Bye Bye, Buffet?

The all-you-can-eat buffet is unlikely to survive the pandemic in its current form—in part because sanitation already made it somewhat risky.

Today in Tedium: Is there any worse line of business to operate in 2020 than a chain of buffet-style restaurants? Despite the fact that many restaurants are likely to recover and bounce back after we start reopening our economies again, evidence is strong that the buffet model is not long for this world. Golden Corral, for one, is reopening its restaurants without the buffet—a significant shift for the largest all-you-can-eat buffet chain in the U.S. And a big part of the reason for that is that the buffet model was already on its last legs before the crisis hit, in part because of the very kinds of issues that COVID-19 amplifies. Buffets were making people sick years before we could blame it on a pandemic. And in some ways, it reflects the decline of a way of life. How sad should we be about that? Today’s Tedium explains. — Ernie @ Tedium

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The number of pages in the dine-in reopening guide McDonald’s gave to its restaurant owners recently, according to The Wall Street Journal. The document lays out fairly aggressive rules for cleaning, including a recommendation that customer-accessible soda machines (which generally follow the all-you-can-drink free-refill model) either be blocked off or cleaned repeatedly by a dedicated employee. “We have a responsibility to get this right, and sometimes doing the right thing takes time,” a spokesperson told the newspaper.

El Rancho Vegas Buffet Casino

The El Rancho Vegas, an early Vegas resort that helped launch the city’s phenomenon of high-end buffets. (Retroland USA/Flickr)

The guy who figured out that gamblers would love to fill up on cheap food

Las Vegas is known for many things—its weddings, casinos, and big events, just to name three. Perhaps a little lower on the list but still an iconic portion of the experience are the buffets, which are among some of the fanciest ways to stuff your face on the cheap.

With dishes in the hundreds and the offerings way glossier than your local Ryan’s, the food offerings are often as snazzy as the rest of the strip.

And Vegas has Herb McDonald to thank for all that. McDonald didn’t invent the “all you can eat” concept. The Swedish smorgasbord dates to at least the 14th century, originally intended for a small selection of cold meats and cheeses, and came to encapsulate hot dinner meals around the time of the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. While not an exact match, the smorgasbord very much inspired the modern buffet.

But McDonald effectively came up with the idea of making it a centerpiece for an entire restaurant. McDonald formulated the idea in the early 1940s while working at the El Rancho Vegas resort, which existed before Las Vegas had much of a strip. He realized that gamblers in the casino needed something to eat during the late-night hours … and it didn’t necessarily matter what it was, as long as it kept them fed and was cheap.

It wasn’t anything fancy, to be honest—just some cold cuts and cheese, keeping to the vintage smorgasbord concept—but it was cheap and nourishing. It wasn’t just helpful placement of food. It was canny marketing.

But it started a trend, one that played a key role in Vegas’ early growth. By the 1950s, resorts throughout the city had mimicked the “chuck wagon” approach of the El Rancho Vegas. In his 2002 obituary in the Las Vegas Sun, McDonald was described as a “visionary” who had come up with many ideas for helping to market the city to the world.

“No one was stronger in the early days for promoting Las Vegas than Herb—no one,” explained Harvey Diederich, a colleague of McDonald’s. “He did so much to build this city.”

Buffet at wynn king crab

King crab at the Buffet at Wynn.

This model eventually found its way outside of the bright lights of Las Vegas, particularly in the 1960s through the 1980s, thanks to a wide variety of restaurant chains that achieved popularity around the same time by eventually finding their way to this model. Likely an extension of the salad bar, which first started appearing in restaurants around the country starting in the 1950s, the difference between a salad bar and a buffet is the focus on hot food vs. cold food.

But Las Vegas continued evolving independently of the Ponderosas and Old Country Buffets of the world. When high-end restaurants raised the cuisine game in Vegas in the 1980s, buffets responded by increasing both the quality and diversity of the food on offer, according to a Las Vegas Weekly piece that says of Las Vegas, “our regional cuisine is the buffet.” No longer was it just bland American fare, but a multicultural treat.

“Today, buffets are thriving, and there seem to be as many trends as there are food options,” the paper explained. “Unattached from the branding of celebrity chefs or even the commitment of printed menus, buffets are free to experiment with new dish ideas.”

But when it came to restaurant chains, the value proposition for buffets proved to be completely different.

“The chafing dish of to-day has accomplished much as a civilizer, seeming to rekindle the flames of hospitality and to elevate the standard of cookery. Who can doubt its permanent stay!”

— A passage from Fannie Merritt Farmer’s 1898 book Chafing Dish Possibilities, which describes the appeal of the chafing dish, a predecessor of both the slow cooker and the steam table (the latter a common element of buffets), which effectively keeps a dish warm with the use of a heat source. The chafing dish is used today for modern buffet-style meals, generally for banquets, which tend to have a less permanent table and seating layout than an all-you-can-eat restaurant might. Steam tables, meanwhile, rely on the use of heated water to maintain a food’s temperature.

Ponderosa Steakhouse Sign

Ponderosa Steakhouse, Sizzler, and a few other brands played a key role in popularizing the standalone buffet. (Random Retail/Flickr)

Why the buffet model made sense for a long time, and why it doesn’t anymore

Recently, popular tech reviewer Marques Brownlee tried to explain the pricing strategy for low-end smartphones by breaking their elements down into a points system of sorts. If you had $17 to build a smartphone, and each element cost between $1 and $3, what would you get? Perhaps, in the case of a Pixel 3A, a really good camera and nothing else of note; in the case of a second-gen iPhone SE, bargain bin parts combined with top-shelf performance.

In many ways, a buffet restaurant offers a suitable comparison point. A restaurateur is likely working with the same kinds of equations. The food at a buffet, generally, is no better than you might find in a college cafeteria—which is to say it’s the bad pizza theory applied to everything else. Costs are kept down by not going for the most expensive product, and you can get as much of it as you want.

If a restauranteur went to the supply chain and was given a series of choices based on a specific price ceiling and had to choose between quality and quantity, quantity would win.

But there are other cost benefits to the format as well. As a 2008 Restaurant Business article explains, costs are often lower for restauranteurs than with traditional approaches due to lower labor costs. As dishes can be prepared beforehand, Only a small number of staff are needed to replace empty entrées on the line, as well as to wash the large number of dishes that ultimately pile up and bus the tables. You no longer need wait staff for every table, or you can limit wait staff to simply managing drinks or bringing over the check.

“The actual service period can be managed with fewer employees than an à la carte or plated banquet scenario,” the site explains. “In addition, more guests can be catered in a given time period, enabling the operator to turn tables more frequently.”

Salad Bar Buffet

I have lots of memories of people mixing together the salad dressings at the buffet. (Aranami/Flickr)

And as Mashed notes, the format also limits some key pain points of a traditional dining experience, such as customer complaints.

“No one’s sending their food back to the kitchen with complaints, either; you just push it to the side and get something else,” writer Debra Kelly explains. “While that might mean food waste, it also cuts back on kitchen workload.”

This approach to restaurants is a winner with one specific kind of audience: large families. Trying to bring together a family of 10 in the same sit-down restaurant is possible, but it can get very costly. But most buffets have traditionally priced their offerings in a fairly inexpensive way. For the dinner hour, Old Country Buffet pricing has generally been in the $10-$12 range for adults and Golden Corral hangs around $14-$16. And for kids, the price is even cheaper: For younger kids, the price can even be as low as free, and older kids still cost lower than $7.

Just as many kids get the hand-me-downs when it comes to smartphones, so too do kids cost the least at the buffet.

Golden Corral plate

A dinner plate at Golden Corral, highlighting one of the charms of eating food at a buffet—your plate, full of carbs, could literally have any type of food on it. (Charles Kim/Flickr)

So why are buffets in the middle of suburbia so much less appealing than the ones in Vegas? Long story short, they aren’t there as loss-leaders like the Vegas ones are; they often have to pay for themselves. And some buffet restaurants have additional offerings such as high-quality meat entrees or pies. Golden Corral allows you to pay by the pound, just like a big-city salad bar. (Salad bars are in trouble, too.)

Those lower prices add up compared to a more traditional restaurant offerings. But over time, they came to matter somewhat less than other factors, such as the quality of the food.

If you compare buffet-style restaurants to fast-casual places, they carry many of the same structural benefits—a limited wait staff, a lesser need for cleaning dishes, lower odds of returns—than a buffet does. The prices are often comparable. And the quality of the food is higher, too. You can understand, given that context, why fast casual restaurants have won out in recent years.

There’s, of course, another reason as well. And it gets to the heart of why the buffet model may not be long for this world.

“If you cut up cantaloupe and you get E. coli on it and you put it in the refrigerator, that will keep the E.coli from getting to really high levels. However, if you put it out at room temperature for several hours, that’s a perfect place for it to grow.”

— Micorbiologist Laurel Dunn, an assistant professor of food science at the University of Georgia, explaining to Vox last year the risks that buffet-style food, allowed to sit out for hours on end by its nature, can create. (Canteloupe is particularly concerning, she says, because its skin is attractive to bacteria, bacteria that then affects the inside of the plant when cutting—which, as she says, is only dangerous when allowed to linger at room temperature.) Often, foods must be kept at temperatures below 41 degrees Fahrenheit and above 135 degrees Fahrenheit to be considered safe, which can be a problem for buffets, which tend to sit out at room temperature for hours on end.

Old Country Buffet

Old Country Buffet saw nearly all of its locations close within the past decade after its parent company lost a food poisoning lawsuit. This one, in Whitehall, Pennsylvania, remains open. (Mike Kalasnik/Flickr)

Buffets were already problematic on the public health front even before COVID-19 freaked everyone out

COVID-19 is unequivocally bad news for an industry that had a hard enough time avoiding headlines for outbreaks of diseases such as salmonella, as the all-you-can-eat buffet long has.

I won’t lay out all of the details, because they’re all over the internet, but chains such as Old Country Buffet have struggled to maintain their presence in the modern day as a result of health-related scandals. One particularly notable incident happened in 2010, when a man became seriously ill from salmonella poisoning after eating at Old Country Buffet, which led to an $11.4 million judgment against the Wyoming restaurant that served him.

Soon after that judgment, the owner of Old Country Buffet, Ovation Brands, shut down most of its restaurants—also including chains such as HomeTown Buffet, Fire Mountain, and Ryan’s Steakhouse—after filing for bankruptcy. The Consumerist (RIP) reported in 2016 that Ovation essentially imploded because of the suit, shutting its doors two days after the multi-million dollar payment was due.

The Old Country Buffet chain, despite all of that, has actually managed to survive into the present day, with just 17 locations nationwide—along with 15 Ryan’s locations and 30 HomeTown Buffet locations (24 of which are in California). One of the franchise owners purchased the chains from Ovation right around the time of the bankruptcy, but that has not prevented further bloodletting.

These restaurants once had hundreds of locations across the country; now, many states are lucky to have even one.

Golden Corral building

Golden Corral is basically the only U.S. buffet chain that you could arguably say is doing well right now. (Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

One buffet chain continues to survive into the present day in a position of relative strength: Golden Corral, which recently announced plans to reopen some locations, albeit without the buffet service, which is not allowed under most local regulations at this time and is discouraged under FDA best practices. Instead, the company will use either a cafeteria-style approach, in which employees will serve dishes to customers, or traditional table service. Both will likely require more staff to manage.

“We have developed new service models to comply with variations in local and state guidelines that provide our guests an enjoyable Golden Corral experience,” the chain told Restaurant Business.

But Golden Corral doesn’t have a clean record on the food safety front—most notably in 2013, employees of the restaurant chain exposed issues with kitchen cleanliness and a tendency to store meat in not-so-safe places. (The chain noted the food was never served and that the manager was terminated.)

The chain seems to be doing what it can to take things seriously, however; it shut its doors in the middle of March and switched to a carryout and delivery model, and noted in a March press release it had begun implementing additional safety regulations in January, far before the current crisis had reached scale.

But it’s likely that these precautions will not make it easy to run a buffet-style business in the coming months or years. And many already see the writing on the wall. Already, Las Vegas resort owners have made it clear that the buffets will not be offered when their locations reopen. Which would be a huge loss for that city from a cultural standpoint.

And Fat Brands, the company that owns Ponderosa Steakhouse (along with the non-buffet-based Fatburger chain) has been moving towards an embrace of storefront-free “ghost kitchens,” which are seen as a way to make delivery less expensive for customers.

It may be years before we see this model come back in a big way. If at all.

The all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant was built for a different world than the one we’ve lived in since March or so. And on the grand scale, it’s not world-changing, admittedly.

But it is somewhat sad to see it go. Sure, the food wasn’t exactly top-shelf, but it was the perfect type of place to bring in large groups of people, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get together in this way.

And in many ways, its apparent demise, temporary or not, represents the loss of something communal. It’s not quite the moment of joy you might find from a night at the bar or as iconic as sitting in a movie theater with 300 other people, but it is communal nonetheless.

As we try to find new ways to be communal, we ultimately are going to have to leave some things off to the side. And restaurants that offer unlimited helpings on tiny plates are likely to be one of them.

Shed a tear for the chocolate fountain.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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