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Which Service Style is Right for You

03/22/2017 Danielle Couick

By Danielle Couick - Designer & Celebrity Wedding Planner

Prior to my life as a planner and designer, I created and designed food and beverage experiences for my clients at one of our area’s top catering companies. I had the fortunate role of developing the wedding division for this company and have worked closely with hundreds of couples since. Food and beverage will typically comprise approximately half of your budget and is a great place to focus your attention during planning. It is an excellent place to infuse personality, detail and to tell your story. Even if you aren’t a self-proclaimed “foodie” it doesn’t mean you cannot have a fun, interesting or inspiring menu. I often encourage my clients to identify what is delicious and comfortable to them and then we figure out an intriguing or interesting way to present it. It doesn’t have to be over-the-top to be a wow factor. As if there aren’t enough decisions to be made throughout the planning process, it can’t just stop with selecting a caterer, you have to decide the style of reception you would like and then go from there. Here are a few ways to make your reception truly yours and how to select and step up your food and beverage game.

Just because there are wedding packages doesn’t mean you have to pick one and move on. You have the right to have a menu as unique as you are. Ask if there are ways to incorporate things you personally love or reflect the two of you. Maybe there is a strong tie to a regional food item where you are from? Or an item you shared on your first date or the night you got engaged? For example, crabs and Old Bay seasoning are a regional favorite for Marylanders and we often pass a Virginia ham and peach chutney biscuit for our Virginia clients. If you are nervous about rocking the boat too much, Hors d’ oeuvres are an excellent place to infuse personal flair without reinventing the wheel.

Choose the style of reception that reflects the mood and feel for the wedding you want. I hear it all of the time from caterers and venues… “Well, it is just what we do and it works best this way.” If your venue or caterer seem inflexible on the style of reception you are interested in, it might be better to move on. It really is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I am all for working with the strengths of the team but I will push the limits of their capabilities often, I believe it is how we grow, but understand that I’ve been doing this for over a decade and everyone does have their limits. You want to make sure you are setting yourself up for success. If you want a seated and served plated multiple course meal and they make it clear that a buffet is what they do best, take the advice and reassess. It may be that their staff is not well versed in a served meal or their kitchen staff has not mastered the timing for this style of service. There is nothing more nerve-wracking than asking someone to do something they have no confidence in and hoping that it meets your expectations.

Not sure what type of reception you want? A lot of this may depend on where your roots are planted… meaning folks in the South are more accustomed to a cocktail style reception where a seated and served meal is more common above The Mason-Dixon line. With that said, Washington, D.C. is a transient city and we have a lot of couples that are inner-faith, multi-cultural and represent a variety of regions. We have been getting creative lately and intertwining a few reception styles to accommodate these specific needs but here we have broken down the “big-4” to help you figure out which reception style best fits you:

plated food

  • Seated and Served or Plated
    • You enjoy a well-presented plate and more formal service. You like having a seat that you can claim as yours for the evening and it is important to you that everyone pays attention during the toasts. However, just because your meal is plated doesn’t mean that it has to be stuffy or traditional. Let’s say you plan to honeymoon somewhere South of the Border, why not serve a tasting plate featuring a tasting of shrimp ceviche, a mini carnitas taco and a vegetable empanada? I typically recommend at a minimum, one server for every 10-15 guests.

buffet style

  • Buffet Style
    • You are more laid back and like to select your own plate. You prefer a more casual feel and you like options. You also may have a high number of guests with food allergies or dietary restrictions (just be sure to note the allergens on the buffet signage or menu card). There is a common misconception that buffets are less expensive than a plated meal. While it is true that you can typically scale back on your service (I recommend a minimum of 1 server per 20 guest) you often need more food product, equipment and linens. If you are doing a served first course or wine service with your meal, then I recommend increased service. You also want to make sure your venue has ample space for seating and the buffet(s). I recommend one buffet per 75 guests.

family style

  • Family Style
    • Your main focus is on your guests’ experience and you really want your guests to engage with one another. What better way than over a meal, right? Items of note: table space for the platters, an appropriate amount of servers to facilitate the delivery and replenishing of items and the amount of equipment you will need to service all of your tables. Also, unless your catering staff is well versed in the timing of family style it can often feel cumbersome or slow. Take note at the tasting to troubleshoot any issues in advance.


  • Cocktail Style or Stations
    • You like to dance, your band is incredible, you don’t want to assign seats, you can’t possibly decide on only one entree or you just want to keep things moving. A cocktail style reception may be your best bet. Certainly the most casual type of service, we like it because it gives you a chance to get creative and offer a variety of flavor profiles and it allows your guests to nosh throughout the night with smaller plates at their leisure. You will want to provide seating for approximately 75-80% of your guests but I recommend you doing this in a more causal way. Think lounge groupings, bar height communal tables, smaller cocktail tables. Large round tables set for 10 or 12 guests indicate to your crowd that they need to park it for the night. Encourage flow, movement and the dance party with a variety of seating. Chef presented small plate stations are also increasingly popular with cocktail style service. Rather than offering a variety of self-selected items at all of your stations, create a destination for engagement by choosing one or two tasting plates that are presented and garnished by a chef from the floor.
  • Less common are French Service and Russian Service, which lend themselves to the most formal type of affair. Food is prepared, plattered on silver trays and served tableside. French service allows for servers to present and plate food for your guests tableside whereas Russian style presents platters for your guests to choose from. Keep in mind; they require a significant amount of highly trained staff, equipment and time. Traditionally, food is cooked tableside and presented accordingly.

No matter what type of reception you host, keep perspective. This will not be the last meal you or they will eat, and if I am being honest most of your guests will remember that “the meal was delicious” or they “loved how interactive the stations were.” You want to choose a menu that tastes good, is presented well and on time. Maya Angelou said it best, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Your goal for your reception and truly the entire planning experience should be about the feel, not the things. Focus on the goals of the non-tangibles and act accordingly.

A nationally acclaimed award winner for her impeccable event design and production, Danielle is revered as an industry expert and is often tapped to share her insights through editorial and educational contribution in the global market.