Time to Open Up the Buffets

Chuck Kelley

By Chuck Kelley

Sep 30, 2020

The buffet has been an integral part of many restaurant and other hotel food operations. For now, the buffet is just taking up space – an ugly reminder of better times. Buffets have a unique appeal to many customers if for no other reason than the visual of the food display – so many options for one set price.

Can we find innovative ways to re-introduce the buffet and create a unique customer experience?

Can we create the perception of high touch in a low touch environment?

“The buffet is a proven restaurant concept that has always had a strong customer base because of its value perception and visual appeal.  By adapting the traditional buffet model to a safer and more controlled operation without giving up the essence of the idea will allow the concept to continue to thrive.”

~ Alan Someck, Keystone Hospitality Solutions.

The New Buffet Concept

The thought is to create a buffet customer experience that eliminates the customer touch points and engages the customer.

Try some of these conceptual work arounds for a restaurant or food and beverage operation are:

  • Create buffet stations such as soup/appetizers, salad, main course, side dishes, action station (carving, pasta, eggs to order, sandwiches, etc…), desserts and so forth.
  • Add in a Chef at the action station who also manages the buffet team and the experience.
  • Provide hospitality trained servers to portion the food.
  • Buffet staff should receive both culinary and hospitality training – informed service with a smile. We want the servers to engage with the customer.
  • The buffet staff should be tip eligible and receive a share of pooled tips – give them the incentive to produce the buffet experience that will generate return business and word of mouth advertising.

The questions to ask yourself as a food and beverage operator are:

Can we reopen the buffet safely in this low touch environment?

Can we operate the buffet without adding significant cost?

Can we generate more revenue with the buffet open?

Safety Concerns Regarding Buffets

Safety is a top priority.  This can be easily achieved by adding protective shields on the buffet that both protect the customer and provide separation between the buffet stations. We can eliminate customer touch points by providing servers to portion out the food. A food runner will minimize crossover touch points between kitchen and buffet staff. Of course, all the other mandated protocols remain in place.

“There is no better time to have a plan for your business then present day, and this does not mean one plan.  Considering alternatives is imperative to survival and while buffet service has been a discouraged consideration, I see this differently. Paramount to our current operating considerations and the success of your business is the safety of your guests and employees.

A buffet setup, if designed and planned appropriately, may offer guests the safety they seek over a la carte service interaction.

This includes, but is not limited to:  Managing capacity restrictions, wearing masks unless seated, social distancing controls (table by table) while guests are accessing the food line, six-foot protocols of buffet foods set up, the masked and gloved staff serving the customers, and protective shields for the foods and people.

There is also a need to minimize the potential for crossover contamination between the kitchen and the delivery of foods to the buffet with assembly-line tactics and other similar procedures that provide the look and feel that safety is a priority.  Guests may partake in a properly designed buffet with minimal close contact with front of house staff, unlike a la carte.  Ideally, you will also have a touchless payment system in place.”

~ Jim Lopolito, President Lopolito Hospitality Consultants

Analyze Buffet Costs

Cost neutral or better vs. pure a la carte service may be achieved in several ways:

  • Servers behind the buffet will control portion size to some extent resulting in food cost reductions.
  • The Chef and servers will also help control, limit over production and resulting waste – just in time replenishment.
  • With the buffet open you will be able to reduce floor staff by increasing station size. A server working a buffet is responsible for taking the drink order, clearing the table, and handling the check – no food service and no kitchen trips. A buffet server is capable of handling more tables/covers than an a la carte server – an offset to the additional buffet server labor.
  • Less a la carte service will reduce stress on kitchen, create efficiencies and cost reductions.

Revenue increases from higher average checks for the buffet, faster turn times and more total customers per meal service – more revenue per seat (RPS). Increases in the top line will naturally result in improved revenue flow to the profit line.

There will be a one-time expense to retrofit the buffet and there are occupancy and capacity thresholds that need to be considered. However, if done correctly creating a buffet experience in today’s world may differentiate your restaurant and pay off in financial dividends.

Clearly this is a rough base line concept that will need to be tailored to the needs of your restaurant and food service operation and certainly there is room for some additional creative enhancements. Run the numbers based on your restaurant operation and see what they tell you. If positive, it will be worth the time and effort to give the buffet experience a new life.

If the time is not right now due to capacity thresholds, do your planning/homework now and be ready to re-launch the buffet when the time is right. All indications are that concerns about social distancing and touch points will linger for the foreseeable future. Therefore, if the buffet is an integral part of your restaurant and food service operation you will want to revise your approach.

About the author

Chuck Kelley

Chuck is a Partner with Cayuga Hospitality Consultants, a network of independent consultants specializing in hospitality/lodging. He spent 32 years with Marriott International, beginning as an Assistant Restaurant Manager and worked his way up to Executive Vice President responsible for Marriott’s Caribbean/Latin America Region. Along the way he held positions as Director of Restaurants, Director of Marketing, Regional Director of Sales and Marketing, General Manager and Country Manager Australia. A graduate of the University of Hawaii, with a BS in Travel and Tourism Management. He is a prior member of the Baptist Health South International Advisory Board and previously served as Chairman of the Caribbean Hotel and Airline Forum for the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. He served with distinction in the US Army in Vietnam having earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for valor in combat.

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