The coronavirus pandemic has significantly altered Americans' dining habits, but perhaps no segment of the restaurant industry has been affected as much as self-serve buffets.
Even as some states, including Georgia, have lifted restrictions on plating your own food, some owners and managers of Chattanooga- area buffet restaurants say they're not quite ready to recommit to the traditional business model, even as they await the lifting of restrictions on self-service in Tennessee.
As coronavirus cases spread, aspects of the traditional buffet experience, such as shared dipping spoons and clusters of customers at the food bars, can cause even more trepidation for anyone already uneasy about dining out.
Tami Hall, whose family opened Home Folks in Soddy-Daisy in 1986, says they expect that hesitation to last a while. For that reason, they have removed the food bar that once dominated the dining room and rebranded as a family restaurant rather than a buffet.
"It's still all-you-can-eat each day, but we have a menu you order from," she says. "It's just like what we would have on the buffet. We just bring it to your table."
Their home-cooked Southern comfort food — fried chicken, turnip greens, banana pudding — is served six days a week. The menu changes daily and includes at least three meats, several sides and desserts.
Hall says especially older customers, who are at increased risk of contagion, prefer the new setup. For the owners, the change has reduced food costs and given them more control over the quality of the food.
A lot of their elderly customers like not "having to get up and down" to eat a meal, she says, "and it gave us a little more personal touch to go to the tables and talk to people a little bit."
Removing the food bar opened up the dining room to accommodate early guidelines for social distancing. Plexiglas panels also have been added between each booth, she says.
Gail Jenkins Newman, owner of Jenkins Buffet in East Ridge, says she expects to eventually return their homemade Southern staples to the food bars — the restaurant is known for its fried chicken and chicken and dressing. For now, though, servers are bringing orders from kitchen to table.
She considered serving cafeteria-style, but "we just don't have room for that," she says. "It would slow people down." The recommended 6 feet of social distancing would mean "one person going through the line at a time."
"Everything has to be sanitized after every customer," she says. "You can't have salt and pepper, no condiments on the table, and you have to disinfect everything every time."
Like Hall, she cites reduced food costs as a plus during this transition. "People pile up these big plates and then [the food] goes in the trash when they don't eat it," she says. "That's why food costs are so high."
The restaurant has been keeping mostly afternoon hours since reopening after the initial lockdown, but this past week extended weekday hours from 4 to 7 p.m.
"We're going to stay open until 7 o'clock for kind of a trial run to see how we can do," she says.
Lena Lin, manager of Asia Buffet on Lee Highway, says they are trying the cafeteria model for their selection of the Chinese, Japanese, American and seafood specialties found on multiple food bars.
"You still go to the buffet bar and point out which food you want," she says. "But no touching on the spoon."
Email Lisa Denton at firstname.lastname@example.org.