Communal, serve-yourself buffets have come under scrutiny during the pandemic, leading operators to rethink the service model.
Even before COVID-19, some consumers were wary of buffet-style dining, despite the fact that the vast majority of those restaurant regularly passed sanitation standards with flying colors. Now that everyday vigilance has grown beyond foodservice’s already stringent sanitation practices, buffets are rising to the occasion with amended service models and touchless practices.
Much of this new approach to the buffet centers around increased service, whether in the form of additional waitstaff and/or the delivery of food from buffet to table. Nevertheless, such changes can make for a pricier operation. At the core, traditional buffets require minimal front-of-house labor, and those savings are in turn passed along to the guests. If the buffet model veered away from its value-driven roots, it could lose customers in the process. That concern coupled with the more pressing necessities of social distancing have led some industry experts to wonder whether the buffet is in serious trouble.
Operators like Mike Burns, COO of Pizza Inn, push back on that notion. In fact, he believes buffets are uniquely situated for this moment.
“In many of our restaurants, we’ve pivoted to more of a cafeteria-style system, where customers are moving down a line with a tray and employees are serving them,” Burns says of the shift. “Buffets have gotten a bad rap in the past, so our standards of quality and cleanliness have always been higher because we know the general perception. That’s driven us to take measures that go above and beyond what’s required. Now that approach is on steroids.”
Burns and his staff have implemented sanitation stations, begun changing out the serving utensils after every use, and are working to move guests toward the practice of letting employees serve them.
Similarly, Golden Corral has rolled out its We Serve You buffet, where employees handle the utensils and assist guests. At some locations, the chain has even achieved a touchless buffet experience wherein guests are given a glove to wear while handling buffet serving utensils, which are changed out every 20 minutes.
At press time the majority of Golden Corral’s 250-plus units spanning more than 30 states were offering some form of dine-in service. The decision to reopen was ultimately left up to franchisees, who were still expected to comply with state and local guidelines.
Throughout the reopening process, the brand reinforced rigorous cleanliness standards for touchpoints, performed employee temperature checks before each shift, and incorporated additional hand-sanitizing stations. Golden Corral restaurants also utilized gloves and masks, stanchions (roped lines for queueing), table spacing, and drink delivery.
One of the pivotal conditions determining outcomes for all restaurants, but especially buffets, is location. Since the pandemic hit urban areas much harder than smaller cities and rural areas, the measures being taken in smaller towns pale in comparison to new practices in high-density areas, like New York City.
“One thing we’re seeing right now is that many outcomes are based on geography,” says Jay Bandy, president of Goliath Consulting, based in Atlanta. “In small towns, people are taking [the pandemic] differently, based on where they are and what their age is. That’s true of the buffet business, too. Some people removed from urban areas are less likely to be concerned about buffets right now.”
Clocking in at 189 units system-wide, Pizza Inn has engineered its expansion strategy around smaller towns. As a result, its restaurants face a very different reality than other brands during the pandemic, since markets have generally had fewer cases of the coronavirus. Although the chain has implemented measures to ensure a safe operation for both customers and employees, Burns says, guests have appeared eager to get back into the restaurants.
If anything, Bandy says the additional measures buffet concepts take now might end up helping in the long run.
“That additional level of service and security could be a key factor in separating a newer buffet [from] its competitors,” Bandy says. “If I were in the buffet business, I would start with finding a model that feels safe, friendly, and accessible, because there are still people who like to eat a lot and have multiple options.”
But while these new practices address safety and sanitation concerns, they remain costlier and more labor-intensive, thus begging the question as to whether such a model is sustainable in the long term. If social distancing and hygiene measures remain in place for another year or so, will buffet-centric brands need to find new ways to pad their revenues? And if so, what will those additions look like?
“First of all, we do believe this is all sustainable,” Burns says. “But if we’re sitting here a year from now, and it’s still not going well, of course, we will pivot. You have to be flexible, mobile, and on your toes.” Case in point: Pizza Inn had never implemented delivery prior to the pandemic. In recent months it’s added that service through DoorDash and Uber Eats in select markets—and to resounding success.
Another, less tangible asset for Pizza Inn and other legacy concepts is their long history. As Burns puts it, Pizza Inn is battle-tested, so he has reason to believe the chain will be around for a while—and that the buffet will remain an integral part.
“We’ve been operating for 60 years,” Burns says. “We’ve been through wars, economic downturns, recessions. In a lot of ways, the way we operate is that as soon as the town opens back up and [people] go back to work, so do we.”