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Will All-You-Can-Eat Buffets Ever Return Again?

Buffets have changed completely, going from “serve yourself” to “served at table.”

When COVID-19 hit the world early this year, buffets were temporarily shut down. You can imagine why: rows and rows of food stations that bring people in close proximity to each other. Strangers sharing serving spoons, handles, and utensils. The CDC made it clear that restaurants had to avoid any self-serving dining options and larger groups were discouraged.

Las Vegas gets credit for the way buffets have changed the dining experience. A 24-hour, all-you-can-eat buffet at the El Rancho Hotel in the 1940s set the cornerstone for the great American buffet system (although buffets first started in Europe). Soon, hotels on the Strip had their own versions and these became a major draw because of their value for money. Now hotels around the world have breakfast buffets, casinos have extensive spreads, and restaurants have used the same business model to bring in hungry diners.

But will the call to indulgence survive the pandemic?

Reinventing Buffets

The hospitality industry has fought countless battles in the last six months, and the buffet is another new challenge. While some hotels have completely stopped the service (also depending on the local guidelines for safety), others are adapting with strict social distancing measures and a new approach.

The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore has brought back its popular Sunday Champagne Brunch at Colony. The new rules? Diners get the menu on their phones and order dishes digitally, which are then served at the table. Reduced seating capacity, a maximum of five people at one table, and a minimum distance of one meter between tables are some of the other precautions being taken right now.

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Technology is at the forefront of limiting contact. At Hyatt hotels too, an app is used to place orders and pay for them. Full-service hotels have moved toward a la carte and made-to-order dining, while select-service hotels are offering pre-packaged meals. Frank Lavey, Senior Vice President of Global Operations, Hyatt also explains that at large-scale event buffets, guests identify their selection while servers with Plexiglas shields plate it up.

“Hyatt hotels are also experimenting with alternative solutions such as individual buffet-style meals that are curated and proportioned for each dining table at Hyatt Place Hyderabad Banjara Hills or full-service dining with on-site chefs in lieu of the breakfast buffet at Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach,” he adds.

Another reassurance for diners has been increased sanitization. At Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai, there are three different brunches currently running—at Nobu, WHITE Beach, and Bread Street Kitchen–and all are still popular with guests. The family-friendly luxury resort has trained its staff on hygiene and sanitation, and it has been certified by the Bureau Veritas Safeguard Label.

“We have increased disinfection attention to high-touch point areas across restaurants and bars including hostess desks, service stations, service carts, beverage stations, counters, handrails, and trays. These are sanitized at least once every hour by an allocated team,” says Daniel Follett, Director, Food & Beverage, Atlantis, The Palm.

What’s Up in Vegas?

Las Vegas is the land of the mighty buffet, but the pandemic has put a lid on the chafing dish…for now. Wynn Las Vegas was the first hotel in the Sin City to reopen its buffet with their served-at-the-table concept, but as of September 7, it has been discontinued indefinitely. The reason: it just didn’t work with the guests.

A frontrunner on every list, Caesars Palace Las Vegas’ unbelievable Bacchanal Buffet is temporarily closed. The 25,000-square feet space that used to serve up to 4,000 people in a day was expected to reopen this summer with a similar approach, but it has been delayed until later this year.

Nonetheless, buffets have a fighting chance to make a comeback in the city where they got their start decades ago. Wicked Spoon at The Cosmopolitan is successfully running its buffet, one of the few in the city currently. Here, too, there’s reduced seating and social distance between tables, and reservations are encouraged, while dining is limited to two hours per party. The restaurant is keeping in mind sanitization, health inspections, enforcement of gloves and masks, and other standard protocols.

The transition for this Vegas restaurant has been easier than the rest because 10 years ago, it started offering single-serve dishes that were individually plated, not served on large containers like traditional buffets. A model that not only reduces food waste, but also is critical to sanitization methods being adopted now.

Bryan Fyler, Executive Chef at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, explains, “We have modified our service approach to enforce social distancing guidelines by adding stanchions throughout the venue, and eliminated the ability for guests to touch serving utensils by having stationary servers at each station to personally hand guests their food items as they browse the buffet. Additionally, masks are a strict requirement for guests when traveling to/from the buffet.”

Let’s Talk Food Waste

The pandemic has raised concerns about food waste and food insecurity globally. Not only does food waste cost a global loss of $1 trillion every year, it also adds to greenhouse gasses when dumped in landfills. This may be a good opportunity to understand how food is wasted at hotels and what can be done to prevent it.

According to ReFED, a non-profit working to reduce food waste in the U.S., 40% of food waste by weight is generated by consumer-facing businesses. ReFED’s 2016 Roadmap concluded that full- and limited-service restaurants combined account for 11 million tons of waste, at a cost of over $25 billion to those businesses.

With buffets, wastage is a major problem—from leftovers on the plate to excess of food prepared for guests. But Jackie Suggitt, ReFED’s Director of Stakeholder Engagement, says they are not advocating getting rid of buffets entirely because there are ways to restructure them.

“Often food that has left the kitchen destined for a buffet cannot be donated for human consumption due to food safety regulations. It is important, therefore, to consider new buffet models that limit the assortment and amount of food available at one time, to encourage complete consumption of what leaves the kitchen and allow food remaining in the kitchen to be donated. An important factor for this to be successful is establishing a food recovery plan and strong food donation partnerships locally.”

ReFED’s Restaurant Food Waste Action Guide shares best practices to reduce waste and its suggestions can be implemented easily by businesses. Smaller plates and trayless dining are two major solutions, while menu redesigning, tracking waste, and educating consumers can also help reduce food waste and save costs.

The industry and its patrons are not ready to retire the all you can eat buffets yet. They are fundamentally social in nature—whether it’s the luxury of a five-star or a cozy restaurant on the street—and they offer great value. But right now while the world finds new ways to build back better, this is one of the broken spokes in the wheel that can be repaired.