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Station to Station Catering

Personalize your reception with catering stations that combine food and fun.
Julie Warner

At the height of wedding season, your guests may have already attended several weddings, many with a similar menu.

But instead of escort cards awaiting your guests, imagine instead spiced pretzels dangling from a metallic tower, accompanied by flavored mustards and beer cheese. Rather than waiting in line at the buffet, guests casually mingled as chefs prepared pad Thai to order. Instead of beating a discreet but hasty retreat, imagine guests dancing all night, fueled by a build-your-own shawarma station.

Sure makes the typical plated meal seem old-school.

No wonder food stations have been popping up in creative couples’ celebrations, standing out from the pack in a delicious and oh-so-Instagrammable way.

Made to Order
For couples seeking a personalized wedding in every detail, food stations provide entertainment and a unique experience for guests, says Rachel Bruzek, senior creative event and trend specialist for D’Amico Catering. “Brides are looking for more unique items that are off-menu, bringing in ideas they experienced elsewhere,” she says. “Typical brides are so well versed in foods these days that everything is custom.”

Unlike a traditional meal, stations allow for elaborate displays that beg to be snapped and shared.

“People like things that are picture-worthy nowadays. At stations, we can make the food look great and present it in a way that’s interactive with your guests,” says Leah Anderson, Mintahoe Catering & Events marketing manager.

Tell a story with your stations, like wok-fried fish and top-your-own lefse to show off some Minnesota cuisine. Recreate that meal you enjoyed on your first vacation together, relive a tasty memory from your first date, share a family favorite, or do all three. With stations, guests can partake of a wide range of dishes in a dynamic atmosphere.

Stations also work well for guests with dietary restrictions. “Brides really want to cater to their guests, and food stations allow you to offer a lot of different options within your budget,” says Kelly Bollis, owner and creative director of MAVEN.

Another plus to losing the formal dinner: no agonizing over seating arrangements.

“The bride who chooses food stations wants a lot of interaction for her guests,” Bruzek says. “It’s like an all-night cocktail party.” Guests cluster around tall cocktail tables with seats for about half your guest count as a general rule, she says.

Splitting up the room by different stations also encourages sociability, which is particularly enjoyable for out-of-town guests who might otherwise feel isolated at a table, says Jolene Ihle, director of sales for CRAVE Catering & Events.

In larger venues, Anderson likes how stations let you play with the floor plan and “flow” the event to encourage guests to be active and enjoy walking around together.

Dinner and a Show
Traditionally, guests stay busy scoping out butler-passed apps, maybe listening to a jazz trio and dutifully witnessing the first dance and bouquet toss. Chef-driven stations satisfy guests’ appetites for both food and entertainment.

Sure, you could display pretty plates of doughnuts—or you could torch them. CRAVE injects fried doughnuts with savory cheeses, tops them with a variety of ingredients and flame-toasts them for guests, who practically melt over these unusual treats, says Ihle.

Fresh sushi is made to order at Gohan’s pop-up sushi bar, where guests perch on stools to watch the whole process. “It’s like a show in and of itself. Having an actual chef right in front of you making the sushi gives guests an opportunity for fun small talk, and families bond over the experience,” says Christi Kue, who owns Gohan with executive sushi chef and husband Kou. “It’s awesome for a bunch of people who don’t know each other.” Gohan’s cone-shaped hand rolls are easy to eat one-handed, making them a hit for cocktail hour.

And staffed stations aren’t the only option. Part of delighting guests is simply about catching them off-guard. Consider a roaming food station like a cotton candy cart, Ihle suggests. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be chef performance; food could just have that element of surprise by being rolled out at the end of the night.”

Pleasing the Crowd
If you’re thinking about adding food stations for your big day, first decide whether food stations will wow your guests or leave them perplexed. “You have to know your guest list and whether it will be accepted by everyone who’s invited,” says Bruzek.

Don’t worry, though—you can still have the cocktail-party, food-station wedding while pleasing the grandparents. Plated salads as the first course satisfy Mom and Dad while letting you experiment with the rest of the dinner, Ihle says, adding that family tables can still be served traditionally by staff plating food from the stations.

If you want to keep the traditional dinner, you can go the sweet route for stations and offer a build-your-own ice cream cup or cone. Beyond topping with favorites like Oreos, Minnesota Nice Cream dazzles with edible glitter and can be sandwiched between doughnuts for unforgettable last bites, suggests Bollis.

Or use a station to keep the party going to the last hour. “People stay a little later if they expect something’s coming,” says Ihle, whose favorite late-night snack is nitro popcorn. Chefs toss gourmet-flavored popcorn in liquid nitrogen for a cool sensory experience. Served in waffle or paper cones, the chilled treat “creates a memorable spectacle and social media buzz when guests share.”

Trust the Pros
Listen to your caterer if you’re thinking about adding food stations. ”They’ve done it, and they know what works,” says Bollis. “If you really want to do a specific food station, like macaroni and cheese, and they are suggesting that you tweak it, trust them. They do it every week and they know what people like to eat.”

Size matters, too. Tables should look abundant, with tiers of trays, Bollis says, but this can be a struggle for parties smaller than 100 as less food is required. Plus, ordering only a tray or two for an intimate gathering comes at a premium.

That said, large parties may present a challenge as well. At over 250 guests, stations resemble mini buffets because of the quantities necessary, Bollis says. And if you’re going to have stations, you need to have more than one, Anderson says—for example, pair chef-grilled sirloin or black bean sliders with a gnocchi station or Tater Tot bar.

Bruzek agrees; trust your caterer to help you find the sweet spot between what you want and what works. “The trick is having balance. If a bride wants spicy food, we don’t want four stations of that, but we will guide her in a direction that works for all the guests, like incorporating some heat into a passed appetizer.”

Finally, be open to ideas. Tell your caterer that you would like to do something unique and ask for suggestions, Bollis says. “They may have some ideas in the hopper you’ve never thought of.” *

Drink Up
With food stations becoming a popular way to personalize weddings, incorporating drink stations will surely differentiate your day.

Great Shakes
Reward dance floor revelers with a cool treat. Roll out boozy milkshakes with mini straws served atop dry ice for a dramatic nightcap. Ihle suggests butler-passing in a parade of five servers for a memorable station.

Different Kind of Buzz
For outstanding drinks everyone can enjoy, Misfit Coffee Co. serves a brew bar of hot or cold nitro coffee and all the specialty drinks and toppings you might find at your favorite coffee shop. “If you plan to keep the party alive all night, coffee is a key component to balance the boozier beverages,” says owner Marcus Parkansky. “Sometimes there needs to be a balance to the booze at weddings, but being empty-handed is never fun.” Misfit takes customization seriously, with hashtag-stamped cups and signature drinks, like a burnt-cedarwood and rose-petal latte for a woodworker-florist wedding.

Guiding Spirit
Have an expert in a quieter spot to inspire appreciation of a favorite spirit, suggests Ihle, who has created Scotch stations upstairs at Muse Event Center. “You can chat more about the different types being served,” she says.

It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere
While the popularity of brunch receptions rises, bloody Mary and mimosa stations add cheer to more sedate weddings. Don’t forget a hot chocolate cart for kids and those choosing not to imbibe. Misfit offers multiple chocolate options and, of course, homemade whipped cream (with natural flavor infusions for a twist).

Shelf-Service Drinks
Give your signature drink the attention it deserves with a separate station from your main bar service. Ihle likes to serve the signature drink from bookcase shelves.

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