ATLANTA — When you're super-hungry and want to pile up your plate without a wait, nothing satisfies like a buffet. A seemingly endless line of food is yours for the taking. There's the salad bar with all the fixings, home-style entrees like fried chicken and meatloaf, carving stations, grilled fish and steamed seafood, sides of all kinds, hot rolls and cornbread, and a dessert bar complete with self-serve ice cream (swirl!).
Buffets offer instant gratification. They attract folks on a budget who are ready to consume in calories what they pay in dollars. Besides value, buffets have something for everyone — from picky little Mickey to an adult on Atkins. Buffets, grill buffets and cafeterias recorded a combined $6.1 billion in sales in 2018, and $6 billion last year, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Those concepts won't be cash cows in 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced every eatery across the country and around the globe to adjust the way it does business. One of the most complicated pivots has been at restaurants built around a self-serve model.
Most restaurants that specialize in buffet-style service ceased operations in mid-March, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended discontinuing self-serve drink and food stations, including buffets and salad bars, as a precaution against transmission of COVID-19. (The CDC currently states that there is no evidence to suggest that handling food or consuming food is associated with the virus.) What was thought to be temporary has, in some cases, become permanent.
In May, national franchise Sweet Tomatoes announced it was permanently closing all of its nearly 100 locations due to the impact of the coronavirus.
San Antonio-based Food Management Partners operates buffet chains Furr's, Old Country Buffet, HomeTown Buffet and Ryan's. Doors remain locked for nearly every unit of each concept. The landing page on the parent company's website describes Food Management Partners as "a restaurant management company focused on distressed and often very difficult turnarounds," summarizing the arduous challenge of turning things around for its brands.
"During the shutdown, we realized that the buffet concept is probably dead, at least for the foreseeable future," said marketing manager Misty Moren. "We had to do something to save those concepts."
The solution is to rebrand them as all-you-can-eat marketplaces. "It will no longer be buffets," she said. "It will still be all-you-can-eat, but not self-serve." Rather a server will run the food to the guest. In addition, Ryan's All You Can Eat Marketplace and its sister concepts will have a marketplace component that offers prepared hot dishes to go as well as ones that can be reheated at home, along with dry goods and staples.
"It's an easy one-stop shop for people to get the things they need," Moren said.
The company had planned to roll out its rebranded restaurants starting July 23, but because some states have shut down restaurant dining rooms due to recent virus spikes, Food Management Partners is waiting until states allow restaurants to reopen at 50% dining capacity.
Bringing back the buffet is not just a dilemma for chain restaurants. In Social Circle, Georgia, Blue Willow Inn's Southern buffet has long attracted guests to dine at its Greek Revival mansion. However, the pandemic put a pause on second, third and fourth helpings of biscuits, fried chicken, collard greens and fruit pies. In mid-March, the restaurant announced plans to close temporarily. Three months later, the lights at Blue Willow are still off.
'It's not worth it'
As part of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp's phased reopening of businesses during the pandemic, buffets and salad bars in Georgia were permitted to resume June 16, with restrictions. Salad bars and buffets were required to adhere to cafeteria-style service where a worker is responsible for serving diners, handling utensils and ensuring proper distancing in lines. The guidelines have since changed and now allow Georgians to plate their own food.
Some restaurants with salad bars, buffets and other self-serve components have adjusted their operations to comply with state guidelines. Others have scratched the buffet altogether — not because of health and safety risks, but because their clientele don't have an appetite for that right now.
Cafe Bombay in Atlanta has reopened for dine-in service but no longer offers its popular buffet.
"We didn't want to take any chances," said general manager Jay Walia. He said pre-pandemic, the restaurant would see 200 customers go through the buffet line daily; now, he'd be lucky to get 20.
"If we don't do a lot of buffets, it's not worth it for us to make that much food and waste it," he said. "People are scared right now. When things get back to normal, we would think of doing it again."
A manager at Viceroy Indian Dining in Dunwoody, Georgia, said the restaurant decided not to reopen its buffet after reopening for dine-in service because there's been little demand for it since the pandemic started.
All you can eat, COVID-style
Like full-service restaurants, those with self-serve components have made changes to the spacial configuration of their dining rooms and to service protocols to conform with state regulations during the pandemic.
A meal at Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chao becomes an "all you can experience" event when guests choose to sup on the salads, soups, vegetables, cheeses and cured meats from the Market Table. There's also the full churrasco experience, a prix-fixe menu that includes unlimited helpings from the Market Table and continual service of its fire-roasted meats carved tableside by chefs.
Visitors to the chain's restaurants in Buckhead or Dunwoody are still able to serve themselves from the sumptuous Market Table; however, new procedures make the "all you can experience" a bit different than before.
The buffet is now cordoned off by stanchions. A staff member donned in mask and gloves is stationed at the entrance to the food line, doling out hand sanitizer before passing guests a clean plate. There's one way in, one way out. According to Maycon Barbosa, assistant manager at the Fogo de Chao in Buckhead, servingware is replaced every 15 minutes. Guests also have the option not to serve themselves but to remain at the table and let the staff plate food for them.
"The buffet experience has been under more scrutiny than any other dining environment. We have to exceed state and local requirements and our guest and worker expectations," said Lance Trenary, CEO of Golden Corral, which operates nearly 500 locations across 41 states.
The Golden Corral buffet is still all-you-can-eat, but the logistics of making that happen haven't been one-size-fits-all. Of the seven Golden Corral units in Georgia currently operating, six are buffet-style while the one in Augusta adheres to a cafeteria-style model, with servers plating food as customers go down the line.
The buffet-style setup is similar to that at Fogo de Chao, with stanchions placed around the buffet to limit entry and egress. In addition to hand sanitizer, guests are provided gloves and wax paper "so people don't have to touch utensils," Trenary said. Boxes of wax paper are also positioned throughout the buffet for use as needed.
Golden Corral is also experimenting with drive-thru and family-style service. It recently debuted drive-thrus at locations in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, with others in development in Illinois, Virginia and North Carolina. It is also testing family-style service at 15 locations around the country. For those models, guests remain seated while servers do the running. Trenary said that family-style, along with cafeteria-style, has been popular among senior citizens during the pandemic.
"We are trying to give our franchisees multiple models for what works best for their market and their guests," Trenary said.
Keeping hands-off under control
Youngsters can especially get wide-eyed and excited at mounds of cookies, slices of cake and ice cream with sprinkles. However, when there's a heightened need for social distancing and proper hygiene, run-amok kids with grubby hands can be a recipe for disaster. For the safety of guests and customers, Golden Corral is requesting that children under 12 be accompanied by an adult at all times during the visit.
At Jason's Deli, it's hands-off for all guests. Customers can no longer access the salad bar themselves. Instead, they fill out a form, checking boxes for the fixings they want, and an employee builds the salad for them.
Restaurants have increasingly looked to technology for solutions that minimize person-to-person contact and touch points. Many have scrambled to add online ordering capabilities to their websites. Select Olive Garden locations now offer guests hungry for unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks the option to make a reservation online so they don't wait and congregate upon arrival. Some locations also have capabilities to pay using mobile devices and table-top tablets.
Kemp's executive order advises Georgia restaurants to remove self-serve drink, condiment, utensil and tableware stations and have workers provide those directly to patrons. Atlanta-based Coca-Cola has adapted by eliminating the need for touchscreens with its self-serve Freestyle soda fountain machines. After making a drink purchase, a QR code is sent to the customer's smartphone. A menu of beverage options displays on the phone, and the drink is poured once a selection is made. The technology has been piloted by chains like Wendy's, Five Guys and Firehouse Subs, and will be rolled out in August.
The cafeteria plan
Cafeterias have been better shielded from the coronavirus impact than buffets and other concepts with a self-serve component because an employee fills trays as guests point to their food picks. And they've always had sneeze guards. Yet cafeterias still have had to adjust.
Plexiglass at the cashier's station is now a fixture at cafeterias throughout the state, including popular Tucker spots Magnolia Room and Matthews Cafeteria, as well as S&S Cafeterias locations in Macon and Augusta.
Matthews owner Michael Greene went a step further and installed plexiglass all the way down the cafeteria line. "The plexiglass is 40 inches high off the tray runner. It encapsulates everybody and the food, and puts 8 feet between customers and staff," Greene said.
The foam disposable food containers stay on the employee side until reaching the cashier. "We slide it down, and you are on your merry way," he said.
The adjustment, he said, has been labor-intensive. Before the pandemic, three employees manned the cafeteria line. Now, it takes six people.
"Our workers are at least 6 feet apart," said S&S Cafeterias CEO Rick Pogue about employees stationed on that line. "The good thing about our cafeterias: They are very large. Employees are not working on top of each other.
And guests are eating far from one another because two-thirds of the tables at S&S have been removed from the dining rooms.
Magnolia Room isn't as spacious. While it, too, reduced seating capacity, it installed partitions that increase the height of the backings that separate booths. Despite the enhanced safety feature for dine-in customers, a seat there isn't a hot ticket. Associate manager Julius Johnson estimates that only 30% to 35% of Magnolia Room's business is dine-in. "People were coming out, but now, with the latest spike, we are starting to let everyone know that we have takeout," he said.
It's a similar story at Matthews Cafeteria, whose drive-thru traffic currently accounts for 50% of business. "We've come to realize our drive-thru is not going away," Greene said. "I just took some more extraordinary steps adding delineator poles in my parking lot," he added.
Beyond spiffing up the drive-thru, he finds it hard to think too far ahead.
"This thing has been such a blur and an unbelievable defining moment," he said. "We are one day at a time here."