Catering Display: How to Design the Perfect Buffet

Catering Display: How to Design the Perfect Buffet

A catering display set up in a delicatessenYou need two things to design a fantastic looking buffet: a good eye for aesthetics and an assortment of decorations and food display items. With these tools at hand, you can create a dazzling buffet that is sure to impress your clients and their guests. Research the design elements below to learn how to create a beautiful buffet display.

In this article you will learn:
  • How to select buffet linens
  • Food display tips
  • Beverage display ideas
  • Ways to supplement the buffet with decorative items like sculptures and fountains

Buffet Linens

While some caterers have had success using sleek, modern tables without linens for their buffet, usually, table toppers and table skirts are needed to dress the banquet tables. You can always just throw a simple tablecloth over the buffet line, but then the ugly frame of the table will show underneath, and if someone tugs on the overhanging cloth the entire buffet could come crashing down.

Instead, you might want to look for traditional table skirts and table toppers – table coverings specifically designed to fit on the surface of a long banquet table with eight inches of overhang, since the table skirting will take over at the edge. The color and material of your table linens will set the tone for everything that goes on top, so choose wisely.

Choosing a Material

The most popular materials for table linens are polyester, cotton, vinyl and disposable plastics. Plastic tablecloths and skirts are ideal for outdoor events or casual events. Vinyl is a great all-purpose fabric, but on table skirting it can look a little heavy and will not fall as nicely as cotton or polyester. Cotton linens are perfect for high-end events like weddings or lavish holiday parties, but are vulnerable to staining and shrinking. Polyester is a durable fabric that can be used outdoors, indoors and at both casual and formal events. So if you are looking to buy only a few sets of table linens, go with polyester for its versatility.

Choosing a Color

White and black are good color choices, since they can match with a variety of decors and color schemes. Black linens of any material are unlikely to show food stains. If you choose white linens, you may want to go with cotton, since unlike polyester it can be bleached back to its original color. Other colors you may want to stock up on include pink, red and forest green. These will match with most popular color schemes at weddings, conferences and holiday parties.

Food Displays

The food at your buffet should be organized in an order that resembles the dining experience. That means you should usually put appetizers, salads and soups first, followed by entrees, side dishes and breads, with the dessert coming at the end of the buffet line or even at a separate dessert station.

Because the food is the central part of your catering operations, make sure that it takes center stage at your buffet table. The best way to highlight the color and appearance of your food is to use high-quality food display supplies. These include the following:

Chafers and Warmers

Chafing dishes, soup chafers, and gravy warmers are the best way to make your sauces, soups and hot solid foods look great while still keeping them warm. For the most casual events, an economy chafer or a chafing rack coupled with some disposable food pans should do the trick. For more formal events, look for high-end chafing dishes with brass, gold or silver accents.

Catering Trays

Close-up of a cherry tomato salad on a tray Catering trays are large platters specifically designed to hold and display hors d’oeuvres, desserts, deli spreads or other food items at a buffet. For drop-off catering, you can use disposable catering trays. For more formal events, trays are available to fit a wide array of themes. For example, mirror trays will reflect light onto the food and are great for holiday parties. Porcelain platters, on the other hand, are delicate trays ideal for weddings or more formal events.

Display Stands

Display stands keep your catering display from falling flat. Tiered display stands, display pedestals, food display stands and display risers will elevate your food and decorations and add a whole new dimension to your buffet.

Sample Dishes

Instead of putting non-heated food directly on a platter or display stand, put it on a small single-portion dish first, like tasting spoons or disposable sample dishes. Filling the display with pre-portioned dishes regulates the amount of food guests take. It is also more sanitary and makes it easier for guests to fill up their plates quickly, speeding up the buffet service.

Display Baskets

Use display baskets lined with plastic or cloth to hold breadsticks, rolls, muffins, chips, pre-packaged foods and other items that do not need to be warmed or cooled. They can add a charming look to your buffet and increase the versatility of your display.

Fruit Displays

Fruit towers bring a tall, colorful element to your buffet. Available as fruit dispensing displays or pineapple tree stands, fruit towers offer the perfect solution for displaying large quantities of whole or pre-cut fruits without taking up too much space.


Chocolate Fountains

Among the most exciting and delicious of dessert displayware, chocolate fountains add a fun, fondue element to your catering buffet. Put them at the dessert station, alongside toothpicks, skewers or chocolate dipping forks and dippers like fresh strawberries, apples, cheesecake squares and shortcake, so your guests can create their own chocolate-covered goodies.

With the above food-display items, you can actually begin to charge your client more by improving the perceived value of your catering services. Given the right displayware, you can turn any old buffet table into a wonderland of food presentation.

Beverage Display

For many wedding receptions and other formal events, it is common to designate a separate buffet table to hold and present beverages. Another common practice is to serve alcoholic beverages at a separate portable bar area. If you do not have room for a separate beverage station, always put your drinks at the end of the buffet line, so customers will not have to carry them through the line and risk spilling their drinks as they serve themselves food.

Use special insulated beverage holders to keep your drinks hot or cold for the duration of your buffet service. You can hold and display your beverages in any of the following:

Beverage Tubs & Housings

Beverage tubs are large, insulated bowls or bins that are designed to hold bottles or cans on ice at a buffet. Pan housings are similar products designed to hold an insulated plastic food pan that will also keep canned or bottled beverages cold for hours.

Ice Displays

An elegant ice display tub Ice displays offer elevated trays that you can fill with ice to hold cans and bottles of drinks at your buffet. They can also be used to hold ice alone to allow customers to serve themselves ice, and some include LED lighting underneath to light up the ice cubes.

Coffee Urns

Coffee urns are the most elegant of hot beverage containers. They feature a polished metal exterior and are available with or without insulation. Insulated models keep coffee or tea warm for several hours by retaining the heat. Non-insulated urns keep the beverage hot by using chafing dish fuel to warm the drink from the bottom of the urn.

Beverage Dispensers

Beverage dispensers are for formal occasions like banquets or weddings. They are designed to dispense hot or cold drinks straight into a glass. Cold beverage dispensers are clear, so customers can see the drink inside, and come with an interior ice chamber to keep the beverage cold. Hot beverage dispensers are insulated or electrically warmed and designed to dispense hot tea, coffee or water at the buffet. However, they are not as attractive as coffee urns, so they are more suitable for casual events.

Punch Bowls

Punch bowls are ideal for celebratory events. They are attractive and festive. However, they will not keep your punch cold, so make sure you serve ice, either separately or in the punch bowl itself.


Champagne Fountains

Champagne fountains will turn your buffet beverage service into a moving display. Use them at weddings, New Year’s Eve or other holiday parties to bring a dynamic element to the party. They are not just for champagne: they can also hold punch or other cold beverages.

These beverage containers and displays will make your buffet’s beverage station as impressive as your food display.

Buffet Tabletop Display

Once you have your food and beverage display taken care of, you can begin to add other embellishments to your buffet line. This includes the decorative and non-edible elements listed below that add extra color, lighting and movement to your buffet. Fill in any empty space on your buffet line with the following:

Fountains

Add motion and color to your buffet with decorative water fountains. Many of these fountains come with lighting as an added effect. The sound of the water will also soothe diners as they choose their food items.

Flowers, Foliage and Embellishments

Most caterers and banquet designers include flowers, foliage or other embellishments in their final buffet presentation. Additional embellishments can include colorful food items like grapes or pumpkins, or artistic objects such as origami. These are meant to enhance the buffet by adding extra color and shape, highlighting the food displays. However, they are not meant to detract from or overwhelm the food, so make sure you use them in moderation.


Ice Carvings & Sculptures

Bride and groom ice sculpture Ice statues and displays are common at formal and high-end events and parties. The ice display can be as simple as a bouquet of flowers or a logo frozen into a block of ice, or as complicated as an intricate carving. You can use an ice sculpture mold to easily freeze ice into an ice sculpture shape, or you can carve your own ice sculpture out of blocks of ice that you can produce with an ice block machine.

Candles & Lighting

Candles, LED lights or lamps can be used to illuminate aspects of your buffet. Before using candles, make sure that they comply with fire code regulations and that there are no open flame restrictions in the area, as there often are in dry outdoor spaces. Flickering LED tealights are a good alternative to candles and eliminate the risk of open flame.