Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How long does it take to serve lunch for 100 people?

When I first heard this question, my immediate reaction based on experience was to say “about one hour” and leave it at that. However, this question actually opens up several issues that I think are important to consider as well when you are planning a lunch (or any meal) for your group. To address those issues, I contacted one of my counterparts on the hotel side of the equation to get her thoughts as well. Megan Chappell is a Director of Convention Services and she deals with timing and staffing issues for banquet services constantly. She was kind enough to share her guidelines with me, which I have incorporated into my thoughts below.

Before addressing how long people take to eat their meal, though, let’s look at plated and buffet lunches and see how those affect staffing. After all, the number of staff working your event can impact how long it takes to serve the meal.

For plated lunches (let’s assume a three-course meal), a hotel will typically provide one server for every 30 people. They may change that figure to one per 20 people for high-end events (such as weddings or VIP lunches). On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve worked with hotels that would staff one per 40 people for larger conferences. So, for 100 people dining, I would expect to see 3-5 servers working the room.

The calculation for buffets works a little differently. Here, a hotel will plan to do a single-sided buffet for up to 75 people. Typically, one server will man the line. For 75-150 people, they will do a double-sided buffet and add a second server to staff the line. So, if you’re planning a buffet lunch for 100 people, I would look to have a double-sided buffet line and two servers to manage it.

Of course, the base calculations for both plated and buffet meals use a default time of one hour for the meal service, so what about the actual serving of the meal? How can that be done faster?

Well, there are a couple of things you can do that can speed up delivery of the meal. The first option is to have certain parts of the meal pre-set, meaning that those items are already on the table when the meal is served. Salad and dessert are commonly done this way when serving plated meals for lunch events on a short timetable. With buffets, there is not much that can be pre-set since the whole idea of a buffet is to let diners choose what they get for their meal. Another option available is to ask the hotel to add extra servers or extra buffet lines – but be prepared to pay for those extra bodies and lines. There are real costs involved in providing those to you that the hotel must recoup. [By the way, if you want to do a buffet and are on a short timeline for lunch, do not do a Deli Buffet! This is the slowest type of buffet for diners to get through.]

So we’ve now sped up the delivery of lunch. Does this mean we can get everyone in and out of there quicker? Interestingly enough, the answer is no, the meal still takes about one hour to complete, regardless of the number of diners. “No”? Why not?

Even if extra servers deliver plated lunches quicker or you can pre-set the entire meal, diners still take about an hour to complete finish up. And, it does not seem to matter how many buffet lines you provide; it still takes a group 15-20 minutes to go through the lines and 30-40 minutes to eat (not counting second or third helpings…). I think some of the reason for this can ultimately be ascribed to human behavioral patterns and what we are mentally “programmed” to do. In the US at least, lunch is generally expected to be 30 minutes to one hour in length (consider your lunch break at work, for example) and I believe that groups of people automatically and unconsciously tend to follow that guideline.

Out of curiosity, I conducted a little experiment at home and at work for a week to see how long my meals would take alone or with company. Eating by myself, I would get through a meal in 15-30 minutes from the time the food hit the table, depending on what I was eating and how much of a hurry I was in. When I ate with others, meals would take longer to finish, especially if there were multiple courses. In fact, the more people present at the table, the longer the average time spent at the meal. Then factor in delivery time from the kitchen to the table, and meals with other people frequently ended up being approximately one hour in length…

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises