How to Manage a Buffet: A Quick Guide

To a diner, a buffet is easy to comprehend: You line up, get your plate, and have it filled with food before returning to your seat. But for food operators and chefs, managing a buffet can be much more complex.

Restaurant operators have different attitudes towards a buffet-style service. Some think it’s a great way to save on labor costs, while others use it to showcase their best foods and services. The manner of execution also varies between attended and strictly self-serve types.

If you haven’t already learned this from professional chef training courses, managing a buffet can be tricky. It’s a good thing you’re in the right place.

This article aims to shed light on buffet-style food service — what it is and how it can be made more manageable.

What Is a Buffet?

Originally done in France in the 16th century, this style of dining remains popular among restaurant guests. Unlike fine dining food service, buffets allow guests to help themselves from the food laid out on a sideboard or table.

A buffet-style service is a system that entails placing food in a publicly accessible area where diners can get their food with zero or less assistance from servers. This type of service à la française (serving various dishes simultaneously) is available in many different establishments, including restaurants and hotels, as well as social events like private parties and business gatherings.

3 Types of Buffet-Style Restaurants

While it may seem simple, the buffet-style service actually comes in many different concepts. Although each generally follows the service à la française principle, they differ in a couple of aspects. In some cases, they are used during special occasions or as a special promotion for a food service establishment.

Below are some examples of the basic concepts buffet-style restaurants use:

1.    Cafeteria-style

While less prevalent in restaurants, the cafeteria-style buffet remains in existence today. This variation of buffet eating lets customers choose plates of food as they pass in a queue. Each plate may differ in contents; some might have a pre-made sandwich, while others have a dessert or a cup of soup.

2.    All-You-Can-Eat

As the name implies, this type of buffet allows guests to eat as much as they can. It is a great way for diners to get the most out of their money, as they would normally pay one price for all they can eat.

Plus, they have complete freedom to pick what they want to eat from the selection served, going to each station of appetizers, salads, desserts, and  main course dishes.

3.    Catered

This type of buffet service is commonly used to feed big groups of people quickly and efficiently. As such, it is normally utilized during social events and business gatherings and has the most assistance from restaurant staff out of all the buffet-style concepts on this list.

6 Rules for Setting Up a Buffet Table

Although there are a few more aspects you need to learn about a buffet, setting the table is arguably the most important one. To make sure you do it right, here are six rules you must remember:

1.    Assign a clear beginning

When setting up a buffet table, make sure that there is a clearly visible beginning and end. This will allow diners to know where they should line up and prevent a traffic jam from happening.

To ensure that people know where the line starts, place all plates on one end of the table. This serves as a marker for the start of the buffet table queue.

When serving a big group, consider pulling the table farther from the wall. This way, people can go around both sides of the table.

2.    Offer support

While buffet-style restaurants may vary in basic concept, it is still best to offer a certain level of support for the guests, be it directly or indirectly.

If you’re not catering, support could come in the form of putting small plates near each dish so guests would have somewhere to put the serving utensils down when not in use. Also, place a plate under the beverage dispenser to catch any drips.

3.    Supervise self-service areas

While these are labeled to reflect the extent of freedom diners get for their own provisions, self-service areas should never be left unsupervised.

The funny thing about food safety in a buffet table is that the guests pose the greatest risk to themselves and other customers. To avoid contamination, you have to make sure that a server trained and certified in proper food handling is assigned to monitor the self-service areas.

One staff member per shift should be enough. If the buffet is considerably big, you can also assign one person per station.

Just remember to pick someone who is used to customer service and has the skill to assist without being intrusive, while still achieving the goal of the task – to maintain order and safety at the buffet table.

4.    Label your dishes

Buffet or not, labeling the dishes is vitally important for food establishments because of the growing number of diet restrictions people have today.

Besides vegetarian or vegan guests, you also need to consider those with allergies to certain ingredients like peanuts, eggs, and seafood. Put any important ingredient on the label (e.g., “contains peanuts”) as much as possible.

Apart from safety reasons, this is also an opportunity for you to show your creativity. Labels can range between simple text-only cards to colorful and informative standees complete with pictures and icons.

5.    Use height to your advantage

No, this doesn’t mean you should tower over diners while they line up to get food. It simply means that it’s best to use different heights when creating the layout of food on the buffet table.

Like in a centerpiece, using variations in the height of the different food items displayed  adds dimension to the entire setup. You can also prevent a mess if you elevate dishes that have sauces and may be a bit tricky to handle.

When adding elevation, you can use books under the tablecloth to keep the serving plates level even with the added height. Of course, serving trays can come in different heights as well. Don’t forget to put the taller items at the back for ease of access.

6.    Keep food out of the temperature danger zone

High-risk foods, or those that are potentially hazardous, should be kept out of the Temperature Danger Zone (4 to 60 degrees Celsius), which is the point where bacteria and other harmful microorganisms multiply rapidly.

Among the food items that are considered high-risk are shellfish, fish, meat, poultry, egg and egg products, dairy, and leafy greens. These should all be kept either in hot or cold displays to stay free of harmful microorganisms.

Foods that are placed in the hot zone should also be stirred frequently to ensure even distribution of heat. Frequently checking the temperature using a clean and sanitized thermometer is also recommended.

Manage a Buffet Like an Expert

Success in managing a buffet table lies in thorough planning and preparation. With the information presented in this article, you should be able to manage your first buffet-style service like a boss.


Shanaaz Raja is the Course Director at International Centre for Culinary Arts – ICCA Dubai.