Buffet Service Guidelines

Open food service setups raise a number of questions as to how provisions of the Minnesota Food Code apply to operations such as salad bars, buffet lines, smorgasbords, hors d’ oeuvre tables, and similar non-traditional means of large-scale food service. Health, Safety, and Risk Management – Public Health has promulgated these Buffet Service Guidelines to provide some clarity and uniform requirements in this area. 

Food service providers on campus must always keep in mind the fact that all food service activities are ultimately governed by the Minnesota Food Code. Of necessity, these guidelines are general in nature and cannot address every situation that will be encountered.

Unless otherwise indicated, these guidelines shall apply to any buffet service (as defined - see Buffet Service Definitions) conducted on campus where unpackaged prepared food is displayed, served and/or prepared from counters, tables or similar equipment or installations in dining rooms, lobbies, meeting rooms, bar areas, ballrooms, outdoor venues and other areas not traditionally used for food preparation.

General Sanitation and Safety Requirements

Guideline 1: General Operation and Arrangement of Service Lines

The requirements of this guideline apply to all buffet service. 

Service Lines

Equipment: All equipment and utensils used in a service line must be made of approved materials, be maintained in good repair, and in a clean manner free from contamination.
Surfaces: All surfaces of service lines must be kept clean and free from debris.

Food Display in Self-Service Area

  • All food displayed for customer self-service must be displayed within easy reach of the average customer. The maximum distance between the edge of a service line, excluding any tray rail, and the front of the rearmost displayed item cannot exceed 22 inches. However, chafing dishes ("chafers"), oval trays, pans, and similar containers may extend beyond this limit so long as the displayed food begins within the 22 inch limit. 
  • Two-sided service lines are permissible so long as a space or central barrier is provided to prevent customers from serving themselves from the other side.
  • All sneeze-guards or droplet protection devices used in service lines must conform to Guideline 2, which covers sneeze guards. Also, the protective surface of the sneeze guard must be positioned high enough above the displayed food so that it does not interfere with the customer's access to the rearmost displayed food item or use of serving utensils. Sneeze guards that comply with Guideline 2 generally meet this criterion.

Temperature Control

The Minnesota Food Code provides that "... all potentially hazardous food shall be held at or below 41°F or shall be kept at or above 135°F at all times.... "Potentially hazardous foods must be rapidly brought to the required temperature before being placed in the service line, unless the service line equipment is designed to rapidly bring food up to the required temperature. An accurate, easily readable, metal probe thermometer shall be readily available. 

Cooking/Reheating Temperatures

The Minnesota Food Code requires that all ready-to-eat foods prepared at a food facility/event from raw or incompletely cooked animal tissues, and commercially obtained prepackaged foods, shall be thoroughly cooked prior to serving as follows:

Cooking/Reheating Temperatures
Food Temperature
Pre-cooked, ready-to-eat food taken from a commercially processed, hermetically sealed container, or an intact package from a food processing plant that is USDA inspected (not hot dogs, brats, etc.)  140°F
Poultry (including ground poultry) 165°F
Stuffed fish, stuffed meat, stuffed poultry (including any food stuffed with fish, meat, or poultry) 165°F
Reheated cooked foods that have been prepared on site:(foods cooked, cooled, and reheated for immediate serving or hot holding) 165°F
Ground meet (including beef, veal, lamb, pork, and other edible animals) 157°F
Pork 155°F
Eggs (including foods containing raw eggs) 145°F
Foods cooked in a microwave oven: higher. After microwaving, the food must stand for at least two minutes before serving to allow for even heating.  25°F higher than the temperatures above


Availability of Food Staff Handwashing Facilities 

The Minnesota Food Code requires all food establishments to provide buffet line workers with handwashing facilities. No additional or special employee handwashing facilities need be provided specifically for service line workers in regularly occurring or temporary buffets so long as the facilities required by the Minnesota Food Code are adequate and reasonably accessible to service line workers. However, handwashing facilities must be provided at permanent buffets in which food is prepared and served by food staff. 

General Droplet Protection Requirement

The Minnesota Food Code 4626.0320 requires all food on display to be protected from contamination by use of packaging; counter, service line, or salad bar food guards; display cases; or other effective means.

Under these guidelines, displayed food must either be placed behind a sneeze guard or similar droplet protection device, or placed in a covered or otherwise protected container that meets the standards of Guideline 3: Self-Service Stations or Guideline 4: Attended Stations.

Guideline 2: Droplet Protection: Self-Service Areas

Unpackaged food displayed in service lines for customer self-service shall be shielded so as to intercept a direct line between the customer's mouth and the food being displayed, or shall be in a container which has a tight-fitting, securely-attached lid, or may be dispensed from approved mechanical dispensers. This means that displayed food must be protected by a sneeze guard which meets the requirements of Guideline 2 or, as an acceptable alternative, placed in a service container which has a tight-fitting securely-attached lid. Acceptable containers include self-closing containers such as roll-top chafing dishes ("chafers") whose lids are set not to open to more than 90° from their closed position and other containers which may meet the approval of the HSRM – Public Health Program.

Guideline 3: Droplet Protection: Attended Stations

Unpackaged food may be displayed in other containers if both of the following conditions are satisfied:

  1. The food is served by an employee of the establishment directly to a consumer.
  2. The food is displayed in clean, sanitary, and covered or otherwise protected containers.

This standard may be met by either:

  1. Placement of a sneeze guard which meets the standards of Guideline 2 between the food and the customer; or
  2. The attending employee serving the food from a covered container, so long as the cover is replaced after each serving; or
  3. Other protection which provides an equivalent barrier which intercepts a direct line between the mouth of the average consumer and the food. Containers such as roll-top or half-dome chafing dishes meet this requirement provided that when the container is open, only the attending employee directly faces the food.

Guideline 4: Utensils and Self-Service Dispensing of Food Items

Dispensing Utensils

  • The Minnesota Food Code requires that food displayed in self-service containers be provided with a utensil which has a handle sufficient to dispense the food item.
  • Each service container must be provided with at least one appropriately sized serving utensil for use exclusively with that container. The utensil must be of sufficient size and design to prevent it falling into or out of the container when not in use. The self-service utensils must be changed, cleaned, and sanitized as regularly as required by the Minnesota Food Code 4626.0845, 4626.0900.

Dinnerware and Flatware

  • All reasonable steps should be taken to keep patrons from reusing their dinnerware (plates, saucers, etc.) when returning to the service line. Sufficient clean dinnerware should be provided so that customers are not encouraged to reuse their dinnerware when returning to the service line. Signs should be posted directing patrons to obtain a clean plate when returning to the service line. Suitable facilities should also be available near the service line in which to deposit used dinnerware.
  • The managers/vendors/operators of a food buffet venue should also take special care to provide sufficient utensils, dinnerware, and service line supervision to reasonably discourage customers from (1) reusing dinnerware, (2) using their hands or their table flatware to dispense food, or (3) otherwise unnecessarily handling or touching displayed food items.