One of the easiest ways that an à la carte restaurant can add to its revenue is to offer buffet menus to private parties in part of their existing space. Buffets can be equally appealing to both customers and operators, as long as careful thought goes into the planning of the menus. Although there is much overlap between the skills, techniques and planning required in an à la carte kitchen and a banquet kitchen, there are also enough differences that taking a look at them is time well spent.
The first thing to consider is whether or not you have enough space in your facility to make this idea work. While a private room that seats eight comes in handy for booking an off-the-menu business meeting, a space sufficient for at least 25 guests will be needed to make getting into the banquet business worthwhile. Space for 50 to 100 guests might be a better acceptable minimum. With buffets, the more the merrier in two major respects: marketability and profitability. The more space you can either totally dedicate to private events or, even better, occasionally borrow from your normal seating, the fewer clients you’ll have to turn away because of size. It’s not much more work to produce a buffet menu for 100 than it is for 50, but the profits double. Depending on your sales, it might make good sense to occasionally limit your walk-in traffic to book a sure thing with a pre-approved menu, bar package and guaranteed minimum. Regular bookings of rehearsal dinners, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs and business functions are a great addition to regular sales, and will increase as your reputation as a restaurant that can handle these functions grows. Kitchen space is another consideration, but it’s amazing how much prep can be done and stored with a minimum of effort and thought. A few feet of work space and a dedicated speed rack in the walk-in can work wonders.
Financially, a pre-sold buffet is a good bet as compared to à la carte service. Instead of purchasing and prepping food and hoping people will come in and buy it, you purchase and prep food that’s already been chosen, in the quantity that’s already been guaranteed. As long as your pricing is in line, there’s no reason for bad food costs. Typically, the way the banquet business works is that the client agrees on a menu, bar package, staffing and any extras (flowers, special linens, etc.) as well as a guaranteed minimum number of guests. When booking the event, the client signs a contract and pays a deposit (50% is normal.) Either before the event or the day of, depending on the establishment’s policy, the balance is paid in full. If the guarantee is for 100 guests and only 90 show up, they still pay for 100. If 110 show up, then they pay for 110 (and you have to supply the extra food, service, etc.) Overall, it’s a good business model.
Another nice aspect of buffets is that they require much less kitchen staff than a similar plated dinner for the same number of guests. For example, let’s look at a three course, plated dinner for 50 guests as opposed to a buffet for the same number. Among other things, it takes less manpower to produce, say, 16 platters of food for the buffet than it does 150 plates for the plated dinner. Not to mention that, once the buffet goes out at the beginning of the meal and is replenished, most of the kitchen staff can leave or move onto other duties.
For the kitchen, the hour before a buffet goes out is the most hectic. Choose menu items that can be substantially prepped ahead of time, preferably the day before. A combination of hot and cold items will make getting the buffet out on time easier. The cold platters can be made while the hot items are cooking, and will be done while you’re putting the hot items in chafers. When making the platters, always think about how they look, but also how easy it will be for the guests to take their food. Make sure the appropriate serving pieces are on the buffet. Have the cold back-up platters ready to go for replenishing, and have a plan for quickly making the hot ones when you need them. When working out your portions, consider the whole menu. If you’re serving three different proteins, then 2.5 ounces of each one per guest, totaling 7.5 ounces of protein for each guest, is probably sufficient. For vegetables and starches, 4 ounces of each per guest should be fine. Obviously, take into consideration what you know about the people you’re serving. College students are likely to eat more than ladies who lunch. Also, always add at least 10% to all of your calculations, more for your first few events. Like everything else, it will get easier with more experience. Whatever you do, don’t run out of food. Go heavy your first few times out of the chute. What you’ll lose in profit is nothing compared to the business you’ll lose if anyone leaves hungry. Also, you don’t want to cut it so close that the last few people who see the buffet, most likely the hosts, feel like they’re picking over scraps. After you’ve done a few buffets and are comfortable with the quantities, calculate your costs again to make sure your prices make sense.
There are two basic scenarios for buffet dinners: having enough seating for everyone to sit down at once, and having a combination of more limited seating and tall “cocktail” tables that three or four guests can walk up to and have a place to set down their plate and drink. They both work fine, but just make sure that your client chooses one over the other and gets what they expect the day of the event. Having seating for everyone is a little more formal, and will probably make guests happier if the focus is on the meal. The “cocktail” table option is better when the focus is more on mingling than the food. If there won’t be seating for all, make sure that the menu items will be easy to eat with just a fork.
The nice thing about a buffet from the guest’s point of view is that, no matter what they’re in the mood for, they can probably have something like it. Contrast that with attending a plated dinner where the host has chosen the menu for everyone, starting with a green salad, moving on to a chicken entrée and then having a chocolate dessert. It’s great if you like those things, and the host is hoping you do, but not so good if you hate salad, prefer fish and would really like a nice, fruity dessert. With a well-balanced buffet, everyone can be happy. One of the main things you want to strive for in writing a buffet menu is variety. Starting with a theme, like South Western, Italian, or Spring can help get your creative juices flowing. In general, have an item from each of these seven categories: seafood, chicken, red meat or pork, vegetable, starch, bread and dessert. Let’s look at each category and see what will and won’t work on a buffet.
The two main things to keep in mind when choosing seafood dishes for a buffet are cost and temperature. In general, it is a good idea to serve chilled seafood dishes on a buffet. Seafood has a relatively narrow window of being perfectly cooked, and if you try to keep it warm for any length of time, it overcooks and tends to make the whole room smell “fishy,” always something worth avoiding. There are many great, chilled seafood options to consider. Poached salmon is popular, attractive and a bargain relative to its perceived value. The same is true of house-cured salmon. Oysters on the half shell with various sauces are nice if you have the staff to shuck them, aren’t too expensive and take up a lot of room on a plate. Cold, steamed lump crabmeat is always a favorite, but make sure you use it in a way that fits into the budget. If your customers are willing to pay for bowls of it on the buffet, go for it. More likely, it will make more sense as part of a filling for tomatoes or avocados, which will also make portioning easier. Chilled, poached shrimp are always a favorite. Depending on your budget, your options range from U-8s piled on a platter drizzled with simple sauce, to peel-your-own 31-35s, to using canned cocktail shrimp in a pasta salad.
Chicken is always popular, very versatile and, for a major protein, relatively inexpensive. It works well on a buffet hot or chilled and, in many cases, can be prepared in advance. Grilled, boneless breasts can be cooked ahead, chilled and sliced, then served with tapenade over a bed of arugula. Fried chicken, as strips or whole pieces, re-heats well. Coq au vin, a French dish of chicken, mushrooms and onions braised in red wine can be prepared days in advance, re-heated and served in chafing dishes. For a buffet-sized potpie, make a chicken stew in velouté sauce, using some inexpensive vegetables in the process, and re-heat it in a hotel pan, covering the stew with biscuit dough. From chicken enchiladas, to chicken with mushroom sauce in crêpes, to chicken Parmesan, you can’t go wrong.
Menu items featuring red meat run the gambit from super expensive special occasion splurges to down-home bargains. If you have a client who wants to pull out all the stops, few items on a buffet impress and please guests more than a perfectly cooked, sliced choice whole beef tenderloin. In the same league are lamb chops and roast veal loin. Prime rib follows close behind, but is probably a little more common, so not quite as unexpected. If a client really wants lamb, but doesn’t have the budget for chops, roast leg of lamb is a great choice. Almost all of these items must be roasted and sliced just in time to be served, so make sure you have the expertise on hand to pull it off. The exception is beef tenderloin, which also works well cooked ahead of time, and served chilled. Less expensive, but still great buffet items are stews, chili, burgers (big and small) and fajitas. Also, don’t forget pork. It can be prepared an amazing number of ways, and is almost always a good option to get meat on a menu when every penny counts.
Vegetables, like seafood, are very sensitive to temperature over time. Think of ways to serve vegetables guests will want to eat either chilled or at room temperature. Salads are an obvious example and present many opportunities for creativity and variety. Vegetables like asparagus, baby carrots, zucchini and Portobello mushrooms work well when grilled, chilled and tossed in vinaigrette, especially when garnished with thinly sliced cucumbers, olives and roasted and peeled peppers. When serving vegetables hot, just be sure you don’t overcook them at all to begin with, and that they’ll hold up in a chafing dish.
Potatoes are a great choice on buffets. New potatoes roasted with garlic and rosemary re-heat and hold up well. Mashed potatoes are great, inexpensive and real crowd-pleasers, as are scalloped potatoes. Cold potato salads are also a good option. Hot pastas work less well. They tend to overcook and get gummy on a buffet, although the right sauce, either creamy or tomato-based can help. Generally, a better choice is cold past salads. If done with care, like fusilli tossed with pesto and served with grilled breast of chicken, or farfalle with niçoise olives, goat cheese, herbs and fennel, they can be very well received. Although various rice dishes work well on a buffet, risotto does not. In a short period of time, it ends up doing a passable impression of lumpy mashed potatoes.
Both rolls and sliced breads work well on a buffet. Specialty items like bread sticks or popovers are always a nice addition.
If possible, it’s nice to have more than one choice for dessert. If nothing else, have something chocolate and something with fruit. In addition, fresh fruit will always be appreciated by some of the guests. One way to get a lot of variety is to present an assortment of various little two-bite desserts on platters. Another option is to offer two or more individual plated desserts.
With a little bit of preparation, marketing and scheduling, giving your customers the option of holding banquets in your restaurant can help make the most of your facility and staff.