A dining experience enjoyed by generations of hungry Americans risks being spoiled by the coronavirus pandemic.
Buffets – from the most modest hotel breakfasts to the largest casino banquets – struggle to stay afloat as new sanitary restrictions come into place and suspicious diners eschew the tradition of self-service meals.
While many buffets cease operations in the United States, others are innovating and desperately trying to keep the business model relevant and appetizing.
What’s the problem?
Susan Yin, owner of Jack’s Fresh in downtown Washington DC, told BBC News its average sales fell nearly 90% after they reopened two months ago after a two-month shutdown.
Jack’s Fresh, which specializes in Asian cuisine and American sandwiches, currently earns around $ 500 (£ 398) a day, up from an average of $ 3,500 before the pandemic, she said.
“No one works in this area,” says Yin, referring to commuters who have been working mostly at home since March. “It’s still very quiet. “
In March, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates food safety for the federal government, recommended “end self-service buffets and salad bars” until the pandemic is subsiding.
Officials said this was due to communal utensils which are frequently affected by multiple customers who may be contagious, as well as the crowds which may form around certain items.
FDA guidelines note that Covid-19 would not be transferred through food itself, but rather through the respiratory droplets of people in close contact.
In addition to federal guidelines, 38 states have also published rules restricting buffet service, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Who was affected?
Buffet sales in the United States grossed around $ 5 billion in 2019, according to The NPD Group, a market research firm, accounting for only about 1% of total restaurant business.
But from salad bars to smorgasbords, buffets have many loyal followers, many of whom are older and therefore more vulnerable to the virus.
The owners of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes – specialists in healthy foods – announced in May that they were declaring bankruptcy and permanently closing 97 restaurants, leaving 4,400 employees out of work.
According to The NPD Group, buffet restaurants earned about $ 106 million in May 2020, about a third of the total compared to the same month in 2019.
How do the buffets fit?
Buffets across the United States have stopped stridently, most of them choosing to ban customers from serving themselves.
At Jack’s Fresh, where customers pay the weight of their food before storing it, the cooks collect portions in paper boxes for customers. This method, which has been adopted by other buffet restaurant chains, has been described by the critics as a “cafeteria style”.
Ms. Yin says that despite the new precautions, most customers – who are required to wear masks – now buy sandwiches to order, which were less common than buffet sales before the virus hit.
Despite the start of online orders and new hygiene precautions, Ms. Yin says there is “still no business because no one comes to work in town.”
Most global hotel chains have discontinued breakfast buffets altogether, instead offering packaged food at buffet stations or pushing guests to room service picked up at a drop-off location in the building.
Las Vegas, where the modern American buffet began almost 80 years ago, has taken various steps to continue to put bibs around the neck.
The Wynn Casino Buffet, which previously featured 15 live cooking stations, was the first on the Strip to reopen with waiters bringing food to the table for customers, just like in a normal restaurant.
Caesar’s Palace bacchanal buffet – which serves more than 3,000 people a day – is undergoing a $ 2.4 million renovation to make more room for social distancing. Other casinos across the country have closed their buffets for good, opening full-service restaurants in their stead.
What is the history of the buffet?
Canadian entrepreneur Herb McDonald is known for launching the first 24-hour all-you-can-eat buffet called Buckaroo Buffet in the 1940s in Las Vegas.
A flyer advertising the restaurant claims that for just a dollar a customer can eat “every possible variety of hot and cold food to appease the howling coyote in your bowels.”
The McDonald’s model was quickly replicated from top to bottom on the Sunset Strip as every hotel and casino struggled to provide a buffet for tourists.
The allure of all-you-can-eat food, with no waiter to judge your food pairings or quantity, led the Washington Post this month to describe the buffets as “an offer [of] public gluttony at an affordable price. ”
But despite the new precautions, most analysts agree that it will take a long time before the Americans can return to the buffet queue for a few seconds (or even thirds… who is watching?).