A la Carte vs. Banquets & Catering


A la Carte vs. Banquets & Catering

In my 67 years in the hospitality industry I’ve experienced both
forms of Service, A la Carte and Banquet/Catering. I’ve
worked my way from the A la Carte
floor to the Banquet floor, from managing and owning restaurant
operations to becoming a Banquet Captain, Maitre d’, Banquet Manager, Director
of Catering & Hotel GM.  I’ve experienced it all and now I
teach it all.  Presently I’ve divided my percentage of
training in both fields into 60% A la Carte and 40% Banquet/Catering for A la
Carte seems to have many more service problems.

In New York City, as a Learning Annex Instructor for ten
years, I was able to attend any lecture of other fellow Leaning Annex Experts at
no charge and I took advantage of this quite often.  I
remember attending a training seminar entitled How to Open a Hit
Restaurant by a successful NYC Restaurateur who had six successful
Big Apple operations.  The Chefs & Managers of all six
operations stated in no uncertain terms that A la Carte operators would have
great difficulty “Making It”  in today’s economy
without catering and/or banquets as an additional profit center.

Let’s just think about a Typical Casual Restaurant
having an average check of $15 per person for lunch and $25 per person for
dinner.  Even with management carefully watching POS reports
and doing inventories twice a week many still have to rely upon purveyors making
deliveries two or three times a week for most stand-alone restaurants tend to
lack sufficient storage space and have great difficulty predicting business
because of so many variables.

A la Carte ordering, receiving and preparation takes much time
and effort and if it rained or snowed or even if it was too nice out during the
week business may have suffered and prepared items may have gone to waste. Smart
Chefs may have been able to salvage losses by using some of these leftovers and
their byproducts as luncheon or dinner specials or using them on a Sunday brunch

Let’s say that this week was a really bad one weather-wise and
the stock market dropped drastically affecting our normal weekday corporate
luncheon trade.  We counted on Saturday to pull us through
and help offset our “Nut”.

Typically the kitchen has been putting in 14 to 18 hour days
six days a week for we’re closed on Mondays.  On Saturday
afternoon, after working extremely hard (both BOH & FOH) with several
guests from hell
, we pushed out 125 covers for lunch. At dinner, even with a
slight drizzle, we lucked out with two-hundred covers.  A
Sous Chef was sick so the kitchen was short-handed and two Servers failed to
show so two luncheon Servers did a double.  At the end of the
evening the Servers and Kitchen Staff were ready to collapse and we took in a
gross of $6875 before taxes and not counting tips. During
this economically down and bad-weather week we were averaging 75-covers for
lunch Tuesday through Friday, 60 for dinner Monday through Thursday and
thankfully 150-covers for Friday dinner. On Sunday we did a brunch of 150-covers
and 80-covers for dinner.

That’s another $17,000 for a Total Weekly A la Carte
Gross Income of $23,875.

This represents 1185 guests served at a total of 12 meals
during a tough six-day period.

Now let’s take a two-room Banquet Facility across the
street from our A la Carte operation that may host either one party of 300
(Ballrooms A & B) or two parties of 100 (Ballroom A) and 200 (Ballroom B). Each
of the Banquet ballrooms has its own adjacent Cocktail-reception area or
Pre-function Area (A or B) that comfortably stands and seats a total of 125
guests and 250 guests respectively.  The Banquet Facility
also houses two Bridal Suites, which can sub as additional board-room style
25-seat dining-rooms for small corporate meetings.

This is not a busy week but we’ve hosted a Girl Scout
Fund-raiser Luncheon on Tuesday for 200 guests at $12.50 per person for a gross
of $2500 plus tip & tax.

On Thursday we hosted an all day Teachers Conference for 140
guests.  The package included Continental Breakfast @ $7.50 …
Three Breaks at $5.00 per person each … Buffet Luncheon at $12.50 per person ,
Cocktail Hour with Hors D’oeuvres at $10.00 per person followed by a closing
(comfortable priced) Sit-down Banquet with 25 extra guests attending at $22.00
per person including wine with dinner and a Cash Bar (Drinks @ $3, $4 & $5
taking in $600). At the same time as the Buffet Luncheon a Private VIP Sit-down
Luncheon was held in one of the smaller boardrooms (Bridal Suite) for 20 guests
@ $25 per person.  The Thursday conference brought in a total
gross of $11,030 plus tip and tax.

On Friday we had a Quince-Aňos Celebration (Latin 15 year-old
birthday party similar to a confirmation or coming-out party) for 150 in
Ballroom B at $30.00 per person and an Engagement party for 80 guests in
Ballroom A at $35.00 per person.  Friday’s total gross income
was $7300 plus tip and tax.

On Saturday Afternoon we had a Bar Mitzvah for 80 persons in
Ballroom A at $75 per person which ended at 5 PM. On Saturday Evening we had two
Weddings.  One Wedding for 90 guests at $90 per person
started at 6 PM in the same room as the afternoon Bar Mitzvah (Ballroom A) but
starting with a Cocktail Reception in Pre-function Room A giving us two-hours
for a turnover.  Our second Wedding started at 7PM using a
portion of the larger Ballroom B as a Chapel followed by an hour & one-half
Cocktail Reception in the Pre-function Room B and a Banquet Dinner back in
Ballroom B for 180 guests @ $85 per person.  Saturday’s total
gross income was $29,400 plus tip and tax.

Sunday, for some strange reason, we were blank.
We were able to have a much needed Family Day.
Our Total Weekly Banquet Gross Income was $50,230. This
represents 1385 guests served at a total of 11 meals during a four-day period.

Also, the Banquet Facility took in additional income in the
form of Commissions from the recommended Bands, Florists, Photographers,
Videographers, Invitation & Printing Houses, Gown & Tuxedo Rentals, Limousines,
Travel Agents, Beauty & Hair Consultants & Clergy

Our Banquet Facility operated with minimum prep (mostly on
Tuesday for the whole week).  Additional prep is completed on
the function day and only one day is needed for deliveries on Mondays for we
know our counts in advance.  This is a simple feat for all
final counts are due seven to ten business days before the events and all
functions are fully paid 72 hours before the event with large deposits due on
account at contract signing.

Rain or shine, good or bad Stock Market, makes no difference.
The party goes on for it’s already been paid in full except for a 5% lee-way for
extra guests on the day of the event.    Every Sit-down
Banquet had a Choice Menu (Chicken or Fish for Lunch and Beef, Chicken or Fish
for Dinner).  This brought down the food cost considerably
for more than 60% of the guests ordered Chicken or Fish instead of the more
expensive Beef.

Note: Open Bars are more
profitable than unlimited wine and beer for so many guests drink non-alcoholic
drinks or inexpensive iced mixed drinks and cocktails.  The
yield on bottled wine and beer is terrible making the percentage-mix on an open
bar more profitable. Choice- menus and Open-bars are both profit- makers even
when comfortably priced.

The A la Carte Luncheon Servers worked five-hour shifts and
Dinner Servers worked five to eight-hour shifts depending on actual business.
The A la Carte Servers were each assigned an average of 24-covers.
The A la Carte Servers were paid approximately $3.00 per hour plus Tips.
Tips in this operation were averaging 20% for these A la Carte Servers
underwent sit-down sales and service training by consultants like “Professor

The Banquet Servers handled 30-covers on Weekday Luncheons
(5-hour shift @ $55 flat) and 24-covers on Weekday Dinners (6-hour shift @ $65
flat) Coffee Breaks were maintained by two Servers at a flat-rate of $55 each.
Saturday Afternoon is a seven-hour shift @ $75 and Saturday Dinner is a
seven-hour shift @ $85.  Since all the Banquet Servers, in
this case, were trained in the Service Arts by consultants like
“Professor Service” they all went home with at least an additional $50 in extra
Tips because they exercised and demonstrated “Service Wows’ that were beyond the
Banquet Guest’s wildest expectations.

Note: Banquet Servers have
more time to exercise fine-dining Service Wows for unlike A la Carte; the
Banquet is run on the basis of one word “COMMAND”.  This
leaves the Banquet Server the time needed to perform memorable Service
Techniques and procedures that guarantee repeat business.  A
la Carte Servers have to: Greet & seat guests…Take orders…Punch orders into a
POS System…Deliver orders in a timely manner… Change orders… Set, reset and
clear tables…Present checks, etc.  The Banquet Server Greets
& seats guests… Sets, Serves and Clears only on Command.

The difference between A la Carte and Banquet is basically
that Banquets feature a fixed or semi-choice menu that has been pre-selected
by the host.  At each Banquet event Servers are basically
working for only one Host, the person or party that paid the bill for the entire
event.  In the A la Carte situation the Servers are working
for each table.  In both cases it is the goal of the Servers
to please all of the guests with exceptional service.

The Service Arts practiced by
both A la Carte and Banquet Servers are exactly the same.
They both should be exercising the same Left’s & Right’s of Service
(leave food left and remove everything right while serving all beverage
from the right) … holding glasses by the stems only… using splash-guards when
servicing water and hot beverages… never lifting cups or glasses off the table
to pour… never crossing the personal space of the guest… crumbing tables and
chairs… never pushing a chair under a table allowing it to just kiss the cloth…
exercising the basic principles of service: Don’t do it unless it’s healthy,
safe and logical… Maintain eye-contact…Practice Name Recognition and Kill for
the Guest… Carry the six items that all Servers should carry: Appointment
Book, Wine Key, Crumber, Matches or Lighter, Pen & Pad and of course a smile.

The A la Carte Server is running his or her own business
table-side and is very busy exercising Advertising, Promotion, Networking,
Sales, Operations, Problem Solving, Billing and Collections.
The Banquet Server is acting on the Command of his or her Supervisor and has so
much more time to provide superior service.   The Banquet
Server receives a set salary but can make additional tips by giving exceptional
service.  The A la Carte Server can make as much money as he
or she can sell and if service is superior will earn a commission (Tip$) as a
Hospitality Salesperson of 20%.  My uncle Ted worked both A
la Carte and Banquet at the Plaza Hotel in New York City for 63 years.
In 1963 he was earning approximately $125,000 per year.
He told me that he preferred Banquet and made more money for less work as
a Banquet Server.  He always handled the Dais (head table)
and served every President of the United States during his 63 years at the
Plaza. He said he never went home without additional cash-tips on banquets.

What I’ve come to believe is that the unique Science of
Catering must be learned and studied hard by Restaurateurs as a necessary
adjunct to their profit base while Caterers can become and remain successful
without ever venturing into A la Carte. But, when they do, they find the A la
Carte venture to be quite difficult.  The average net profit
in A la Carte is somewhere between 6 and 8 percent while Catering nets may be up
to 30 percent or higher.  For many years there have been more
restaurants closing than restaurants opening.  Recently this
has turned as more restaurants are being opened by professional businessmen
(smart entrepreneurs who know how to make a deal) who are relying on experienced
consultants to guide them into and through successful operations.

Good Caterers rarely go out of business for Catering is easier,
more efficient and profits are so much higher.

Now think about this… What if the imaginary Restaurant and
Banquet Operation we’ve been discussing came together physically into one
operation with two kitchens (Banquets cannot be served out of the same kitchen
as A la Carte while the Restaurant is open) The operation was able to increase
their buying power through central purchasing and all Servers were cross-trained
to handle both A la Carte and Banquets? I’d say we’d have a winner, wouldn’t

Ian Maksik, “Professor of
Service”, is America’s “Service Guru”. Ian trains staff in the art & science of
table service and helps turn a staff’s service sins into service solutions. Ian
is the owner and dean of America’s only School for the Service Arts. He is the
author of the hit selling video/manual training program “The A to Z’s of
Professional Table Service” and the soon-to-be released “Service Stinks”. Ian
can be contacted at or
online at