Will buffets and salad bars return after the pandemic is over?

buffet coronavirus safe
Photo via VIK hotels group/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)
  • Two buffet chain restaurants have already closed their doors for good
  • Coronavirus isn’t spread via food, but everything around it is dangerous
  • Cruise lines might be in a better position to adjust

With or without an effective vaccine, the world is likely going to look different on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic—if for no other reason than to mitigate future risks. Movie theaters, music festivals, sporting events, weddings, and other group activities or events have all been left in a state of uncertainty. Many dining establishments are already making modifications to pack fewer guests into seats. But what about salad bars and the like? When will buffets reopen?

Buffets—the popular staples on cruise ships and in casinos—may be a thing of the past, or at least how we’ve become accustomed to them until now.

The reasons germaphobes may have previously shied away from buffet dining are precisely why it has become such a hot-button issue in the wake of COVID-19. Precariously effective sneeze guards, shared utensils, and diners hovering over one another all present obvious health risks in the age of coronavirus.

So much so that in early May, San Diego-based Garden Fresh Restaurants—the parent company of buffet chains Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes—announced that all 97 of its restaurants were permanently shutting their doors. In doing so, 4,400 employees lost their jobs.

“The FDA had previously put out recommendations that included discontinuing self-serve stations, like self-serve beverages in fast food, but they specifically talked about salad bars and buffets,” John Haywood, CEO of Garden Fresh, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in May. “The regulations are understandable, but unfortunately, it makes it very difficult to reopen. And I’m not sure the health departments are ever going to allow it.”

“We could’ve overcome any other obstacle, and we’ve worked for eight weeks to overcome these intermittent financial challenges but it doesn’t work if we are not allowed to continue our model,” Haywood added.

Changing up buffets as we know them

If buffets and salad bars are going to survive in a post-coronavirus society, there will have to be major changes made to the inherent concept.

The plus side as Dr. Elizabeth Talbot, Dartmouth professor and deputy epidemiologist for the state of New Hampshire, points out, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is not food-borne.

“COVID-19 is transmitted predominantly by the person-to-person route through respiratory droplets,” Talbot told Boston’s WGBH News.

The La Nacional Mexican Buffet in Columbus, Georgia, is adapting to this new normal by revamping its menu, giving raises to staff members who have to interact with customers, and partnering with delivery services to boost sales. “I think it’s a permanent change. I don’t know if anything will ever go back to what the norm was before,” La Nacional owner and operator Sherry Buenrostro told Marketplace.

Meanwhile, Golden Corral, one of the largest buffet chains in the United States, had opened a little more than half of its nearly 500 restaurants by October. But a Golden Corral franchisee that owned 33 restaurants filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy with plans to close six of its locations.

Golden Corral franchisees in Michigan had reopened six of the eight Golden Corrals with cafeteria-style buffets in which an employee fills your plate for you, according to a company spokesperson. Some locations outside of Michigan have switched up the concept to family-style table service, with servers bringing large dishes of food out to the table for diners to share. In the south, where social distancing mandates have been largely relaxed, the chain only requires guests to wear gloves when using serving utensils.

The company hasn’t yet decided which of these changes will be temporary or permanent, the spokesperson said.

Other establishments, such as the FireKeepers Casino Hotel in Battle Creek, Michigan, are looking into more innovative approaches to keeping the spirit of the casino alive. Before the pandemic forced the resort’s buffet to close, it sometimes hosted more than 10,000 guests per week, and three-hour wait times were not uncommon.

Mike McFarlen, vice president of food and beverage at FireKeepers, is now brainstorming ideas like live-streaming food stations, in which high-resolution cameras would broadcast rotating images of the food on 70-inch screens throughout the restaurant. Customers would then check off boxes on a paper menu for servers to fill their plates for them.

“Our whole business is people eat with their eyes. It’s not something you can just get away from,” McFarlen told MLive. “The buffet … it’s a visual and sensory overload. You’ve got a lot of smells and a lot of colors and dimensions and variety. We just have to make sure that that isn’t lost when we transition to a no-touch buffet system.”

“I don’t think buffets are dead. They’re just going to be a little more challenging than they have in the past,” McFarlen added.

Meanwhile, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said on July 27 that self-serve buffets can return, but plates, silverware, and glasses must now be handed to the customer by restaurant workers.  “None of these items will be set out for patrons to self-serve,” the Utah state guidelines said. Customers must also wear masks when serving themselves.

In Ohio, buffets are still not open, though you can now grab a self-service hot dog from your local gas station.

All-you-can-eat brunch, though, is still alive at the El Torito restaurant in Pasadena, California, where plexiglass protects the food that people are craving on Sunday mornings, as servers walk around in face shields and gloves. Said Jose Aviles, the restaurant’s regional director of operations, in August: “We wanted to make sure that we served the same great food. But in a much safer way.”

In early September, Alabama allowed buffet restaurants to reopen, as long as at least one employee stands nearby and keeps customers, who must be wearing their masks, at least six feet apart. “This feels like we’re finally getting back to normal a little bit,” one customer at Mama Lou’s Restaurant in Robertsdale told NBC 15. In October, it was reported that Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando was planning to continue its annual Thanksgiving buffet in 2020.

Las Vegas casinos have also had to adapt, as some spend money to make more room for social distancing and others have workers now bringing food directly to a patron’s table. But since the casinos have reopened, coronavirus cases have surged in Nevada, so more changes might be coming in the future.

And it might be harder to find a hotel breakfast buffet these days or a buffet inside an airport lounge.

Restaurants, in general, are struggling. After some have reopened and allowed patrons to eat inside, people are getting sick. As the CDC reported in September in a study on “close contact” transmission, “adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results.”

How cruise dining can adapt going forward

Cruise lines, for obvious reasons, present their own problems during and even in the wake of a pandemic. Though experts remain optimistic that the industry will bounce back, the future of popular buffet-style dining now hangs in the balance—as well as packed dining halls with communal-style tables.

However, one thing the cruise industry has going for it is that even before the pandemic, ships had to be extra vigilant against the spread of diseases—for example, norovirus outbreaks. But if anything, this makes them even more prepared to impose necessary sanitation measures going forward. Many cruise lines already have mandatory hand-washing stations at buffet entrances, which are enforced by crew members.

“A lot of this is things we do every day,” Wes Cort, Norwegian Cruise Lines vice president of food and beverage operations, told Eater. “We have an advantage here because this is not a stretch for us.”

Norwegian was the first of the big cruise ship lines to release an official safety plan, which includes buffets that are served cafeteria-style by staff.

Though Cort admits that typically there’s pushback from guests when the buffet model moves from self-serve, he thinks “people are going to be fully understanding” given the circumstances. This may mean slower wait times due to serving, sanitation, and social distancing, but Cort says they hope they can expedite the process by adjusting staffing. 

Chris Gray Faust, the managing editor of Cruise Critic, told Eater that buffets will exist in some form on cruise ships, given that cruise aficionados are “very passionate” about them.

“But it won’t be this sort of free-for-all where you’re getting your own food,” said Gray Faust, noting that many large cruise ships had already been moving away from the concept of communal tables, even before the pandemic. “The idea of eating with strangers has kind of been decreasing in popularity anyway. I think this will just accelerate that trend.”

At least one cruise ship executive, though, said the future “is going away from the buffet.”

Another growing trend on cruise chips, Gray Faust pointed out, is that “some people never go to the buffet, never go to the main dining room.”

Many ships are now moving away from the mega-dining room concepts in favor of specialty restaurants that offer variety in smaller, more intimate settings, where the number of diners can be limited on a reservation basis. “Cruisers want Indian food and French food; they want fancy meals and barbecue,” writes Eater. “They want the chance to eat food from Thomas Keller on Seabourn, Curtis Stone on Princess, and Edouardo Jordan on Holland America.”

Overall, it appears that the future of buffets will be up to the public’s willingness to return to them, as opposed to government regulations or mandates—not to mention, the viability of an effective vaccine.

“I think the jury’s still out [on buffets],” said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. “They are in a more precarious position than other segments of the industry, to be sure.”

Sources: Marketplace, mlive, WGBH, Eater

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