Wedding Catering: Notes on Station Dining

I cater about 20 weddings in Northern Michigan every year, which means I talk to a lot of couples in regard to catering options. Of course, there are many, and every couple's situation is unique. There are many styles of service, but for the sake of the saving you a synopsis on centuries of table service, I have chosen to focus on the most problematic for weddings: Station Dining.

The idea and function of stations is simple: increase guest interaction and offer the guests a greater variety of food. Station dining is ideal for cocktail parties or situations where the guests aren't all going to eat at the same time.

Station dining is basically as it sounds: multiple stations throughout a party with food. Typically each station is designed to accommodate about 8 people at a time, has small plates and offers a complete meal or theme, versus one component of a meal.    The intention is that guests grab a bite, saunter across the room, mingling and laughing and eventually end up across the room at another station...right?

No. Unfortunately, in my experience, stations seem to backfire at weddings unless executed properly. Weddings have multiple generations of guests. Wedding guests are inherently trained to adhere to a time line - aware that they are expected to be in certain places at certain times  (ceremony, then cocktails, then dinner, then cake cutting, then dancing, etc). So, when the stations open, the couple (and the caterer) hope that the guests will mingle and take their time. However, what I have observed is that guests think "ok, now I am supposed to eat" (because they know there is eventually another thing they are supposed to be doing), and they all line up at the stations, treating them like mini buffets. To make matters worse, the stations are typically set with small plates. This frustrates guests further because not only are they waiting in line at a small station (versus a larger buffet, set up for traffic flow) but they are trying to get their meal on a small plate, necessitating multiple trips and waiting in multiple lines.

Of course if you have your heart set on stations, all is not lost.  If the stations are open when guests arrive and no dinner is served after  (meaning the stations are hearty enough for a meal) then stations seem to work. They also work properly for the cocktail portion of the event. It is when stations open following a cocktail hour (with passed appetizers, for instance) that the overall experience for the guest seems to be affected negatively.

In addition to causing confusion among the guests, the downside to the host is that stations are typically more expensive than a plated meal or buffet. Stations showcase a greater variety of food, require more plates and significant amounts of space.

If you want to have stations at your wedding, the party needs to be planned with this in mind- it cannot be an afterthought.  Menu selection should be fun for you and your fiance. A competent caterer should ask you a lot of questions to make sure your vision becomes the reality.  Take your time and enjoy yourself.