Friday, December 18, 2009

The Lost Art of the Cocktail Reception

Over the past 2 years the cocktail reception has enjoyed a major comeback in the wedding industry. Wedding lounges and signature wedding cocktails are popping up with increasing frequency. Due to the recent economic downturn, many couples look to a cocktail reception because it can dramatically reduce costs when compared to the price of serving all their guests a plated meal.
Ann Bancroft & Dustin Hoffman enjoying a cocktail in The Graduate.

There is an art to pulling off the perfect cocktail reception. Here, in the heart of the Midwest, we have lost touch with all things cocktail. Only a generation ago there were cocktail dresses, cocktail napkins, and cocktail glasses (or better yet, complete serving sets), and cocktail tables. Somehow, with the "more is better" mindset of the last few decades, cocktails and cocktail receptions went away.

I often hear parents and grandparents resist the cocktail reception with comments like the following:

" A cocktail reception? What about your out-of-town guests?? We OWE THEM a full meal."

" A cocktail reception? What if your guests want to sit? We should make sure there are enough chairs for EVERYBODY."
These are realistic concerns for a cocktail reception gone wrong. People can easily feel like they did not get enough to eat, or that they had no place to "perch" during the party. However, with a little planning, these two problems are easily overcome! Read-on for some insider tips on planning a successful cocktail reception!

McCall's Vintage Cocktail Dress Pattern

Manage Expectations: Let your guests know that a plated meal will not be served. It can be a simple as including "Cocktail reception immediately following the ceremony" at the bottom of your invitation.

Something for Everybody: One great advantage the cocktail reception has over the plated meal is that it can include something for everybody. Your guests will have many options, not just a choice of beef vs. fish. Since there is not a full serving kitchen at the Library, be very aware of guests with special needs like gluten-free or vegetarian diets. It is difficult for caterer's to come up with a vegetarian dish, if their prep-kitchen is 45 minutes away. Make sure all dishes are labeled, and that serving pieces are not contaminated (just 1 person dipping a cracker in a gluten-free, or a shrimp in a shell-fish free dish can trigger an allergic reaction).
Breakfast at Tiffany's
Avoid Lines: the point of a cocktail reception is to keep the party going all night long. Lines should be almost non-existent at the cocktail reception done correctly. Do not provide a single buffet, or a line will form. Lines kill the fun party-vibe. People stop MINGLING and start WAITING. Instead, provide butler passed (tray passed) appetizers and break food into stations. If your ceremony and reception are held in the same location (as often happens at Stillwater Public Library) make a note in your ceremony program that there will not be a receiving line, and instead mingle with your guests throughout the reception. Another great advantage of a cocktail reception is that it completely eliminates the AGONIZING wait for your plate that accompanies receptions with a plated meal. The meal can start immediately after the ceremony, and people can eat at their own pace. Keep people coming back to the stations by changing the options every few hours.
Seating: resist the urge to provide full-seating. Resist the urge to provide 1/2 seating. Provide seating for only 1/3 of your guests. I know that you are having a negative knee-jerk reaction to this advise, but TRUST ME, bad things happen at events where full, 2/3 or 1/2 seating is provided.
If you provide full-seating, everyone will claim a seat (and often stay there for the rest of the night). If you provide 2/3 seating, it will fill up fast, and people will become competitive. I have seen people start moving furniture from other rooms, and even watched a gentleman bring in 2 folding chairs from his vehicle because he and his wife felt like the odd-ones-out. 2/3 seating always turns into a game of grown-up musical chairs. If you provide 1/2 seating, the guests who have chairs feel rushed. They want to eat as fast as possible so the table can go to the next waiting person. Remember, waiting and sitting are the things you don't want! The magical thing about providing seating for 1/3 of your guests is
1) the people who really need a seat can find one.
2) it prevents lines because people are not rushed to get food and make a claim on a seat...everyone is standing...there's no hurry!
3) ou can put a lot of "bang" into your ceremony centerpieces because you only have 1/3 the tables. You don't have to limit yourself to low floral arrangements everyone can talk want people to do their talking on the dance floor. You can opt for something tall and dramatic!
4) the crowd will keep circulating, and participate in dancing and mingling.
PLATES, PLATES, PLATES: Plates can be the downfall of a cocktail reception. When serving food from stations people will go through plates at a faster rate than for a buffet. Make sure the plates are small enough to comfortably hold. This is important if your guests are expected to mingle and hit the dance floor. Make sure to have a minimum of 3-4 plates per guest. The plates must be disposable or there should be stations to discard used plates and silverware when guests are done eating. Ask your caterer to provide extra staff to keep your tables impeccably clean and well-bussed so that guests who aren't first to a seat have a clean, uncluttered place to eat. The same consideration is needed for drinks. Make sure that you either provide a place for guests to park their drinks while they dance and mingle, or that your drink cups are disposable. If at all possible, keep silverware out of the equation, or rent special cocktail forks & picks. It reduces clutter, and including only true finger-foods keeps people on their feet and enjoying the party.
Family Fun: If children and/or families with youngsters will be in attendance, it is very kind to provide high chairs. One thing that can be tough at a cocktail reception is getting children to sit down and eat.
Skip the Signature: I have only seen 2 weddings where guests became overly intoxicated. Both involved hosted signature cocktails. I also observe incredible amounts of waste; I find gallons of abandoned drinks with only 1 or 2 sips taken. If you decide you LOVE this idea, host the drinks for only 1-hour periods of time.
The Heavy Appetizer: Look online for some exciting options to make sure everyone feels well-fed. Chicken satay, bacon wrapped fingerling potatoes, deep-fried plantains with halibut and mango salsa on top...the sky is the limit! Veggie trays and meatballs are a great way to make sure everyone is left wanting more.
Vary Seating: In addition to traditional ceremony seating, consider including furniture groupings, high-top cocktail tables, small tables to seat only 4-6 guests, a bar with bar-stools, or a lounge area. This keeps people circulating, but prevents them from permanently settling down.
I hope these tips help you plan a great cocktail reception! Please leave a comment if there is anything I missed, or if you have questions.

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