As a general rule here are the numbers of guests that a server can manage:
- Buffet 25-50 guests per attendant
- Plated meal 10-15 guests per waiter
- Family style meal 15-30 guests per server
What sort of catering are you having?
Calculating numbers of helpers very much depends on this. You may decide to get an outside caterer to cook or deliver your cooked food. Or you may be cooking it all at home or having friends pitch in too. Whichever method you use for providing food at the reception you need to decide whether you will provide it as a buffet, a plated meal at a table or family-style where tables have platters of food to share. Then you need to decide how you will organise the drinks. A bar, a cocktail bar or bottles on tables.
And remember that you may want pre-dinner drinks and nibbles. So factor in help for these too.
Will guests come up to the cake table to share the cake or will it be served? Will you want cake boxed ready to take home or served later in the day? If later, who will make and set out coffees and teas at that time?
How many helpers for a buffet?
- Buffet for 25 = 1 attendant
- Buffet for 60 = 2 attendants
- Buffet for 150 = 4-5 attendants
A buffet server will replenish food, keep the buffet table tidy and may assist in putting the food onto the guest’s plate. If he or she needs to actually cook or finish any dishes then you will need more staff.
How to avoid long queues at your buffet
Guests love buffets because they can choose just what they like and they can try lots of choices too. On the surface of it a buffet looks simple. You put the food into chafing dishes and cold platters then chat to guests as they serve themselves. But like most things that look easy a buffet is not always without hassles.
And the main hassle is queuing time. Nobody wants to be just getting their food as the VIPs are leaving their tables to dance. And it only needs one ditherer who loves – or is allergic to – everything at the buffet table to cause a blockage which delays everyone after them. So consider having the attendant stand well back to allow guests to help themselves from both sides of the buffet table.
Or have more than one ‘station’. You could have the same food on each of several tables around the room or you could keep savoury and desserts for separate buffets so that things move more quickly and nobody is trying to help themselves to meringues whilst some people are still trying to secure a slice of salmon. If you offer cheeses then these could have a separate table too. But be aware that the attendant will need to move around to keep these tables stocked and looking nice so don’t cut down on the recommended number of servers.
Don’t just allow everyone in the room to crowd towards the buffet at the same time. Even a group of 25 is too many for a small space. You will need to let guests know that they will be invited to the buffet by table. Remember that any essential staff such as the DJ will need feeding first, perhaps in a separate spot, in order to give them the energy to work through the meal and into the evening.
The bride and groom, their families and any other guests you consider VIPs will usually be invited to the buffet first. But after that you need to decide what order tables will be called. This can lead to irritation, emotions being what they are at weddings.
But you can avoid this by using the DJ to set a competition as the buffet line starts to come near to the end. It could be a set of quiz questions about the couple or their families or who has the longest married couple at their table etc. The table that gets the answer first is the table that gets to serve themselves next from the buffet. This also helps bond people who might not know each other at the table and keeps everyone chatting instead of watching the buffet line hungrily.
How many waiters for a seated, plated meal?
Use either the table method or the total number of diners method to calculate how many people will be needed to serve a plated meal.
By total number of diners:
- Formal plated meal for 25 = 2-3 waiters or 2 plus a wine waiter
- Formal plated meal for 60 = 4-6 waiters or 3-4 plus a wine waiter
- Formal plated meal for 150 = 10-15 waiters or 10 waiters plus 2 wine waiters
- Formal plated meal per table of 10 = 1 waiter
How to reduce the numbers of waiters at a formal meal
The simpler the meal is, the more guests a waiter can cope with. So if the meal has extra side dishes such as a salad or a sauce or rolls that need to be replenished warm, you will need more waiters than if there are two or three fully plated courses.
Remember that pre-ordered food by guests does not only help with the catering but also allows the plates for vegetarians, vegans and no-carb eaters to be picked up and placed quickly and accurately by your waiters who will work to a table plan.
How to speed up table service
Wine and other drinks take time to serve. If guests can order bar drinks from the waiter during the meal this will take a lot of time: taking the order, fulfilling the order at the bar, placing the drink and possibly removing a used glass. It is also quite stressful for servers who need to remember the drink and the guest whilst serving food. And as soon as one person asks for a special drink you can be sure several others will have special orders too.
One way to make things faster and error-free is to have a dedicated waiter for these drink orders. Or, of course, not to offer bar drinks at the meal.
At a formal meal guests will want their wine glasses topping up at different rates. If you place wines on the table and perhaps pour the first glass this will reduce the number of servers or wine waiters needed. Always place water on the table in a suitable jug. Then the waiters only have to refill the jug from time to time.
Using bussers to remove plates can also reduce the numbers of more highly paid waiting staff you need.
To provide impeccable service at a formal wedding meal you should aim for the 1 to 10 ratio where tables will be wined and dined at the right pace and with no errors.
How many servers for a seated informal family-style meal?
- Family-style meal for 25 = 1 server
- Family-style meal for 60 = 2-3 servers or 2 servers and a wine server
- Family-style meal for 150 = 6 waiters or 4-5 waiters plus 2 wine servers
- Family-style meal per table of 10 = 0.5 servers
This way of serving guests is becoming increasingly popular. It is half way between the informal choose-what-you-like of the buffet and the rigidity of the plated meal. The guys can tuck into the dishes two or three times whilst some of us will prefer to nibble. The servers can work more quickly as they are just carrying and placing a few large platters per table with the non-standard guests usually given a plated meal alternative.
Wine will be on the table and normally guests will not be able to order extra bar drinks. At a very informal do guests may get up from the table and go to the bar individually but this should not be encouraged. It disturbs the atmosphere with coming and going and it requires a barman to be on duty throughout the meal.
This is a great way to serve at a home wedding where the vibe is informal and family-oriented.
Who will do these extra tasks on the day?
When you are planning a home wedding you think carefully about the menu, who will cook it, where it will be delivered or stored on the day, how many servers you need and whether to have guests seated or queuing for a buffet. But don’t forget these other food-related tasks as they will have to be added to the servers’ duties – so you will need them for longer, or more of them, thus pushing up the costs – or you will need to hire someone else to do them.
Despite all your best plans there is one problem that, if it arises and it usually does, will disturb the pace of service of a splendidly planned and executed formal meal.
There will always be someone who has changed their mind and no longer wishes to eat meat, fish, vegan or carb-free once they see other plates arrive. There will always be someone who can only drink sparkling water or cannot tolerate red wine and needs champagne. There will always be someone who can’t remember what they ordered but would definitely like the chicken, now they see it arrive. There will always be someone who would like their salmon without the sauce over it – thank you so much!
When this happens the waiter has to return to the kitchenette and explain. This takes time. The table gets a bit fraught. This is where bussers or other helpers can be a godsend. Any worries like this, the waiter calls over a busser and he or she deals with it so that the normal service pace is kept up.
Bussers are unskilled staff and you may be able to find guests’ teenage children who would love to have this job but cannot perhaps be trusted to be waiters. It’s a great way of including the children who frankly don’t want to come to a wedding on a weekend but would love to see what’s going on and make a little money too.
Here are other unskilled jobs these teens could do:
- Scraping plates
- Washing up
- Stacking clean dishes with the name of the rental company or friend who owns them displayed on top.
- Maintaining recycling sacks or bins so bottles don’t get mixed with food scraps etc
- Taking out the trash
- Relaying messages
And here are two jobs you must never ask a friend’s teen to do:
- Helping at the bar or serving wine
- Parking cars
Do I need a supervisor for servers?
Quick answer: yes.
But that doesn’t mean a professional unless your numbers are over 60. Just appoint the most sensible of your servers to decide what goes out from the kitchen when and to rule in any disputes or ‘what should I do?’ situations. He or she will need to have leadership talents and a friendly but firm personality.
Once your guest numbers reach about 60 you probably need to ask the company who are supplying your waiting staff to appoint a manager for the day. What you want to avoid is well-intentioned waiting staff seeking your advice during the meal.
If you are doing a large formal meal of over 100 guests the company supplying the staff will certainly suggest you hire a manager.
Do I need a bartender?
Yes you do. A free bar is a generous gesture but a free-for-all behind the bar is asking for trouble.
If you live in the USA you will probably need your bartender to be over 21 and hold a licence. In the UK your bartender must be over 18 and as long as the bar is free or you only hold a couple of paid-bar events at home over a year, no licencing is required.
Wherever you live just make sure the barman is reliable and will, under no circumstances, accept an alcoholic drink. You should ask your insurance company about liability for any staff you are using on the day but make a special request for information regarding the liability of the bartender.
Some US states require bartenders to take responsibility for any accidents that take place due to over consumption. When you consider that might include a drink-driving accident you realise how seriously to take the selection and insurance of your bartender. A more likely scenario is one where a drunk guest destroys something precious – whether that’s in your home or something belonging to another guest. Ask your insurer who has liability and who pays out.
For a formal event you may want to hire an experienced bartender who can mix cocktails. But for a less formal home wedding why not teach him or her your three favourite cocktails and for the rest rely on wines, beers and spirits poured straight from the bottle.
An informal event will probably use the bartender as a wine waiter during the meal. But just don’t expect him or her to answer clever questions about the vintage while pouring!
To help you plan how much champagne to buy and to give you some interesting alternatives I’ve put together this guide.
What’s the least it can cost to have a great home wedding meal?
I have attended a French country wedding where the local scout troupe was roped in to serve guests sitting under the beams of an old village market. Several friends had organised a five course meal for 50 to be cooked/reheated in the adjoining kitchenette. Costs were minimal. Everyone had a great time, especially when a local band started playing after everyone had helped restack tables and chairs so the dancing could get going. The village bar owner was more than pleased to offer his and his wife’s help serving drinks which had been ordered through his supplier.
Home style weddings don’t need to be fraught with organisational headaches or staffed with paid servers.
If you’re thinking of holding the wedding at your home then take a look at my post detailling the big twenty questions home wedding hosts need to answer before they commit. It will save you a lot of anguish!
Hi Joni! Great read! I’m a little stuck on how many hours I should hire wait staff. Are they supposed to just be there for the dinner portion of the reception?
If you are not using a wedding planner or catering company then you need to make a detailled time-line for the reception. Then highlight all the times when wait staff or some of them need to be active. Will they be needed for pre-meal drinks? Will they help with food prep in any way? Will they clear up after the meal? Will they serve cake and/or coffees later? Are you offering a later snack such as pizzas during the evening and if so will they be needed? You might find you have volunteers or teens who will do these extras. Or you might want a more formal do where wait staff work through the full time-line. Your caterer, if you use one, is your primary adviser on this. They will understand how long the meal will take to serve and how long wait staff should be booked to help throughout the meal then to clear.