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Tips For Purchasing Buffet and Catering Equipment

Both buffet style restaurants and catering services have quite a number of similarities, and when shopping for either, there are some key ingredients that ensure functional and smooth service. 

In this Buyer’s Guide we are going to look at the required equipment that is primarily used after food has been prepared. For assistance on setting up the back-of-the-house of a catering or buffet operation please refer to:

Here are some of the necessities buffets or caterers require after the food has been cooked, and a few specific needs for the varying types of catering and buffet operations.

Warming & Holding Food

Food temperatures must stay consistent after the food has been prepared.  There are several different ways that high volume operations keep large quantities of food at temperature until it is served, and when it is on display.

  • Holding Cabinets – Holding cabinets are for behind the scenes use in buffet or banquet staging areas.  Holding cabinets are quite sizable, though are not too mobile.  They have wheels, and can be moved around a building, but usually can’t be taken off premises.  They have the upside of being able to stay within a specific temperature and humidity range when plugged in, which keeps food hot, and most can also accommodate full sheet pans.  Holding cabinets are perfect for both banquet halls and buffet restaurants, as insulated models can remain hot for extended periods of time, even after they are unplugged.
  • Banquet Carriers – Banquet carriers are heavily insulated, and are the ideal solution for transporting hot hotel pans while simultaneously keeping food at the appropriate temperature.  Though most do not have built-in heaters (there are some models available from companies like CAMBRO that have built-in heaters), their heavy duty insulated construction keeps food inside from losing heat exceptionally well; usually losing around only 1°F every hour or so.  They are designed to travel, and are a must for all catering companies that will be preparing food that will move to its final destination.  Often times hotel pans stored in these carriers will be extremely well covered to keep food in the pans when the carrier is transported.
  • Steam Tables / Steam Wells – Steam tables are often used in banquet facilities to keep food warm as it is being plated (for plated catered events).  They can often be found in buffet restaurants as well, however the steam tables found in buffet restaurants will have a more decorative base since they are displayed for customers.  For this reason, and because of the amount of stationary heated steam wells needed, many restaurateurs will opt with built-in steam wells so they can custom design their buffet to suit their own specifications.
  • Heat Lamps – Heat lamps are usually a part of buffet lines that have food items that aren’t / shouldn’t be heated in a steam well.  Items including pizza, fried foods, breads, or roasted meats for carving stations should be kept warm under heat lamps.  In fact, there are a number of heat lamps that are attached to (and fully detachable from) cutting boards that are made specifically for carving stations.  Heat lamps may also rest atop of items on a buffet line as they will often be resting uncovered in the steam wells.
  • Coffee & Beverage Equipment – Traditionally buffet style restaurants and banquet facilities have their own stand alone beverage equipment that is on par with that of a traditional bar or restaurant.  Beverage heating and holding is more of an issue for traveling catering operations.  Some operations invest in their own portable coffee percolators and hot water dispensers that travel to events and others use insulated beverage carriers / dispensers that can either be used for cold or hot beverages.
  • Plate Warmers / Banquet Carts – Plates are usually kept in warmers for catered events, especially when they are to be used for plated banquets.  The plates are usually stored in plate warmers until food is plated, and then they are placed in a banquet cart to stay warm until they are taken out to tables.  This keeps the food hot and fresh despite the traveling it may have to do to finally reach the table.  There are also plate chillers and refrigerated banquet carts for foods that need to stay cold (such as desserts, or salads).
  • Cold Wells / Frost Tops – There are refrigerated and non-refrigerated (hold ice) cold wells available, as well as things called frost tops.  Cold wells are cousins to steam wells; they hold the same size standard hotel pans as steam wells below the necessary 41°F, and are either cooled by traditional refrigeration (a built-in condenser), or by ice placed in the trays below the hotel pan.  Frost tops, are icy flat surfaces that start at about the size of a standard sheet pan (18”x26”), and some models come in sizes that extend over 70” long.  They are great for housing things like cold hors d’oeuvres, or plated desserts.

Standard Equipment & Accessories

Most all buffet or banquet operations will require the following for service:

  • Serving Utensils – There should be service utensils for every separate item on a buffet.  This includes tongs, spatulas, spoons and ladles.
  • Lids – Should there not be heat lamps over your buffet, it may be necessary to get lids for each pan on the service line to ensure food stays at temperature.
  • Sneeze Guards – Sneeze guards are on of the premier ways to preserve the longevity of food on a buffet, and to lower the risk of contamination from customers or employees.
  • Tableware – It goes without saying, but each operation will need sufficient tableware.  The kind and amount, however, are completely dependent on the operation.  A family style casual buffet restaurant will require different tableware than an upscale banquet facility or a mobile catering company.  It is important for any and all buffets, regardless of the operation, that plates be available somewhere on the service line.

Items Specific to Buffet Service

There are some specific items that are more prominently featured in the front-of-the-house of buffet style restaurants.

  • Built-In Equipment – Many buffet style restaurants will opt for built-in equipment on their buffet lines.  Restaurants with buffet lines tend to desire stationary units, and built-in equipment caters to that need specifically.  It allows restaurants to customize the sizes of their buffets, and allow for a certain amount of freedom in not only the equipment, but also the look and design.  Many pieces of equipment can be built into service lines, including: steam wells, cold wells, frost tops, round insert warmers (for soups), plate dispensers, and condiment / paper goods dispensers.
  • Soda Fountains / Ice Dispensers – In many cases, not only is the food in a buffet style restaurant self-serve, but so are the beverages.  These restaurants must invest in countertop soda / beverage fountains and ice dispensers.  Often times these beverage stations tend to have juice, coffee and tea equipment for guests who are enjoying dessert or instances when they are offering breakfast.
  • Sundae Bars – It is becoming the norm that most buffet style restaurants have a sundae / dessert bar as a prominent feature of their buffet. 

Items Specific to Catering or Banquet Operations

Most catering and banquet operations will have some niche-specific needs.  From time to time, they may even need to buy specific things for individual events.  Here are some of the musts for catering operations:

  • Chafing Dishes / Chafer Fuel – Since most catered events (even those at banquet facilities) will need to be set-up in a particular way, they often will opt to use chafing dishes for buffets.  This gives banquet captains and customers the ability to control the flow of the room, and allows food and table displays to be set up in custom ways every time.  Chafers come in many shapes and sizes, and there are a handful of different ways to heat them (including a variety of fuel cartridges and electric chafer heaters). 
  • Tableware – Banquet facilities and catering companies require different tableware than buffet restaurants.  Banquet halls usually have a wide array of decorative pieces, such as punch bowls or champagne fountains, since they will host a wide range of catered events.  Both banquet and catering operations usually stock up on pieces that tailor to the sorts of events they will be working.  A traveling bar-b-que caterer may stock up with on loads of paper goods and moist towelettes, where a banquet facility that hosts weddings will have china, tablecloths, and a plethora of decorative table pieces.
  • Portable Bars – Many banquet facilities / caterers will invest in portable bars.  This not only includes portable cocktail bars, but hot and cold bars as well.  Banquet facilities often have the room to store portable bars when they aren’t being used, which give them the ability to not only offer a wider range of banquet packages, but also the ability to open up a banquet room that may otherwise be congested with a built-in bar.

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