Food stations at weddings aren’t new—but theatrical presentation, dozens of toppings and guest-friendly chefs are.
Waterfront views were a high priority when boating enthusiasts Kathy Corrigan and Gary Welch married—but so was the post-“I do” feast.
The couple exchanged vows privately in December 2009, on a beach at sunset in Naples, Fla. Eight months later, they chose the mezzanine level of the Kenosha Public Museum overlooking Lake Michigan for their wedding celebration with 100 family and friends.
“We didn’t want a traditional sit-down meal,” the bride explains. “We wanted easy ways for people to mingle.” The couple also aimed to satisfy their own appetite for a creative, classy yet casual presentation of fresh, in-season fare such as seafood.
They turned to Dave and Kathy Perez of Fiesta Catering, who designed food stations that allowed guests to sit where they wanted and easily move elsewhere to taste something new.
“If you wanted to eat light, you could—or you could go up to the smashed-potato bar five times,” Corrigan-Welch says. For the wedding, just-ripened vegetables were grilled outdoors to accompany Alaskan salmon, shrimp, beef tenderloin and more. “It seemed like a more appealing and urban approach than keeping food in chafing dishes for hours.”
Dessert included 10 types of cake, each serving as a centerpiece. The thinly cut slices from Bridal Cakes by Ann in Kenosha became a natural icebreaker as guests sampled several flavors.
What works best for your wedding will depend on budget, when the meal is served, size of the guest list, type of reception venue and personal preferences. Be sure to consider everything from family traditions and dynamics to favorite foods and diet restrictions. While caterers are willing to work with your budget, it won’t be a happy partnership if you try to impose budget constraints that compromise their reputation.
“Keeping the food bill to $2,000 while feeding 190 people isn’t something I want to do,” one caterer says. “You may not care if I use lesser ingredients, but what about the guests being served? ‘This is terrible; who’s the caterer?’ is what I want to avoid.”
“Brides can be rigid in their thinking,” observes another caterer. “Our job is to create a hassle-free day, but a meal of only hors d’oeuvres during the dinner hour won’t work. There is no portion control. You can plan for eight or nine pieces per person, but some groomsmen stack twice as much on their plates.”
Sarah Bauer of Catering by Davians in Menomonee Falls says the cost of the average sit-down meal can be cut by $2 per plate if the salad and dessert are served tableside and the main course is a buffet. “These semi sit-downs help address the concerns that some families will want to eat a lot,” she says.
Bauer says the food-station approach provides “a neat way for a bride and groom to show their personality” and savor favorite foods without compromising guest expectations.
For example, fans of Indian cuisine can serve their favorite spicy dish while offering alternatives to guests who prefer milder dishes. Love fajitas? A build-your-own option makes it easy for vegetarians and meat eaters to customize their intake.
Even the standard mashed potato livens up when accompanied by a mix of unusual accoutrements. “You wouldn’t expect chopped tomatoes, but they go over well,” Bauer says. Add flair with herbed butters and a selection of shredded cheeses, or consider beef tips for more of an entrée feel.
Bauer says food stations differ from appetizer receptions in that the latter is more about finger foods that are eaten in one or two bites. Having a server at each food station and using small plates cuts the tendency for guests to waste food by over-serving themselves.
Food stations were part of Bauer’s own wedding reception in April 2010. “We love sushi, so that was part of it, with smoked salmon, salad in mini martini glasses and a chive-dill dip with raw veggies at the cold-food station.” Elsewhere, a carving area served rounds of beef with traditional fixings and a Hawaiian-themed station supplied coconut-breaded chicken, mango salsa and island rice.
Heavy appetizer buffets featuring enough types of finger foods to equal a full meal have been trendy for the past couple of years says Rick Viviani of Viviani’s Catering in Middleton. Selections are nearly endless, and it’s also a good way to address dietary concerns such as gluten sensitivities and vegan restrictions.
Viviani recommends presenting your most substantial item first, such as turkey or prime rib sliced into cocktail buns, because that’s what people will fill up on. Fresh mozzarella and tomato bruschetta also go over well.
When a cocktail hour precedes the meal, Viviani sets out a light snack mix to help absorb the alcohol and lessen the tendency to overeat at the buffet. The number of appetizer choices, he advises, needs to be reasonable for the size of crowd.
“Wanting 20 choices—50 of each—for 200 people doesn’t work,” he explains. The first person served might take five of one item, which quickly reduces food choices for others.
If price is a concern, keep in mind that appetizers requiring time-consuming preparation, like bacon-wrapped chicken skewered with pineapple and green pepper chunks, are more expensive.
Sit-down meals simplify planning because “everybody eats at once and everybody’s food is hot, as long as it’s all plated at the same time,” Viviani says. He discourages this format in groups larger than 140, especially when pasta and cream sauces are involved. “A lemon chicken with vodka cream sauce over linguini might have good flavor, but the sauce will begin to solidify and the pasta starts to get sticky.”
Food station logistics
Practical concerns sometimes turn into major factors about how to feed wedding guests. A small dining room may not have room for seating and food stations. A buffet set up against a wall means one line for serving instead of two, so it takes longer for all guests to eat.
Similarly, time of reception makes a difference. “At the dinner hour, guests are expecting a meal,” says Peggy Landwer of the Four Seasons Resort at Miscauno Island, near Pembine. “Even if ‘light hors d’oeuvres’ is stated on the invitation, they will be hungry. You cannot assume that they will eat before coming to the ceremony, even if the guests have been told in advance.”
She says a simple plated dinner with salad and rolls often costs less than doubling appetizers. Her property’s appetizers are priced per 50 or 100 count, “and guests will need eight to 10 pieces to satisfy them in place of dinner. This can really add up, and the guests will still be hungry.”
Freedom to move
Terry Vajgrt, co-owner of the Creamery Restaurant and Inn in Downsville, notes that while they can accommodate traditional multi-course meals, people seem to want to move around and mingle. “Formal meals are not conducive to chatter,” he says.
“Cocktail receptions in summer, with a food station here and there, can feel like an elegant garden party,” Vajgrt says, noting that bridal couples have broken traditional rules in all sorts of ways.
Consider the head table. Vajgrt remembers a reception in which the wedding party had a sit-down meal while guests indulged in wine, beer and appetizers. Neil and Kelly Cowhig of Plymouth decided on a pig roast outside the Wade House, a historic stagecoach stop in Greenbush, when they married in August 2010. The site was near the home of relatives, and price was a factor in their decision on how to feed 150 guests. The outdoor buffet was like going to a picnic, the bride recalls. “We wanted it to be fun and relaxed.”
And the food? The grass-fed pork and free-range chicken came from Kirschbaum Family Farm of West Bend and Jeff-Leen Farm of Random Lake. (An uncle’s sweet-corn crop also would have made it onto the menu had it been ready to harvest.) The Cowhigs live on a farm once owned by Kelly’s great-grandparents, and the couple is the fourth generation to tap syrup from 180 acres of maple trees there. “We want to support other businesses like us,” she says. “That’s important.”
Whether you choose to feed your guests a little of everything or a lot of one thing, work with your caterer to decide the best portion size and food options for your reception. The options are limitless.