buffet

What does COVID-19 mean for the future of the buffet?

In the post COVID-19 word, what will become of the beloved buffet?

By Doug Radkey

While it is still not entirely clear what “new normal” actually means or what it will look like, one thing is for certain: things will be different. One segment of the industry that may see some of the greatest changes of all is the beloved buffet.

The problem with buffets

The general definition of the word buffet is “a meal consisting of several dishes from which guests serve themselves”. This, clearly, means many high-touch surfaces and objects. It also entails the congregation and contact with others around food stations.

These are all scenarios that provide little consumer confidence when you’re experiencing a viral pandemic.

However, outside of cruise ships and resorts, the buffet business model seemed to already be on the decline over the past decade. Contributing factors are consumer sentiment around nutrition, sanitation, and food waste protocols – three areas the buffet business model was traditionally not well-known for.

So the big question remains: has the COVID-19 pandemic killed the buffet concept? Similar to the question around the viability of simply ‘dining in’, it’s unlikely to be entirely dead beyond the pandemic, but it will certainly be different.

Reinventing the future

The time is now to hit the reset button and reinvent the future of this segment. The buffet concept will likely emerge more purpose-driven, rather than serving as an opportunity to over-indulge ourselves with endless, bottomless options. It should also transition towards a more modern cafeteria or family-style approach, where service staff will deliver to the table. Think nutritional tasting plates of the brand’s most popular dishes or chef specials. That table-based mobile ordering of those tasting plates will likely become a mainstay feature to the overall experience. Lastly, this business model has the opportunity to become more efficient with data, communications, and service sequences leading to less waste, better nutrition, and, of course, sanitation.

A re-introduction of this business model is what will regain consumer confidence. COVID-19 is presenting us with this opportunity to adjust and improve on things that were maybe not working so well previously.

Purpose-driven

As some businesses operating with other revenue channels look to reopen, they’re being asked to remove or keep closed their buffets as a condition of reopening. It is believed this will be a temporary measure until we’ve reached this perceived stage of a “new normal”. It would be a big ask of large hotels, resorts, cruise ships, and event spaces to feed thousands of people simultaneously without the elements of a buffet-type setting. Take into account the different day parts and eating habits of consumers, and it is easy to see why it will remain a requirement moving forward.

There will still be challenges, however, including the likes of physical distancing and the potential of high-touch points. These are two areas that a majority of the public will continue to be concerned about moving forward. To operate the buffet of the future, operators within these purpose-driven spaces are going to need to invest time and financial resources in redesigning the layout and flow in addition to increasing the number of visible cooking stations to ease that level of fear and anxiety. But will the essence of the buffet be erased from these concepts? No, it will just look different.

The pivot move

For buffets that survive the current crisis within our urban areas, pivoting to a cafeteria-style or family-style business model may be the most ideal way to navigate the future. With the cafeteria-style model, consumers would be able to mimic the likes of a traditional buffet by moving along an assembly line of sorts (physically distanced, of course), choosing from a variety of pre-assembled plates. This will take careful planning in both flow and menu engineering.

The other feasible option is introducing a family-style service, where larger plates or platters of food are served to the table for sharing and where staff can then bring an “endless supply” of the brand’s most cost-effective favourites. Pivoting to either of these settings would position the brand to adhere to government guidelines while operating parallel to the business model they were once accustomed to.

Table-side ordering

In a combination with the above, or as a standalone solution, the buffet model could also transition to table-side ordering from a tablet or mobile device.

This has already been predominately used in modern sushi restaurants, for example, where small plates and platters are created on-demand based on orders “fired” to the kitchen from the designated table and tablet system. It allows for a safe, fun, and memorable guest experience that’s still differentiated while providing detailed menu data to the operator. Moving to this style of menu and kitchen operations would also allow the brand to introduce a more robust off-premise program, creating a hybrid business model with multiple revenue channels.

Efficiency

Whether it’s a revised purpose-driven buffet setting or a pivot move within a local business, efficiency will be key. There may continue to be challenges around seating arrangements, capacity levels, service flow, hygiene, waste, and labour to meet financial requirements. Not to mention the financial investment required to make these changes.

However, the time is now to re-think this business model with an emphasis on strategic design, lighting elements, and more intimate experiences. To redesign nutritional menus based on data and food waste prevention techniques. To perhaps introduce a more digital or omnichannel-type approach to a buffet operation, its revenue channels, and the overall guest journey map.

Change brings opportunity

Moving forward, we have to look at the current scenario as an opportunity for operators to break free from the previous status quo and deliver a more scalable, sustainable, profitable, memorable, and consistent “buffet” concept. After all, embracing change is what a successful entrepreneur, hotelier, or restaurateur does.

Doug Radkey is the president of KRG Hospitality Inc., the author of the book Bar Hacks, and an international keynote speaker on all things restaurants, bars, and boutique hotels. For more information, visit krghospitality.com

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