August 21, 2023
By Mike Fletcher

Choosing what style of table service would best suit your next event can be overwhelming. Venues and caterers offer a smorgasbord of options. So how do you know what type of table service will fit both the food you intend to serve to guests and your overall event design?

You’ll no doubt be choosing menus based on foods most appropriate for the time of day your event is taking place, the experience you want your attendees to have, or the types of guests you’re hoping to attract. You’ll then need to decide how that food is going to be served.

Read on to discover the different types of table services, and how and when to use them in your events.

What is table service?

Table service refers to the many ways your guests can receive their food during your event. The options don’t all have to refer to seated guests around a table, either.

You may, for example, opt for a standing reception to allow guests to network and mingle as food and drink is tray served around to them by waiting staff.

Or, if you have larger numbers of attendees, you may decide to offer a broader variety of food by setting up different catering stations and allowing guests to queue up to receive their meal of choice.

You could, of course, combine table service styles. For instance, a dessert station is a popular option following a plated hand service as it allows your guests to leave their pre-assigned tables, move around the room and socialise after a more formal way of enjoying their first two courses.

Dessert stations also create a visual spectacle, which will encourage your guests to share this part of their dining experience on social media.

13 table service styles to consider for your events

1. Reception Service

Light food is served buffet-style on a table. Your guests will usually stand and serve themselves. They would normally not sit down to eat, choosing instead to stand at poser tables or circulate the room. It’s for this reason that the food you serve should be ‘finger food’ and/or ‘fork food’. It would be inappropriate to serve anything that requires a knife or is too difficult or messy to eat while standing.

2. Butlered Hors d’Oeuvres Service

Finger food and appetisers are carried around on trays by the waiting staff. Your reception guests will serve themselves, using cocktail napkins provided by the server. This is a typical style of service used for upscale receptions where the focus is on allowing your guests to mingle and network.

3. Buffet Service

Foods are arranged on tables. Your guests move along the buffet line and serve themselves. They then take their filled plates to a dining table to sit and eat. In this table service, drinks are usually brought and poured by servers at the tableside. A very elegant buffet would have servers carrying guests’ plates to their tables for them.

4. Action Stations

Instead of cooking food in the kitchen, chefs stand in designated areas to prepare and serve dishes to your waiting guests.

Foods that lend themselves well to action station service include mashed potato bars, fajitas, pasta, grilled meats, omelettes, crepes, sushi, flaming desserts and spinning salad bowls.

These stations are sometimes called ‘performance stations’ or ‘exhibition cooking’ as your guests can see their meals being cooked to their requested specifications.

5. Cafeteria Service

Here, your guests stand in line but don’t help themselves. Instead, they’re served by chefs or servers from behind the buffet table. This is an efficient 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.

6. Plated Buffet Service

This style of table service includes a selection of pre-plated foods, such as entrées, sandwich plates, pasta and salad plates, either set on a buffet table or a rolling cart and then moved into your meeting or function room at the designated time.

The individual plates can be then served on trays. This is a particularly good idea for groups who want to continue working while they eat.

7. Family-style (English) Service

Guests are seated. Large serving platters and bowls are filled with food from the kitchen and set on the dining tables by servers. Your guests would help themselves from a ‘Lazy Susan’ (a turntable placed under the bowl) or pass the food to each other. Occasionally, you may have a host carving the meat tableside.

8. Plated (American) Service

In this table service, your guests are seated and pre-plated foods are served by servers from the left. Beverages are served from the right, while used dishes and glasses are removed from the right. It’s a very functional, controllable and efficient format. Just make sure the food items are not plated too far in advance of serving, as they may lose culinary quality.

9. Pre-set Service

Some foods are already on the dining tables when your guests take their seats. Examples may include bread and butter, an appetiser, salad bowls or after-dinner chocolates.

Since pre-set food will be on the tables for a few minutes before they are consumed, you must pre-set only those items that will retain their culinary qualities such as flavour and texture at room temperature.

10. A La Carte Service

Normally associated with private dining-style events held in restaurants, your guests are handed a menu at the table and asked to notify a waiter of their selection.

Using this style of table service at events held in other types of venues can be expensive since your chefs will need to prepare enough dishes for each of the available options. You’ll also need a plan for what to do with any leftover food, such as donating it to a local charity or foodbank.

11. Set Menu Service

This is where one option is served per course to each of your guests. It’s a plated meal and allows for a much quicker service than A La Carte. You will, however, need to ensure you’ve asked all attendees for their dietary requirements and communicated specific allergies and preferences to the kitchen team.

12. Hand Service

Here, your guests are seated, the food is pre-plated, and the plates are fitted with dome covers. There is one server for every two of your guests, and all guests at a table are served at precisely the same time.

Servers wear white gloves. Each server carries two servings from the kitchen and stands behind the two guests assigned to them. At the direction of the captain or maître d’ hotel, servings are set in front of all guests, and their dome covers are removed at precisely the same time. This procedure may be followed for all courses.

This is a very elegant style of service that is often used for smaller gourmet functions. This style of table service is sometimes called ‘service in concert’ or ‘synchronised service’.

13. The Wave

This is a rapid 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 workstation.

The wave is typically used in conjunction with plated and pre-set service styles. Large numbers of guests can be served very quickly, using less labour. However, you won’t receive individualised service for your attendees.

Choose your table service style wisely

Table service styles play an important role in the success of a catered event. Some of the examples above can be very budget-friendly or designed to be more exclusive. Others, such as Action Stations, are incredibly entertaining and can contribute significantly to guest satisfaction and social media sharing.

When sourcing your next event venue via the Cvent Supplier Network, ask about the available table service options and how in-house catering teams can help you incorporate different service styles into your event design for maximum impact.

Mike Fletcher

Mike Fletcher

Mike has been writing about the meetings and events industry for almost 20 years as a former editor at Haymarket Media Group, and then as a freelance writer and editor. He currently runs his own content agency, Slippy Media, catering for a wide-range of client requirements, including social strategy, long-form, event photography, event videography, reports, blogs and ghost-written material.

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