The end of the buffet as we know it?
Sneeze guards, shared spoons may not be what customers want, even after COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic may be the end of the restaurant buffet as we know it.
With concerns over the spread of the virus heightening concerns around food safety, the fill-your-plate dining concept is facing serious challenges.
Some Alberta restaurant operators believe that long after anxiety around the spread of the virus subsides, customers won't have an appetite for self-serve eats.
Some buffets shuttered by the pandemic may be gone forever, said Oscar Lopez, the founder of Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse, a chain of five Alberta restaurants.
"That's the $2-million question," Lopez said. "This is part of a huge industry.
"We've been thinking about it a lot."
An emotional scar has been left on people.
- Oscar Lopez
After months of public health messaging about virus prevention, customers may have become permanently put off by sneeze guards and shared spoons, Lopez said.
He wonders how long the world-famous buffets of the Las Vegas strip will remain closed, or if now-docked cruise ships will ever serve their food in the same way again.
Even when Alberta health restrictions prohibiting buffets are lifted, his chain of restaurants may never operate them again.
"An emotional scar has been left on people," he said. "I'm skeptical. I don't know.
"When Alberta Health Services allows us to reopen our salad bar operation, I'm not quite sure that we will. I think that will have to do a lot with what the public's reaction is, what their memory of this whole situation is.
"We may just keep doing what we're doing."
Almost overnight we had to reinvent ourselves.
- Oscar Lopez
Pampa is known for its rodizio-style service. Customers sample from shared plates and meat skewers served by waiters circulating from table to table. The salad bar is also a huge draw, Lopez said.
Since reopening, the restaurant is now plating its food individually in the kitchen. Tables are carefully spaced two metres apart. The salad bar is closed indefinitely.
Lopez considered having an attendant for the buffets but said he was advised by health inspectors that it would be too difficult to keep customers a safe distance apart from each other.
"Almost overnight we had to reinvent ourselves and sort of reteach our team on our new style of service, so we're kind of learning as we go."
Most customers have been accommodating, he said, but some reservations have been cancelled.
"It looks empty. It looks sad. We have lost a lot of the ambience in the restaurant."
'A different concept'
The province allowed restaurants to open last month at 50 per cent capacity but buffets and other self-serve food services remain prohibited under current health guidelines.
Businesses that rely heavily on buffets have been forced to adapt.
Narayanni's Restaurant opened in south Edmonton on Tuesday. It's the first time it has served customers without a buffet service in more than a decade.
The family-run Indian restaurant has cancelled the dinner service and extended daytime hours. Meals are now being served table-side.
"It's kind of turned it into a café-style dining restaurant," said manager and co-owner Youmashni Naidoo.
"They order at the counter and we bring out the food to them. It's still all of mama's home cooking and papa's baking and all of that but it's a different concept."
Naidoo wants to open the buffet again, but it's unclear when that might happen under Alberta's phased relaunch strategy.
There is talk that cafeteria-style service would be allowed first, but she doesn't think customers would be keen.
She said business was slow, even before the pandemic hit. Upending her business model has delivered another hit to the bottom line.
New health restrictions have added extra costs. Seating limits have reduced not only the amount of people who can be served, but also the restaurant's profits.
Meanwhile, customers remain skittish about the prospect of dining out, Naidoo said. The restaurant has yet to reach capacity, even under the current restrictions.
"We've tried to manage and be as positive as we can," she said. "I think people are ready to slowly start coming out.
"We're just hoping everything goes well and people will get adjusted to the new type of service."