Basics of Tray Passing Hors d’oeuvres

Tray passing hors d’oeuvre is hospitality at its best!

Passing food and beverages seems simple enough. However, tray passing is more — It’s the welcome that sets the tone for the rest of the event.

In brief, tray passing hors d’oeuvre involves offering carefully prepared food and beverages to guests from a tray. Tray-passing generally takes place before the entrée is served. However, from time-to-time passing takes place between courses, when serving desserts or late-night snacks, for example.

Passing food and beverages is about taking care of guests, making sure they have a positive “wow” experience. And, remember: “Every event is an audition for another event!” — Roy’s Rule #9

This information-packed article introduces new staff to what works best and is a refresher course for seasoned veterans so that everyone can feel confident that they’re doing a great job.

Six Points to Remember

  1. Tray passing is more than simply serving food and beverages
  2. Preparation is key: use the pre-event meeting to learn the what and why behind every item
  3. Use “The Pass” to give and receive up-to-date information and to check your tray presentation
  4. When engaging with guests, imagine you’re a tour guide on a food safari
  5. Be prepared to go beyond passing hors d’oeuvre to guests and be helpful to them as well
  6. Be present, smile, and have fun!

If you follow the guidelines above, you will be prepared, knowledgeable, and confident when interacting with guests. Guests will have an exceptional experience, which is our ultimate collective goal.

What You Need to Learn at the Pre-event Meeting

Every event is different, so be sure to understand the following before the event starts: if it’s not covered in the Event One-Sheet, help your fellow servers by asking about it at the pre-event meeting!

What to learn about the event

  • Start and end times
  • Where “The Pass” area is: the place where you collect the food or beverages to be served
  • Who the Expeditor is (note: The Expeditor is the only person you talk to when entering “The Pass” area)
  • Physical area for tray passing (e.g. a small reception space, guest entrance, area around displays)
  • Where and how to return empty trays

What to learn about each hors d’ oeuvre

  • What it’s called, its key ingredients, and how it’s prepared (e.g. sautéed, chilled)
  • Why it was chosen (e.g. selected by the bride, goes well with a particular wine)
  • Identified allergens

Tip: Describe the hors d’ oeuvre in a fun and engaging way, pay attention to colors, aroma, and texture.

'The Pass': Getting Your Tray

“The Pass,” often a raised table, is the transition point where food transitions from BOH (Back of House) to FOH (Front of House). It’s a crucial point because it’s not only where you pick up your next tray but also where you get up-to-date directions, explanations, and changes.

Sometimes staff members are designated to serve one particular item. At times you’re sent in rotation, with the next item on the list. When standing close to the pass, keep any chatting to a minimum so you stay in the loop. Make sure you know the specific names and descriptions of items on the tray. If you’re unsure, then ask.

Tip: Unless directed, always ask permission from the Expeditor, Chef, or Preparers. Ask: “Is this tray ready?”

'The Pass': Check Presentation

Double-check your tray’s presentation before you start your route. Check that the tray:

  • Is not chipped or cracked
  • Has clean edges
  • Has neatly presented food (e.g. orderly bones and skewers, with clean handles facing outwards for easy pick up)
  • Has the menu card displayed facing the guests, so they can easily read it

Also, check that

  • Nonfunctional or promotional (swag) garnishes are where they should be
  • Dipping sauces are securely placed on the tray
  • You have napkins with you
  • A team member is there to shadow you and pick up bones, picks, skewers, and containers

Occasionally, the platter or tray may be substituted with a large or ‘custom’ serving vehicle. Know the story behind it, plus how to carry and present it.

Tip: To carry the tray securely, place your hand underneath with no thumbs or fingers exposed. Trays often come with special handles so that it’s easier to keep them level.

From time to time, you may be issued with special clothing — hats, shoes, etc. — to wear as part of the tray-passing presentation. The items might be the client’s new clothing line, their logo, a new product, or the name of the item you are passing, such as “Pulled Pork Slider,” for example.

Picking Your Route

You may well encounter a group of guests, so-called “platter pirates,” who’ll swarm you as you exit the pass. If this happens, warn passing teammates and change your serving route often.

Make sure you regularly offer trays to clients, hosts, hostesses, VIPs, and planners. No one wants to receive a phone call from someone complaining that they didn’t get to try any of the hors d’ oeuvres.

Tip: Listen out for positive comments from guests and relay them to the Expo or Chef. Everyone likes to hear how much their work is appreciated.

Showtime: Selling Items

Passing food and beverages is really about taking care of the guests and making sure they enjoy a positive wow experience.

With this in mind, remember these tips:

  • Be sensitive and avoid interrupting guests’ conversations
  • Look for cues of interest or decline
  • Smile. Be enthusiastic about the food you’re serving
  • Avoid being too friendly and familiar. Remember, you’re here to care for them, so refrain from asking for their autograph or slipping them your agent’s card

When presenting the food, think of yourself as the tour guide on a food safari

  • Tell the story of the dish, use your imagination and colorful adjectives
  • Mention the ingredients, garnishes, technique, composition, etc.
  • Perhaps provide direction on how to eat new or unfamiliar items (e.g. for sushi, suggest placing fish, not the rice, on the tongue)
  • Warn guests if something is hot to the touch or spicy. Or if it’s a ‘dripper’ (a messy item)
  • Indicate food that goes well with a particular specialty cocktail, wine, beer, or other beverage

Apart from engaging with guests, it’s important that you hand out everything on the tray. Don’t return to the Pass with one or two items left. Also, for reasons of sanitation, discourage guests from placing used items back on the serving tray.

7. Show Gratitude for a Job Well Done

Gratitude is important. You know that it takes a village to produce great events, so nurturing great relationships with staff and partners can make it more likely they’ll want to work with you in the future.

Take some time to send thank you notes (snail mail or online) to the people and partners who helped to produce your event.

Pro tip: Reward while you recharge. Grab a glass of wine while you’re unwinding and crank out those thank-you notes.


Offering Napkins to Guests

Offer napkins to all guests. Do so by peeling away at the folded corner of the napkin with your thumb and index finger and offering it to the guest. Their natural reaction is to take the napkin from you.

Sometimes a “Napkin Garage” or another type of napkin holder will supply napkins, but this manual peel style is perceived as a more formal and friendly. Unless directed, avoid offering open hands of “artichoked” napkin piles where guests pick their own napkin.

Showtime: Beyond Passing

As a server, you’re a part of the event experience which goes beyond tray passing. Here are some common situations that happen while tray passing and the best tips on how to handle them.

Special Requests

As a general rule, if a guest makes any special requests, never say, “No.” Instead say, “I will find out and get back to you.”

For example, if a guest says to you, “Can I get the tuna tartare without any soy sauce?” Your reply should be, “I will check and get back to you.” Then go and talk to the Expeditor about the request.

Photographic Moments

Try to avoid being in guests’ photographs. Photographers often want you in the shot displaying the food and serving guests. From time-to-time, the photographer wants just a picture of the food. Follow their directions. If guests ask you to take a photo of them, go ahead and help them out.

Calls To Action

Stop and clean up messes right away. Stand over broken glasses till help arrives so that guests don’t step on it. Hold your flashlight parallel to the floor to see glass shards in low light situations.

ABC: Always Be Clearing (Tag team)

When one person serves, another server should follow to clear away used items and trash immediately. This includes cocktail sticks, skewers, shells, bones, and soiled napkins. Keep dirty items off the serving tray.

Know Key Locations

Frequently, when guests are selecting a bite, they will inquire about where certain things are, like restrooms, the bar, breastfeeding room, dining area, disabled access, coat check, valet services, designated smoking areas, exits, or where they can find special things like coffee, photo booths, and desserts.

When providing directions always point in the “Walt Disney” two fingers style or offer to walk the guest to the location.

Time Is Waiting

Be familiar with the event schedule. Guests often inquire about the reception schedule, when is dinner, when does the bar open or close.

Returning your tray for the next round

When your tray is empty, you’ll want to return to ‘the pass’ and give it to the chefs or preparers. Listening to or asking for directions.

Sometimes you’ll be directed to leave the serving trays to be cleaned for reuse. Other times, you’ll be asked to:

  • Remove and discard any left-over food or garnishes
  • Wipe the tray clean. Rinse with water and dry
  • Spray with vinegar & water or other sanitizing solution


There is so much more to tray passing that you can pick up naturally from practice and observation.

To help keep organized, just remember the verse in Kipling’s poem,

“ I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.”

Lastly, be present, smile, and have fun!