takes their portion of salad, sides and a protein. As a caterer, you want to ensure there’s more than enough for everyone, so you probably pile two to three “extra” servings on each platter. Midwesterners are notorious for not wanting to take the last bit of food off a serving platter (I’ve seen full-fledged passive-aggressive arguments over the last slice of cheese pizza . . . ‘You take it,’ ‘No, you take it,’ ‘No you take it,’ ‘OK, I’ll take it . . . are you sure you don’t want it?’ Ugh, kill me now!) For every platter of food served, about a third will be wasted. Now, multiply the food wasted at that one table by 35. That’s A LOT of uneaten food, literally thousands of dollars worth. Throwing that much food away makes my brain hurt. Sure, you could have the wait staff wrap things up, but then you get into issues of “Did Uncle Willy touch all of the extra cornbread with his unwashed hands?” Plus, where are you going to store leftovers? Do you combine different tables’ uneaten food in big containers (yuck!)? Who will deal with leftovers? Not appealing.
2. Buffet = Less Rentals. If we wanted each of our tables to have platters of menu items, we’d need to rent or procure something like six platters per table. That adds up to about 180 platters. Not only do they cost a decent amount of money to rent or buy, they take up a lot of room on the actual dining table. “I guess I’ll just awkwardly hold this plate of green beans until someone clears off a space for us to put them.” And, by the way, where the heck is your caterer supposed to stash them?! You need tons of kitchen space to make room for this kind of plating, which for us meant allocating space we’d intended for dining tables to the kitchen. A buffet, on the other hand, requires a few easy-to-store hotel pans per item. Easy.
3. Buffet = Less Time. See above note regarding plating. Sure, waiting in line for a buffet sucks. Personally, I hate it. However, I don’t hate it as much as being the last table to be served food, especially when the first 5-6 tables served are already done eating. Create a few buffet lines and whiz-bang-boom everyone has food and get on to the fun part: drinking and dancing.
4. Buffet = Less $. I used to think this was the only reason to have a buffet. Josh and I didn’t want to seem like cheapskates, which is one of a few reasons why we were thinking family style. But after understanding points 1, 2 and 3, this just seems like an added bonus. Same food, different delivery method. I mean, I can think of a lot of things I’d rather spend $2,000 on, like airfare to Australia for our honeymoon. Or my mortgage.
We’re not 100 percent committed to the buffet, but it’s starting to sound more appealing. So, we’re very sorry friends who prefer not standing in line for their dinner. We really want to serve you a feast fit for a medieval king. Really, we do. I still don’t love buffets, but it is a more practical decision. How ‘bout this: Maybe we’ll serve you salad, bread, and dessert at the table, the rest you’re going to have to get yourself. I know, it’s not ideal, but it’s a compromise. And isn’t that what marriage is all about?