Restaurants are reopening and sprawling onto sidewalks. New York City’s hottest spots are yo-yo-ing as Mayor Bill de Blasio weighs the safety of indoor dining, while the craps tables in Las Vegas casinos have reopened as if we’re not in the middle of a global pandemic that’s already killed half a million worldwide. Michelin-starred restaurants such as Noma have rebranded as burger joints to keep business going, and countless others have signed up for UberEats, Postmates, and Deliveroo. But there’s one place where the fryers have fallen silent and the serving spoons have been downed.
Buffets across the globe have shut their doors, with little hope of reopening soon. And with their future on hold longer than the questionable eggplant parm gently congealing under frazzled heat lamps, a multi-billion dollar industry has been placed into deep freeze.
The buffet market is an $8.5 billion industry in the United States, according to analysts IBISWorld. Loyal customers and the popularity of big industrial giants in the South helped keep the market healthy. While the U.S. Southeast is home to one in four Americans, it’s the site of 37.8 percent of buffets, according to IBISWorld. It employs nearly 110,000 people across almost 6,000 sites. Before the world changed amid the onset of Covid-19, people still piled into buffets at Sizzlers, Shoney’s, and any number of buffets along the Las Vegas strip to get their fill. The question is whether they ever will again.
Before the world changed amid the onset of Covid-19, people still piled into buffets at Sizzlers, Shoney’s, and any number of buffets along the Las Vegas strip to get their fill. The question is whether they ever will again.
“Every area of our industry has been hit so hard,” said Matthew Britt, a chef and culinary instructor at Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts. “But where buffets will be affected more is their ability to reopen.” The sector relies on everything that is anathema to health-conscious consumers trying to avoid Covid-19: It piles food high, sells it cheap, and crams guests into close confines. You can’t create a better breeding ground for virus transmission.
“I would be nervous about a buffet environment, because how can you adequately manage social distancing in people queueing?” asked Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia. He’s also worried about shared utensils. “This is one of the things that has been a concern about buffets, pre-Covid,” Hunter said. “If you’re handling utensils that are then picked up by people who haven’t washed their hands recently, they are potentially contaminated.”
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Restaurants in Las Vegas resorts known for buffets, in particular, are grappling with the problem of how to bring them back. “Buffets are so integral to the Las Vegas experience,” said Derek Thomas, a food reviewer who runs the All You Can Vegas YouTube channel, which regularly features buffets. Red Rock Casino, Resort, & Spa said in mid-May that it wouldn’t be reopening its buffets immediately, following a number of other casino owners who said buffets were low on their list of priorities to get Vegas back on its feet. By late June, the organization was still saying there was no timeline to reopen buffets on its properties. The Wynn Las Vegas reopened its buffet on June 18 — with tableside service.
Golden Corral, America’s biggest operator of all-you-can-eat buffets, is no longer running its buffets — not least because the Food and Drug Administration recommended food outlets discontinue “salad bars, buffets, and beverage service stations that require customers to use common utensils or dispensers.”
Thomas is confident that though Covid-19 may put a dent in people’s appetite to visit buffets at first, customers will return. “Whether you love them or loathe them, they’re here to stay. If anything, the worst ones will go away, and the best ones will be better than ever,” he said.
Britt believes buffets will return, too. “They’re resilient and they do evolve to better serve their guests,” he said. “And because there’s such a demand, based on price point and the variety aspect, there’ll always be a need for that kind of restaurant.”
But buffets may evolve. In addition to extra sneeze guards to stop Covid-infected droplets from ending up on the prime rib, shared serving utensils will disappear. That potentially leads to another problem — the routine use of disposable utensils. But there are other options: One University of Las Vegas professor envisions a cafeteria-style system, where servers portion out food onto a plate as diners pass. That’s something Britt can see happening. He drew comparisons to Google cafeterias, where cooks prepare food to order. But that still means people would wait in line — a major issue for the transmission of coronavirus if they can’t stay 6-feet apart. Another alternative is a service-heavy system of buffets where servers take an order and fetch it from the buffet.
That, however, robs the buffet of its major lure: being able to wander the buffet line and shop around for favorite items. It also potentially cuts into the margins of buffet proprietors, who design systems to encourage customers to load up on cheaper, higher-margin items. A happy medium could be found with inspiration from another industry seeing significant shifts: airports.
“When I go to an airport, I sit at a restaurant and I don’t even have a server anymore,” Britt said. “I have an iPad.” Guests still get to peruse the items on offer — they just have to look at digital representations of the food they want to eat. Operators can still focus on the bottom line by highlighting items that bring in the most money. And human-to-human interaction is cut down, with servers delivering and clearing plates.
“Eliminating the buffet… or not letting it come back, is not an option,” Britt said about places like the Vegas buffets. “It’s how it’ll come back post-Covid.”