Can people who hosted talks at your university provide some tips on purchasing food and drink for the event?

We have a visitor from another American university and I am tasked with buying "food and drink" for about an audience of 30 - 50 people. We are located relatively close to Starbucks but far away from the nearest supermarket such as Walmart. The talk will last two hours.

From what I have seen, people usually purchase donuts and coffee for these events. I have seen these coffee "crates", "barrels", (I'm not sure what to call them).

Can anyone provide some suggestions as to where you can purchase cheap, and standard meal for these talks? I have asked people around me but they seen to have no idea, our group don't usually host visitors and the graduate students used to purchase for these talks have all graduated.

(Again, in a North America setting)

  • 3
    Surely you can still send an e-mail to one of these former graduate students, even if they aren't around the lab anymore. Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 7:44
  • 5
    Do you have a car? If not: find one of your locals who does have a car, and enlist their assistance for bringing the food/drink to the venue. I’ve never owned a car and generally prefer to manage without one even in places where that’s considered ridiculous… but for group catering, I’ve learned from experience that it’s really not worth trying to be a hero and lug things around by hand.
    – PLL
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 11:55
  • @PLL - If the car thing is a problem, one could look into delivery options. Where I live, one can get deliveries from the grocery store nowadays. Funny how things come around eventually. When I was a child this used to be possible and now it has been reestablished, in combination with online ordering. Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 23:04

2 Answers 2


Background: as an undergrad, worked with/ran my campus programming board (lots of food purchasing for events). As a graduate student, worked with grad student association to run the odd event. And have organized multiple lab events.

What should you buy:

  • Coffee and donuts are a classic -- you can't go wrong, especially if the talk is in the morning.
  • For a lunchtime talk, pizza is a cheap/popular option. Alternatively, subs are occasionally a good option (but more expensive and usually a bit messier).
  • For evening talks, aim for light hors d'oeuvres (cookies, mini-meatballs, cheese & fruit platter, etc.).
  • Alternatively, just stick with donuts and coffee for everything -- again, you really can't go wrong there :)
  • Don't forget napkins, plates, cups, plasticware, etc.!

Where you should buy it:

  • Starbucks offers what they call coffee travelers. Each has 96 fl. oz. (~2.8 L) of coffee and will keep warm for ~3 hours (in my experience). Be warned: you'll need to call ahead and order these (they prepare them fresh as needed).

  • For donuts: pickup 4-5 dozen donuts from a local donut shop (Dunkin' Donuts or Krispy Kreme in the U.S.). Alternatively, try contacting the bakery at your local supermarket -- given a couple of day's notice, they can probably prepare several dozen donuts for you to pick up.

  • The local supermarket (Kroger, Wegmans, Walmart, etc.) is actually a great place for placing catering orders like this. They can do pretty much anything - subs, baked goods, cheese & fruit platters, you name it. Many will already carry pre-made platters, so you don't even have to order ahead of time.

One last idea: contact your school's dining services. They're usually (a lot) more expensive, but they have some nice services such as:

  • All-in-one packages
  • Drop-off/cleanup services
  • Nicer linens/plates/etc.
  • Continous coffee carafes, water carafes, etc.

Last but not least -- get itemized receipts for everything. Businesses should have no problem providing these if you ask. Makes reimbursement much easier.

  • 4
    Most donut shops do coffee like that as well, so that can save a separate trip. Also, do consider independent coffee/donut/bagel shops if you have some in your area, not just the national chains!
    – PLL
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 12:00

While cookies, donuts and chocolate are always a safe bet, I have seen that fruits and vegetables are highly appreciated as well. They are really cheap, but require some work, as apples, stem cabbages, peppers ... have to be cut into pieces of finger food size. Cutting and preparing plates for 50 people takes something between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on whether you just want to serve food or have a nice presentation as well.

  • 1
    +1. I would just add that (at least where I live), one could, alternatively (if short on time), pick up the fruit and veggies from the grocery store, already washed and cut up. Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 23:02

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