Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Soup Bar--How To Serve 150

Earlier this year, my sister-in-law and I were emailing back and forth about her Labor Day wedding.  She asked at one point if I could help with some appetizers for the reception.  I thought, "Hmmm...maybe?"  I knew I was going to be in the wedding (bridesmatron), so I thought I could pull something off, but not sure what.  Etc.

5-7 emails later...I had offered, she accepted and I would now cater the wedding.

For the months following, I was just fakin' it until I made it.

The challenge was not only that I would not actually physically be there to set out the food and prepare anything day of (because I'd be working the ceremony runway/photoshoot), but also, the reception was in a barn.  Like a real barn.

Cute, huh?

Now, I am just being dramatic because it makes me sound more badass.  But, there was electricity in the barn.  Lots of it.  But no commercial kitchen.  Just a regular kitchen.  And we were expecting about 150 people.

Although I gave the bride-to-be a few meal options, I had a feeling the one she picked was the absolute only one that would actually work.  Soup bar!

The idea was to serve a good variety of soups with various toppings, crusty bread and rolls.  Round it out with a few salad options and some substantial apps beforehand.  Everything could be prepped beforehand.  I could still be a bridesmatron.

So, who would serve the food?  I emailed some friends who lived in the area (btw, the wedding was in Wisconsin, far far away from my little apartment kitchen).  Here is how those email conversations went:

Me:  "Hey best friends!  Want to help me cater a wedding?"

Friend 1:  "Hell no, are you crazy?  How is that even possible."  --This is my realistic friend.  Who realized that this wasn't the easiest task in the world.  After she found it was a soup bar, she was much more comfortable...but had to opt out anyways because she was busy (it was Labor Day weekend).  Haha, totally agree with her though.

Friend 2:  "Sure!"  --This is my go-with-the-flow friend who probably had no idea what this favor required of her.  But didn't worry about it.  Haha.  You may remember Nicole from this post.

Friend 3:  "Probs.  Whatever.  Remind me later."  --This is my laid back friend who I had to remind that she agreed to do this for me at least 5 times before the event.  You may remember Megan from this post.

Bottom line, Megan and Nicole were the best dang sous chefs I could ask for.  They made sure to watch Top Chef the night before to mentally prepare.  I gave them very detailed instructions and schedules of what they needed to do.  I prepared a binder for them.  We had skype meetings in the days before the wedding.  All very official stuff.

And guess what?  I would say the whole thing went as smoothly as I could have hoped for.  No major disasters.  The only thing I would change is how we actually served the soups.  But this is something we wouldn't have really known until we did it.  I will explain more about this later.

Even though,  I love food and love cooking, and usually love my cooking, it is still a little hard to put yourself out there and cook for a big crowd  (or a little one).

I know everyone has different tastes, so I try to remember that.  But this idea for a soup bar, rather than a traditional sit down dinner, was probably pretty out there for many of the guests.  For me, I was only going to make and serve food that I thought was delicious.  And it isn't possible to serve a delicious meat and potatoes meal for 150, out of a tiny kitchen and have it be prepared in advance.  In fact, I would argue, it isn't really all that possible to do that in a commercial kitchen, the day of, with a staff of catering peeps.  Almost all the catered food I have had hasn't been that great.  It is really hard to do well.

Anyhow, I think lots of people loved the idea and loved the soups.  Or at least lots of people were being nice and told me that.  :)  And I personally would have preferred this over what we had at our wedding.

Here was the menu:


-Hummus with Pita Bread and Carrots
-Tomato Pico De Gallo with tortilla chips
-Pineapple Pico De Gallo with tortilla chips
-Thin Pretzel Sticks



-Traditional Veggie Salad (Romaine, shredded carrots, cucumbers and grape tomatoes) with Homemade croutons and Ranch


-Aunt Chris' Chicken Wild Rice Soup (Scot's aunt made this one, secret family recipe)


-Crusty French baguettes and whole grain rolls from Panera
-Corn bread muffins from Famous Dave's (for Chili)

Scot and I made all the food in advance.

Here was our schedule:

Tuesday Night
-grocery shopping for Wednesday food

-make Chili and Chicken Noodle Soup
-make Ranch
-make Croutons

Wednesday Night
-delivery food to different fridge
-grocery shopping for Thursday food

-make Butternut Squash and Roasted Tomato Basil Soup
-make Hummus
-make Balsamic Vinaigrette

Thursday night
-deliver food to another fridge
-grocery shopping for Thursday night and Friday
-prep Chicken Enchilada Rollup filling
-prep Mushroom Crostini spread
-shred all cheese
-prep cucumbers for Traditional Veggie Salad
-prep green onions for Chili topping

-make Broccoli Cheese Soup
-make Greek Orzo Salad with Mustard-Dill Vinaigrette
-make two Pico de Gallos
-pick up lettuce from grocery store, delivery it and some other food to reception site

Friday night (rehearsal and dinner)
-prep diced apples for Butternut Squash soup

Saturday morning (getting hair done and ready)
-other people delivery food from various locations to reception site
-Megan and Nicole arrive and begin prepping apps and do just about everything else

Saturday afternoon
-Megan and Nicole did have to finish the mushroom crostini and chicken enchilada roll-ups, assemble the salads and set everything else out.  Sounds easy, but they were busy the whole time.  No down time, they said.

Here would be my suggested quantities for 150 people:


For 6 varieties, I would do 12 qts of each.  I found that this is typically about 3 times any soup recipe.


For 2 varieties of lettuce salads plus a pasta salad,

*Green Leaf Lettuce Salad with Craisins, Goat Cheese and Walnuts--I would do 40 ounces of Spring Mix (this is equivalent to about two 4-inch full size food pans) plus all the veggies and toppings.
*Traditional Veggie Salad--72 ounces of chopped Romaine (this is equivalent to about two 4-inch full size food pans) plus all the veggies and toppings.
*Green Orzo Salad--half a 4-inch food pan of Pasta salad (~3 lbs of dry Orzo pasta plus all the veggies and dressing).  This is about 4 times this recipe.
*Salad dressings:  I would do one total gallon.  1/2 gallon of Ranch (4 HVR packets) and 1/2 gallon of Balsamic Vinaigrette.


*Chicken Enchilada Roll-ups--5 times this recipe
*Hummus with Pita Bread and Carrots--3 times this recipe, 4 bags of pita bread, 2 lbs of baby carrots
*Tomato Pico De Gallo & Pineapple Pico De Gallo - About 10 lbs of tomatoes and pineapple, plus the other ingredients (cilantro, lime, red onion)
*Tortilla chips--3 big bags (the Mission Chips in the brown bags)
*Pistachios--1 lbs
*Thin Pretzel Sticks--2 big bags

This is obviously not what I made for this wedding.  I was right on with most of the appetizers.  But, I bought way too much lettuce for the salads.  Something that really surprised me because both Scot and I didn't think it seemed like enough.  Maybe we didn't have big salad eaters at the reception or something.


I made between 16-20 quarts of each soup.  It was way too much, but since we weren't sure how much to make with the soup bar format, we decided to make a lot more than we thought because soup freezes so well and we could eat the leftovers the day after (and the day after that...)  And with soup, it doesn't affect how much you spend (time and money) too much if you decide to make 12 qts vs. 18 qts.  Definitely could have done without lugging around extra quarts of soups though.  :)

To serve the soup, I rented 12 soup kettles.  Six of them had the power capacity to actually heat the soups up (necessary, since they were cold).  Six of them could only keep already warm soup warm.   Each had a capacity of 12 qts (so we needed two for each soup).  Seemed to work out great.  We did have to be careful with how we distributed them on the circuits because the cookers were 10 we could only put two on each circuit.  Luckily, the barn had just had the electrical system upgraded, and had plenty of circuits that we could use.  Thanks to all the men who figured out all the cords and plugs and circuits and amps.  I am sure it was more of a challenge than I am making it out to be.

We had it set up buffet style.  The guests grabbed 2-3 8-ounce paper soup cups (placing them on a glass dinner plate).  Then, they ladled the soups they wanted into their cups.  Put on the toppings.  It was ok, but pretty slow.  I would recommend having a table in the back with all the soup kettles and then having Megan and Nicole ladling out the soup into the cups and just having people grab the cups and put the toppings on themselves.  It will also keep things cleaner.

Now if you want to do a Soup Bar at your next party for 150, you should be all set!


  1. shanon!!! this is so impresssive. if i click "im going to make this" does that count as an official reservation for you to cater my wedding? i dont have a wedding but if/when i do... i think it counts. ok good job fa real

  2. Shan, this is so amazing and I'm so proud of you. You make this all sound so simple but I know you and you put a ton of work into this. Everything looked so professional and it all looks so good, it makes me hungry looking at the pictures. Megan and Nicole are good friends and it shows. Oh and Scot is one amazing husband too!!! You did a really great amazing job!!! Love You, Mom

  3. Great post! I bow down. Seriously. I would never agree to cook for that many people, ha! I know what you mean, it is so hard to estimate quantities especially for that many people.

    You are one seriously fabulous sister in law!

  4. You should be SO PROUD OF YOURSELF! You kicked butt. I know how much work it takes to pull something like this off, and you obviously handled it with such grace and creativity. I'm sure your family was so blessed. I am going to save this whenever I need a dose of inspiration. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Shannon, you, & Scott, & your kind girlfriends did a superb job! Your food was scrumpcious & perfectly prepared. It was a most memorable wedding for all lucky enough to attend :-) Congratulations on pulling it off! Love, Cheri V.

  6. Hi Shannon! WOW-impressive! I remember you talking about this at Birkie last yr! thanks for sharing.

    and I know exactly who Friend #1 is:) definetly the realist!

  7. I love your blog!

    That looks so delicious!

    Have a nice time!

  8. thanks everyone for your nice comments!!! kt-i have scheduled you in. ;) /not. /psyche. /maybe.

  9. I havent been keeping up on my blogs recently but i felt compelled to comment on this wondrous idea! seriously shan, awesome! p.s. props to megan and nicole too! gimme a roll up!

  10. I will be attempting soups at my winter wedding also and have run into finding those black kettles you served them out of....where can you rent those?

    1. I rented mine from Midway Party Rentals in Minneapolis:

      Most big cities have these party rental stores. If you don't see them listed on the website, give them a call because they often have a lot of equipment unlisted. You can also rent large stock pots to cook the soup in if you don't have one. Good luck!

  11. Wow. This is so helpful. I think I could hang-out with you and your friends. I must say you were a very ambitious host! I like the idea of the cups instead of bowls, and having someone have those ready for guest as they come by does help the line. Thanks for posting all your hard work! I love your cute pictures!

  12. Thanks for posting all your hard work! I love our cute pictures too. I think I could hang out with you and your friends. I like the cup idea and having someone serve to speed-up the line. You are a very ambitious host! Thanks again I love this idea it's very helpful.

  13. What did you do about serving the soup. Im trying to go cheap. I am donating my service to a young co worker. 40 people max

    1. I explained how the soup was served in the post, if you take another look. I used soup kettles (see photo) and the guests served themselves buffet style. They had little paper cups sitting on a glass plate.