Could the COVID-19 pandemic mean the end of the traditional buffet? The all-you-can-eat, self-serve model has been an American institution since it was first popularized in Las Vegas nearly a century ago. But that was before coronavirus. Post pandemic, will popular buffet restaurants be able to survive? More importantly, are they still safe dining options? In the article our view on the post-pandemic future of buffet.
It’s difficult to imagine bustling restaurants right now. It’s even harder to imagine the traditional buffet. Favourable for its low costs, low employee count and fast table turn over, buffets have been a global success for years. Yet with social distancing in restaurants likely to become our new norm, does this mean the death knell of the buffet?
Yes. For the traditional buffet, at least. But certainly not for the ‘new norm’ buffet.
Hotels have relied on one central area for holding their buffets in the past, normally one specific restaurant. Guests have mingled, queued and chosen their food in close proximity and dined in the company of many others. However, with constant worries about COVID-19 re-emerging, this can’t be the way forward. It's unthinkable to be hosting 500 diners in one place as before.
The ‘new norm’ buffet requires decentralization. That means no one main area where the buffet is held. With fewer guests arriving due to travel restrictions and safety concerns, more areas in the hotel will be available for safe social distancing. Event and meeting areas can be used to separate guests. Mobile buffet equipment can be moved around the hotel, and ‘new norm’ buffets can be set up in different areas.
This of course, will require transportable buffet equipment. Mobile furniture will be key to providing the speed and agility to set up smaller buffet systems in different rooms. This gives hotels social distancing options and guests peace of mind. Hotels moving away from built-in solutions and choosing mobile and foldable buffet systems will be the ones able to adapt to this new environment.
Obviously, this alone isn’t enough. Guests will be concerned about possible contaminated droplets in the air. Sneeze guards - plastic or glass shields to fully protect the food - will become standard. Heated or cold pots with glass lids for diners to see the dishes will be expected. At the ‘new norm’ buffets, guests can expect to have pre-portioned dispensers for items like cereal and nuts.
With guests still serving themselves to keep staffing costs down, good hygiene practices should be ensured. Social distancing queues and tables. Anti-bacterial gel should be supplied and applied by each guest before they touch the equipment. These ‘new norm’ buffets will be in a controlled environment where it’s much easier to set out hygiene rules compared to other day-to-day touch practices. (Holding onto public transport handrails, pressing the button on a pedestrian traffic signal or opening/closing public building doors, for example.)
With live cooking stations, guests can enjoy dishes freshly cooked and served to them directly by the chef. This reduces the number of people coming into direct contact with the food, as there will be no waiter/waitress involved. It also adds to the element of excitement and luxury, something many of us have forgotten over the past couple of months.
The main factors behind buffets are simplicity and low costs; buying in bulk; no wait staff; fewer chefs required to prepare it. Offering an a la carte menu will increase costs by paying more for fewer food items. Employing more chefs. Requiring servers, food runners and several kitchen porters, all of whom would be needed for the duration of the shift. Not to mention making it difficult for large staff numbers to social distance back of the house.
Of course, adhering to strict hygiene measures, thorough cleaning, and social distancing is a must in any hotel now. However, with fresh ideas and reorganization, there is a way forward. As we’ve all seen this year, survival requires adjustments. Thankfully, the hospitality industry is no stranger to these.
Jörg Binding is Vice President of Americas and Europe at DESON, the luxury manufacturer of mobile buffet equipment and F&B solutions.
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