Food for Thought: Buffets in the Firing Line

Jul 29, 2020

How will hotels, clubs and cruise ships provide guests with breakfasts in the future? We canvas expert advice for potential cost-effective solutions.

The jury is still out on whether the buffet, on pause during the COVID-19 crisis due to its perceived risk, will make a return in some form as restrictions ease.

Hospitality operators are divided. Some are taking their time to decide what to do while others have adopted solutions they foresee as permanent.

Hotel group Ovolo confidently believes “communal buffets are no more”. It’s replaced the buffet breakfast with a la carte and implemented many safety measures, removing communal and tabletop items such as salt, pepper and sauces, introducing single-use menus and adding an electronic menu available for download.

Wes Lambert, CEO of Restaurant & Catering Industry Association of Australia, believes it still may be possible to offer guests a modified form of buffet.

“While buffets are not allowed as per current rules and won’t be for some time, we have seen many restaurants who are pivoting well and still being able to provide a similar service to their customers after re-opening,” he says. “For example, converting buffets to a cafeteria-style arrangement, where food is still on display but behind glass cabinets, and guests make their choices and are served by staff. This has been a common way to keep the style and feel of a buffet without changing the way it operates and looks.”

Lambert says the good news for operators is these changes may not lead to higher overall costs. “With the cafeteria example, while your labour costs increase to serve the food, your food wastage is considerably lower, thus making it easier for you to keep food costs down,” he says.

Joel Katz, who is Managing Director, Australasia, for the Cruise Lines International Association, says it’s too soon to know what measures operators will introduce for on-board buffet dining.

“Many areas of operation are being examined, including the service of food and beverages,” he says. “Buffets may be modified or eliminated as necessary, and the training of crew on all new and enhanced protocols will be an integral part of the industry restart. Appropriate distancing measures will be involved as required and appropriate at the time of resumption of operations.”

Clubs Australia, which represents 6,500 not-for-profit clubs country-wide, isn’t rushing to sound the death knell on buffets, either. “Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, buffets were an incredibly popular offering at many NSW clubs, particularly among families,” says a ClubsNSW spokesperson.

“As public health restrictions ease and consumer confidence continues to grow, there may be opportunities to re-open buffets in a similar COVID-safe manner.”

While there are different interpretations of how future buffets may look, everyone from government health officials to hospitality professionals agree the old-style buffet is dead. No more queues, open food offerings and cutlery in shared containers.

And with the increased public awareness of food-borne disease and cross-contamination, along with a heightened awareness of others’ behaviours thanks to COVID-19, diners’ expectations around food preparation and handling are likely to remain high for the foreseeable future.

An initiative of Fine Food, Hospitality Unites is the voice of the foodservice industry, dedicated to sharing the collective experiences and solutions to thrive in a post-COVID economy.

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