The COVID-19 pandemic has left a permanent mark on the food service industry, affecting every facet of the way we once conducted business and forcing establishments to rapidly innovate. One of the most notable victims of COVID-19’s effect on food service is the self-serve buffet restaurant. The future of the buffet has been speculated on by industry experts everywhere - the COVID-19 virus is extremely contagious, making the future of these once favourite restaurants extremely uncertain. Have we seen the end of the buffet restaurant, or will these businesses be able to survive thanks to innovation and the implementation of COVID protocols?
The prognosis for buffet-style restaurants
While it’s not over until it’s over, the prognosis doesn’t look very good for the future of buffets. Much has been said about the potential for buffets and salad bars to act as a super-spreader for viruses like COVID-19 due to the many high touch surfaces involved in buffets and the speed at which they’re used by customers - from plates, utensils and instruments to counters, handles and sneeze guards, it’s just not realistic for restaurants to be able to clean every piece of equipment between each use.
Most experts agree that buffets probably won’t go extinct, but that restaurants which rely on them may have to look for alternative sources of income until the pandemic subsides, which could be more than a year off. For buffets to continue thriving in a post-COVID world, they’ll have to overcome a number of challenges and adapt to the new landscape.
The many challenges currently faced by buffet restaurants
The biggest challenge that buffets will face is that customer trust is at an all-time low. The pandemic has made people far more aware of which activities could increase their risk of contracting COVID-19, and as a result have become much more cautious. Customers understand the risks of indoor dining, shopping, and other daily activities we once took for granted - many simply won’t be willing to trust that buffets are safe for the time being. Customers have grown familiar and comfortable with COVID-friendly services like curbside pickup and contactless delivery, which will most likely continue to be widely used by customers.
The other major challenge that’s being faced by businesses is how exactly they can make the traditional buffet experience safe for customers to use. The sheer amount of high touch surfaces involved makes regular cleaning and sanitization almost impossible without designating specific employees to focus solely on these tasks. Unless that happens, buffets may be an unrealistic option for businesses until a vaccine can be developed and widely distributed.
How buffets might be able to weather the storm
Thankfully, it’s not all bad news for buffet-style restaurants - there are still ways you can weather the storm. The most popular option currently being explored by buffets is to temporarily make the switch to a cafeteria-style model. Rather than have customers take food themselves, your business can reduce the risk of transmission by assigning employees to plate food for them. This model doesn’t require your business to change a great deal in terms of menu and food being prepared, yet still allows you to prepare and serve large quantities of food in a safe and easily accessible way.
Other restaurants have opted to switch to a table side model, where customers order at the counter or at their table and are served traditionally. This model would require your business to prepare food as it’s ordered rather than in the large quantities used in buffet-style serving, but otherwise doesn’t require many changes that could disrupt your business and its ability to generate income.
Your buffet-style restaurant can survive in a post-COVID world by adopting new methods of serving customers, embracing innovations like curbside pickup and contactless delivery, and overcoming the challenges presented by buffets. Cafeteria and table side models will allow you to continue operating and generating income while you wait for the pandemic to subside, regulations to be lifted or eased, and customer trust to be regained. With the right strategy and enough patience, you’ll be able to weather the storm and (hopefully) see the return of traditional buffets.
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