Buffets pose food-cost and food-safety challenges, but there are reasons they remain popular and tactics that keep them profitable.
This article first appeared in the 1 March 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.
By Kristina Buchthal, Senior Editor
Despite foodservice's current fascination with small plates and lighter portions, buffets remain a popular way to serve lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch crowds with limited staff.
Perceived benefits include abilities to showcase fare diners may later order from higher-margin à la carte menus; attract price-conscious customers who may otherwise be unlikely to patronize; and make kitchen operations flow smoothly at peak dining times.
There are potential drawbacks as well: Keeping buffet tables and salad bars at proper temperatures and free of contamination can be time-consuming. And with little control over portion sizes, buffet food costs can skyrocket.
"The one hard thing about a buffet is food cost," says Todd Stratton, corporate chef for 297-unit, Nashville-based Shoney's, which introduced its signature breakfast buffet more than a quarter century ago. "You can have people who come in for a buffet and take five, six or seven plates of food."
To counter the imbalance, many buffet operators adopt an "all-you-can-feed" philosophy of boosting profit margins by increasing traffic. They offer coupons, lunch specials and promotions to get customers to their warming tables.
As with à la carte operations, buffet operators say the best way to grow volume is to develop a core group of repeat guests.
Regular customers have become a staple for business at Acapulco Mexican Restaurant Y Cantina buffets, says Ray Garcia, senior vice president of operations for parent Real Mex Restaurants, Cypress, Calif. Such regulars become good resources for chefs and restaurant managers, often providing feedback on food quality and selection.
"We have a lot of return users," Garcia says. "If the restaurant is next to an office building with 3,000 employees, there usually will be about 15 people from that business who eat at the buffet daily."
But with business so reliant on repeat customers, the need to strike a balance between adding items to keep regulars interested and retaining favorites that keep them happy is a challenge that comes with the service style.
With a limited number of slots on the buffet line, operators must determine which items are worth serving every day while leaving room to cycle in new items. The problem is the same if a buffet is a midscale family-dining operation or upscale hotel venue.
"If we run out of crème brûlée, people go nuts," says Mairead Hennessy, food and beverage director at the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego. "People expect to have crème brûlée, chocolate cake, cheesecake on the buffet every week. Eggs Benedict is another item that's expected."
Shoney's daily must-haves include pot roast, fried chicken, collard greens and mashed potatoes. But the chain also has introduced spotlighted specials each night.
"You want to have as much variety as possible," Shoney's Stratton says.
Especially for operations with large menus, buffets allow customers to sample many items and find a favorite they later may order off the menu. Ethnic restaurants, where customers might not be able to translate every dish's name, often employ the tactic.
"If a guest comes in for the first time, they can eat a variety of foods, get a little bit of everything for the same price and not have to order every entrée on the menu," Acapulco's Garcia says.
Shoney's has devised a business strategy around that idea. Up to 70% of Shoney's customers choose buffet meals, and between 30% and 40% order from the à la carte menu.
Hennessy says Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego purposefully prices its Sunday brunch buffet to provide lower margins than other meals, using it to entice community residents to return and consider the hotel for events. She says the strategy is working: Roughly half of Sunday buffet customers are local residents.
Baiting the Hook Buffets remain common enough that the promise of variety may not be enough. A hook helps. Hennessy attributes much of the Hyatt's Sunday buffet's popularity with locals to its chocolate fountain.
The concept is simple: Melted chocolate flows through the fountain, and diners choose from a variety of fruits, marshmallows, cookies and confections to dip into the cascading riches. The draw is intense, Hennessy says. Children and adults alike say they're loyal to the buffet because of the fountain.
Fogo de ChÁ£o and other Brazilian-style churrascaria steakhouses have built brands around not only rotisserie-cooked meats but also voluminous salad-bar buffets.
"It requires full-time attention," says Selma Oliveira, chief operations officer for the Addison, Texas-based chain with six U.S. locations. "The moment guests serve themselves, you have to rearrange tongs and spoons and be sure that nothing has spilled, that one salad dressing hasn't spilled over into another."
Quality and value are the bar's core promises, Oliveira says. "We have jumbo asparagus, hearts of palm from Brazil, smoked salmon, buffalo mozzarella. Those are very expensive and we provide them in plentiful amounts."
Although buffet food cost and food waste are issues for Acapulco, Garcia says the company has vowed not to shrink portion sizes on the buffet to save on food costs.
"A buffet item represents our brand. A taco on the buffet has to look like the one we serve to the tables," he explains.
Turning a Profit
Buffets have several strategies to maintain profitability despite higher food costs.
Raleigh, N.C.-based Golden Corral assigns servers to keep tables supplied with hot rolls and beverage refills. It's a welcome service and also a way to keep lower-cost/higher-margin items plentiful.
"We want to make sure the mashed potatoes are terrific," says Bob McDevitt, senior vice president of franchise operations. "I'm happy when guests eat lots of mashed potatoes and gravy because those items aren't as expensive as steak."
Shoney's Stratton says the chain has learned that providing favorites such as fried chicken and meatloaf reduces the number of customer trips to the buffet. "We can stop customers from going back four or five times simply by offering craveable foods," he says.
One of the biggest concerns for any buffet operator is keeping the buffet bar clean and ensuring that sauces, soups and salad dressings aren't crosscontaminated.
Each Fogo de ChÁ£o unit posts an employee at the salad bar at all times, handing out plates and keeping the area clean and attractive, Oliveira says. If a utensil is put into the wrong salad or dish, the item is removed and replaced.
At Washington State University in Pullman, Culinary Manager Greg Blanchard puts dressings in quart squeeze bottles instead of using crocks and ladles.
"Salad bars can be scary," he says. "With squeeze bottles, you don't have people dipping broccoli in the dressing to sample it."
To keep foods fresh and safe, Blanchard and his staff take the temperature of each salad dressing on an hourly basis. And they keep peanuts and other nuts in separate containers at the end of the salad bar, away from other foods.
"Salad bars require so much maintenance and attention to detail," Blanchard says. "They're very hard to control."
Determining the right variety for a buffet is an ongoing challenge. Operators don't want customers to miss a favorite entrée or dessert but they also need to refresh the assortment.
In January, the Raleigh, N.C.-based Golden Corral buffet chain crafted a daily dinner special schedule, intended to add variety to the entrée mix while allowing nearly 500 units to serve customers' favorite foods.
Golden Corral serves pot roast, mashed potatoes and carrot cake daily, because the items are fundamental to the brand, says Bob McDevitt, senior vice president of franchise operations for Golden Corral.
"It's important to keep those items on the buffet and visible for our guests," he says. "We also have to provide a menu for each day that mixes it up a bit."
Golden Corral's week of buffet specials:
Sunday Carver's Night: Turkey breast, ham, roast beef, chicken, beef or pork ribs.
Monday Shrimp Night: Jumbo shrimp, Calabash Shrimp, peel-and-eat cold shrimp, steamed shrimp, clam strips.
Tuesday Family Night: Pizza, steakburgers, chicken strips, hot dogs, shrimp.
Wednesday Mexican Favorites Night: Beef enchiladas, tacos, refried beans, fried jalapeÁ±os.
Thursday Barbecue Night: Beef short ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork, barbecued chicken, barbecued pork spare ribs, cornbread, cheese-potato bake, baked beans.
Friday Fish Fry: Shrimp, breaded catfish, clam strips, shrimp, tilapia, hush puppies.
Saturday Steak & Steak Night: Sirloin steak, chopped steak, pork steak, chicken-fried steak