Has the Pandemic Caused the End of Buffets?

Buffet-style restaurants are poised to face unique challenges post-pandemic.
June 22, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has had widespread effects on the Canadian food industry. Food businesses had to shut their doors to the public and switch to a take-out or delivery model, or simply try and stay afloat until they could open again. Now that food businesses in some provinces and territories are beginning to open their doors and accept dine-in customers again, more questions and concerns are coming to the surface. There are concerns about what dining service will look like for the near future, and what the long-term effects could be on some specific businesses. Food businesses that run solely on buffets — or use them as a main source of revenue — are going to be facing significant challenges in the months and years to come.

The challenges for buffets

Prohibition of buffet service

As food businesses reopen their doors, buffet service is strictly prohibited throughout Canada at this time. Food businesses that offer buffet service as part of their operations are required to remove the buffets for the time being. Those that strictly operate on buffet service will have to continue providing take-out and delivery services. Moving away from providing buffet service is proving to be challenging for those businesses that operate solely on a buffet service model. Other restaurants are removing those areas of the business in order to reopen with compliance, but are having to navigate operating without that service — which can take time to adapt to.

Customer anxiety

One of the long-term effects of COVID-19 is customer anxiety around dining out. As food businesses reopen their dining rooms and welcome customers inside again, research is showing that many customers are wary of eating out at a food business just yet. Anxiety surrounding dining out is a significant challenge for any food business to overcome, but especially for those who provide buffets. When (or if) restaurants with buffets are permitted to reopen to the public, they will have to work diligently to reclaim customer confidence. Buffet restaurants tend to allow larger amounts of people within a premises and there can be crowding around the self-serve areas. These aspects are enough to make even the most loyal customer wary.

Food safety concerns

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, buffet-style restaurants needed to work diligently to keep the premises clean, safe and adhering to health regulations. Buffet service poses certain health and food safety risks that must be managed in order to protect customers from food-borne illness.

One of the risks is food contamination which can easily occur in buffets. Biological contamination can occur from a customer sneezing or coughing onto the food, and cross-contamination can occur when a serving utensil is used to serve different types of food (e.g. using the same tong to serve raw sushi and a slice of bread). In order to combat this, self-serve stations need to be monitored closely by a designated staff member.

Another risk is that buffet food could move into the Temperature Danger Zone** while being displayed. All high-risk foods (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, etc.) must be kept in either hot or cold displays out of the Temperature Danger Zone. If food must be held at room temperature, any high-risk foods that have been on display for more than 2 hours must be thrown out. Managing this aspect of the buffet service is not only extremely important, but it must be done properly to prevent food-borne illness.

Lastly, buffets have many high-touch surfaces and objects that can easily be contaminated with bacteria or viruses. Serving utensils, handles, trays and counters are all things that are touched frequently by a variety of customers at the buffet. High standards of cleaning and sanitizing are needed at buffets to lower contamination of these objects.

While all of these risks of buffet-style restaurants have been known for some time, they were often accepted or overlooked by customers. The COVID-19 pandemic has now made customers acutely aware of health and safety precautions and what restaurants need to do to keep their premises safe. These food safety risks associated with buffets may not be so easy to ignore after the pandemic passes.

**In Manitoba, the Temperature Danger Zone is 5°C – 60°C (41°F – 140°F). In all other provinces and territories in Canada, it is 4°C – 60°C (40°F – 140°F).

The positives for buffets

While there are many challenges to owning and operating a buffet during this time, everything is not all doom and gloom. Food businesses with buffets can and are adapting to their ‘new normal’ — and some are seeing positive benefits.

Changing the business model

All food businesses that are reopening at this time are having to get creative and be adaptable to the changing situation. While reopening with a new way of doing things is not easy, it is essential that food businesses strive to adapt — and restaurants with buffets are no exception. Buffet-style restaurants that are still conducting take-out and delivery only at this time, need to begin preparing a reopening strategy. While it is clear that not all buffet-style restaurants will survive their closure, those that do must be ready to adapt and change their business model.

Buffet-style restaurants can consider switching to a cafeteria-style or family-style model of service. In a cafeteria-style model, diners can choose from a variety of pre-crafted plates or a menu of a la carte items. On the contrary, family-style service involves bringing larger plates of food to individual tables for the patrons at the table to share. These types of service allow for larger quantities of food to be served and mimics more of how a buffet-style restaurant is used to operating. The benefit of these service models is that they allow for buffets to open their doors, bring in revenue and adhere to governmental regulations.

Buffet-style food businesses can also decide to switch completely to table side service. This can be done in the more traditional way of having a staff member come to the table to take the order. However, some food businesses are choosing to have customers order at a counter and then take their seat. The food is then served to them at the table. This is another helpful business model that can be embraced by buffet-style restaurants.

Embracing the regulations

While the restrictions that food businesses are being faced with at this time can seem daunting, it is important to remember that they are in place for a reason. Provincial and municipal COVID-19 regulations are there to allow food businesses to begin operating again while preventing the spread of the coronavirus and keeping staff and customers safe. For food businesses with buffets and salad bars, this means keeping these portions of the business closed at this time, even if the business is permitted to reopen. While this may not seem ideal, closing the buffet area can help a food business to thrive in other areas. For example, food businesses throughout Canada are required to enforce physical distancing and maintain a capacity limit within the premises. By removing the buffet, a food business is able to enforce physical distancing more easily and may even be able to increase its capacity (depending on their provincial and municipal regulations). Also, customers feel at ease when they see a food business that is taking the pandemic seriously and following protocols. This can lead to more customers through the door and positive reviews.

Training and hiring booms

Whether a food business relies solely on buffet service or not, changes to the business model and service style are to be expected at this time. While these changes are not easy, they can come with some positive payoffs. For example, switching to table side service will require staff to be trained on a whole new way of serving customers. Buffet-style service and table service are very different, and staff need to be trained properly in order to conduct the service efficiently. This is beneficial for the employees as they will be acquiring additional training experience, which also benefits the business as a whole.

Food businesses that must switch their business model may also need to hire additional employees. Buffet-style restaurants often do not need as many servers as traditional sit-down restaurants, so switching to table side service will require more staff. Extra hiring is beneficial for the food industry as a whole, especially as many food workers are out of work due to layoffs from the pandemic shutdowns. Despite the initial challenge of switching business models, resulting hiring booms can be a positive effect.

In the case of hiring new staff, it is also important to confirm that they have a valid Food Handler Certificate. If they do not, you must enrol them in a nationally recognized food safety training course, such as the CIFS Food Handler Certification Course.