One of the most important rules of being a good hostess (and event planner) is making sure no one leaves hungry. You always need to make sure you have enough food and account for guests’ dietary needs. When I am entertaining at home, I usually just make an obscene amount of food and assume that I’ll have a ton of leftovers. My husband usually shakes his head at this strategy and accuses me of “overdoing it” but I’d rather eat leftovers for a week than potentially run out of food.
But in my day job as a nonprofit event manager, I’d prefer to not have leftovers at all. At a corporate catered event, having leftovers actually means we lose money. Some caterers allow you to keep leftovers or donate them to a charity or shelter, but oftentimes local laws or policies forbid that and the leftover food is just thrown away.
That means we have to be as exact as possible in our estimates. It’s a delicate balance between having enough food and having too much, leading to waste. When you are planning formal events like a wedding or gala you have a pretty solid idea of how many people will be attending beforehand, but most of our events don’t have that luxury. They might have an RSVP list, but there’s no guarantee that everyone will show up. Or sometimes there’s no RSVP at all and we have no idea how many people to expect.
So how do we work with that? The number one way is to keep an accurate count of how many people show up. There are almost always no shows. In a perfect world, people wouldn’t RSVP if they didn’t intend on coming to an event, or would let the event organizer know if plans changed. But since you don’t always know who will actually show, it’s good to keep data on your events, especially for corporate and nonprofit events, so that you can start to see trends. At our organization, for example, we have have as many as 50% of the guest list no show for a cocktail reception event on a weekday. On the flip side, our annual staff holiday party has about a 90% attendance rate (which still means that 10% of people who RSVP end up not showing up).
When we aren’t serving a seated meal, I tend to underestimate the numbers for anything with a per-person price, especially if we think we will have no-shows. The exact numbers will depend on the event, but I might lowball by 10 or even 20%.
But what happens if everyone does show up? And brings friends? It depends. Are you trying to feed everyone or just make sure it doesn’t look like you’ve run out of food? If it’s the latter, I recommend more passed hors d’oeuvres than displays, since it’s not obvious when the servers stop passing but a picked over raw bar display is very obvious.
If it’s the former, try to stagger your food service so that the early birds don’t eat all the worms. If you’re working with a hotel catering department or a restaurant where there is likely more food on-site, you can find out if the caterers can just put out more food. Even if the food isn’t the same menu you chose, it’s usually better to put something out that can be consumed.
Those are just a few tips and tricks to deal with the constant problem of not running out of food for corporate and nonprofit events. For entertaining at home, I still recommend my usual plan of making way too much food and enjoying the leftovers for days.