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Catering Service Style Glossary

One of the most basic and most frequently unasked catering questions is the difference between the popular service style options. Some people will ask their caterer (or do an internet search) but others seem be embarrassed to ask because, perhaps, they think this is common knowledge. Well, unless you go to or plan many events, there is no reason you would know the difference between the popular service styles.

So, if you have been wondering but were too afraid to ask your caterer, here is a quick and dirty breakdown of the most popular catering service styles.


Perhaps the most recognizable of service styles. Your menu will be set out in a defined area and guests will go to this area to get their meals. The food can be self service or served by waiters.

Best for

Any and all courses


      • Cost: A cost effective option because less staff are required.
      • Variety: You are able to present a wide range of items giving your guests many options.


        • Unless properly timed and executed, long lines can quickly form at the buffet tables.
        • If there are more than 50 guests, strongly consider having more than two buffet tables. This second buffet will add to your costs (table, linen, equipment and staff) and must be factored into the room design.
        • If you have many elderly or physically disabled guests, moving around or standing in line might be difficult for them.
        • Some do not consider the buffet to be an elegant service style.

Butlerred Service (Passed Service)

Waiters walk around the room serving small bites off of trays. Most often, waiters are dressed in tuxedos and carrying beautiful silver trays. However, you need not follow this tradition.

Best for

Appetizers; cocktail party


        • Most caterers have a wide variety of creative appetizer and small bite options that will impress your guests.
        • Avoid the expense of seated guest service (tables, chairs, linens and service ware).
        • Your guests are able to mix and meet each other, making this a service style that promotes interaction amoung the guests.


        • If the event falls during a mealtime, you should offer heavy items so your guests do not leave hungry. Often, these items costs the same as a buffet meal.
        • Guests may prefer not to stand for the entire event.

Seated Meal (Full Service)

While your guests are seated, waiters bring their meals to their table. The meals are beaitfully laid out on the plate. You may ask guests to select their meal choice before or during the event. Keep in mind that if your guests make their selection at the event, because it would have been impossible to know how much of each dish is needed, the caterer would have had to provide one of each dish for each guest. This will greatly increase your catering costs.

Best for

Any or all courses


        • Because it is generally the most expensive, this is considered the most extravagant service style. It lends an air of elegance to your event.


        • Meal options are limited to the few items that can fit on one plate (this can be a pro if you wish to limit your menu options).
        • If you will offer more than one meal option, you must either ask your guests for their choice beforehand or ask them table side. If you ask your guests beforehand, you must keep track of everyone’s request. If you ask table side, your caterer must prepare a significant amount of extra food because they do not know in advance how much of each dish they will serve. This will increase your costs.

French Service

Your menu will be placed on large serving trays which waiters will carry table to table. Your guests will be served directly from the serving trays.

Ideal for

Smaller events or events with large staffing budgets


        • Signficant “wow” effect.


      • Limited menu options.

Keep in mind that service styles can be mixed. For instance, you may have a buttlered appetizer course, a plated main course and dessert room full of stations with various desserts (the wedding I am thinking of was absolutely fabulous. On paper it sounds over the top but the execution was superb and the guests were overjoyed).

You Might Also Be Interested In:

Natalie and Chris' Chicago Wedding
A BBQ Menu? A Creative Idea for Your Formal Event
A Bad First Question When Interviewing Caterers
Service Style Selector Series: Buffet Service

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