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Designing the Buffet Table Step Up to the Plate

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You’ve been invited to a dinner and as you enter the room, the first thing you see is a table that appears to go on forever, draped in plain white linen, several stainless steel chafing dishes huddled side by side atop a drab lifeless, absence-of-color buffet except for the “decorations” of green foliage that resemble the weeds in your backyard. You think to yourself, “What an ugly table. It’s going to take forever to get through the line and how good can the food taste setting on a table that looks like that”?!  Instead of looking for your seat; you look for the door.

“The design of the table and the food goes hand in hand,” said Karen Kugler, Director of Sales for Hofbrauhaus in Las Vegas.  “When you walk up to a buffet, it’s a lot like window shopping. It should capture your attention and make your mouth water; so much so that you can’t wait to dig in. Perception is reality. If the table looks good, the food looks good; therefore, it must taste good.”

As the old adage goes, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression” and this is especially true in the food service industry, and everyone remembers their first impression.  So how do you capture the attention of your guests, create a visual impact and turn ordinary into extraordinary and blah into beautiful?  It’s simple, dress to impress!  By dressing the buffet table in vibrant colored linens with interesting patterns and textures, and eye-popping décor in varying elevations, you will have a spectacularly designed, take-your-breath-away presentation that will stand out in a crowd.

“The presentation of a beautifully appointed buffet table sets the tone of the room and the evening”, said Frank Gregory, Senior Catering Manager at Aria Hotel at City Center in Las Vegas.  “When guests walk into a room for an evening event, they’re not really sure what to expect or how to position themselves for the evening. When you walk into a room that is set for a buffet dinner, especially in today’s society it creates an atmosphere of relaxation”.

While the success of any meal depends largely on the quality and taste of the food, a presentation of dazzling décor will bring life to the table and reflect the expertise and imagination of the culinary team. A table laden with a magnificent spread of festive foods and lavish, over-the-top displays will heighten the guest’s experience by creating a mood and evoking emotion.

A buffet needs to be well-designed and welcoming, in other words, user-friendly, easily accessible and attractive. The food has to be fresh, colorfully coordinated and maintained at the correct temperatures.  The chafers must be kept full and the stations maintained. When the guests walk into your restaurant, you want them to be excited about visiting the buffet.

“With the Thomas & Mack Center doing buffets at approximately 85-90% of the over 2300 separate catered events we host per year, the presentation of the buffets are critical to our success”, said Cheryl Sogovio, CPCE, Director of Catering and Convention Services and Vice President of the National Association of Catering Executives (NACE). “We always analyze the entire event, including room size, program, profile of attendee, etc., to ensure that we select the proper placement, length and design of the buffet. If we don’t, service can be negatively affected causing poor flow, ineffective service times and dissatisfied guests. In addition to placement, how the buffet is designed and decored effects the overall guest experience. As we all know that “people eat with their eyes first”, we strive to make the buffet a visual experience, adding to the overall ambience of the event”.

It’s safe to say that Las Vegas is the buffet capital of the world.  The birth of the buffet in Las Vegas is attributed to the late publicist Herb McDonald, “who inspired the all-you-can-eat buffet in 1946 more out of hunger than genius. One night while working late at the El Rancho Hotel, McDonald brought some cheese and cold cuts from the kitchen and laid them out on the bar to make a sandwich. Gamblers walking by said they were hungry, and the buffet was born”. Gambling Magazine, July 10, 2002.

According to food historians, the first buffet was a type of cabinet or dresser that originated in France in the 18th century. Small amounts of food were placed on this buffet to serve small groups of people. The buffet has since evolved into one of the most effective ways to serve large groups of people a large variety of food in a relatively short amount of time with maximum efficiency.  The buffet has carved out a distinct niche in today’s marketplace and can be found in casual and upscale venues and private establishments around the country.

Not only has the buffet evolved, diner’s palates have become more sophisticated and discriminating, and if they are expected to serve themselves, they expect to walk up to a beautifully embellished table and feast their eyes and indulge their taste buds on a bountiful buffet filled with a variety of sumptuous foods deliciously prepared, appropriately garnished and chock-full of savory aromas and mouth-watering flavors. They want an adventure, they want to be entertained and they want to be wowed!
“The expression that ‘people eat with their eyes’ is one I live by when designing a buffet table”, said Annie Kang-Drachen, Director of Sales at Eiffel Restaurant at the Paris Hotel, Las Vegas.  “Not only is a well-designed buffet a WOW factor, it enhances the meal. It’s the palate teaser; the first impression you have before actually tasting the food. People are more cultured nowadays and their expectations are higher than ever.”

Although a table design does not always call for elaborate and expensive decorations, it is important that the decorations compliment the food, not distract from it. You don’t have to be a creative genius, an event designer or have a background in catering to understand that food displayed on a buffet table looks much more appetizing when the table is perfectly appointed. To achieve affect, drama and intrigue, the use of eclectic props and eye-catching designs that keep within the theme of the venue or the spirit of the event, will exceed the expectations of the guests. Chafing dishes, serving bowls and trays, in different shapes and sizes; glowing unscented candles; lush blooming floral arrangements and potted plants; ice carvings and intricate edible fruit and vegetable displays, set on graduated pedestals and risers, are items that will provide height, balance, symmetry and dimension to a table and are important components to the presentation. Party lights add color; fountains add sound. Infinite possibilities abound.  “I like to suggest custom props. They’re interesting and relate to the client’s company, or fun themed props that match the buffet or the venue itself”, said Evelyn Ramos, Senior Sales and Catering Manager for the Downtown Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.  “Florals and logo’d ice sculptures add elegance, a little attitude and definition to a buffet table. Whatever the client chooses, the buffet table has to look amazing or it will make the food look unexciting.”

Table function and design.  The setup has to be functional but that does not mean it needs to be boring. Fortunately the lay out is no longer limited to a single row of rectangular tables. Serpentine, half-moon and round banquet tables are stylish, interchangeable and balance out the room. “The trick on a caterer’s part is to make the buffet interesting, have enough stations throughout the room so there are not unending lines of waiting”, said Gregory.

Placement. Proper placement is crucial. A food table set near the entrance, the stage or the bar will create mass confusion. The table should be positioned so that it flows without turning into an obstacle course of confused diners running into each other. Space permitting, a double-sided buffet will service guests more efficiently and expeditiously, and it is always more feasible to separate the action stations, the dessert table and the beverages from the main buffet if possible. This will avoid “traffic jams” and allow guests to move freely and smoothly from one table to the next.

“Meeting planners are always interested in the placement and presentation of the buffet”, said Ramos. “One of their biggest concerns is for order and convenience so that the guests won’t have to backtrack which ultimately causes a bottleneck and slows down the line. Lighting is important; it will accent the food and is critical to the safety of the guests. Everything on the buffet, from dishes to décor, must be secure and balanced and set back from the edge, in case someone accidentally bumps the table. I avoid setting a large number of glass objects and items that can fall over easily. Broken glass flying at a guest or into the food and tipped over candles are extremely dangerous and a recipe for disaster”.

Order and layout. With all of the creative ways to decorate a table, it’s easy to create clutter. A spaciously set buffet is aesthetically appealing and convenient. “Make a station clear with an even flow so the guest doesn’t have to look for silver, plates, linen/napery, potatoes at one end, meat at another, salad who knows where. The trend is definitely to make it more interesting, action-oriented and fun; much harder to do for those parties of several thousand but much more memorable than the old soup line/cafeteria style. Food is fun as exemplified by the enormous popularity of today’s TV cooking shows. Quality and presentation is never out of style”, said Gregory.

With the influx of new and unique restaurants, and the migration to Las Vegas from famous restaurateurs and celebrity chefs at the top of their game, Sin City is fast becoming the dining capital of the world and the quintessential capital of the buffets. Tourists no longer come to gamble and clients no longer come solely for the convention experience; they come to dine out and buffets are a popular choice. Whether the table design is in celebration of the holidays, the seasons, a special occasion or a specific theme, buffets can be an appealing style of service, and if you want to create a truly memorable event, you need to spend time designing and decorating the table. It will be one of the first things people notice when entering the room, and it needs to be the most impressive part of the room. Think of the buffet table in terms of a magnet; it should pull the guests toward it. Since a large part of the evening’s social interaction will take place in line, the atmosphere surrounding the table should be comfortable and inviting and the décor and design should be unique and exciting. This will make a positive “first” and long-lasting impression with your guests.