With origins tracing back to the 19th century, buffet-style dining has truly stood the test of time. Given a moment’s pause, it’s also evident that the dining model has become prevalent across a wide swath of industries—from national restaurant chains like Golden Corral, to airport lounges, casinos, and cruise ships, to name a few.
But in a post-COVID-19 reality, what becomes of the self-service buffet model and how might it evolve? We’ve identified several ways that we’re seeing businesses respond and some thought starters for the future.
Photo by Ye Chen
Particularly across the hotel and airline industries, we’re seeing quick pivots in service models when it comes to amenities like the continental breakfast and the airport lounge, which have traditionally been buffet-style. The following are just some of the changes at play:
Grab & Go
Operators are taking a grab-and-go approach of providing individually wrapped, pre-packaged food and beverage. This helps minimize contact with staff and other guests, while also lessening the possibility of overcrowding as people will have the option to take their items outside of the space.
A La Carte
Many hotels and airline lounges offered both buffet and a la carte dining options pre-COVID. Now that the self-service buffet model has been scrutinized, operators are investing in full-service dining and a la carte menus. While this option requires more FOH and BOH staff, it minimizes guest-to-guest contact and creates a thoughtful experience for those who want to remain in the space.
Operators with less space for full-dining services and more loungelike settings have introduced meal trolleys that servers roam through the space (e.g. Zurich Aspire Lounge). Similar to having an a la carte menu, this model keeps guests from overcrowding certain areas and reduces high-touch points in dining rooms
For operators where buffets were the center of the experience, the most viable option has been to re-imagine their existing models without completely overhauling it. Places like MGM, IHG, and buffet restaurants have implemented cafeteria-style models where guests continue the buffet-style lineup, but are served by dedicated staff members for each section.
Adjusting the Buffet
Whether you are pivoting and/or largely maintaining a buffet model, operators should explore the following considerations to make it a more hygienic and hospitable experience for all:
While sneeze guards have been utilized often in larger buffet spaces in hotels and grocery stores, they will become an essential part of the post-COVID model. Whether they’re design-heavy or strictly a mandatory add-on, buffet design will have to pivot to adhere to these new standards.
Photo by Medina Catering
Hotels and cruises, such as The Prince Hotel in Hong Kong, are now offering individual small plates in order to pivot from the classic buffet layout of large-format food displays with reusable tongs.
To avoid overcrowding common areas, buffets may need to explore pacing the number of parties that can be at the buffet at one time. Some chains, like Golden Corral, are also adding a tableside family-style service where “guest favorites” can be delivered in larger quantities.
Thoughtstarters for the Future
While the buffet model will evolve its design and operations in order to survive post-COVID, many operators may begin to expand and ideate outside of the standard hotel, cruise, and airline F&B models.
Photo from FoodNavigator
From custom salad bars to “autonomous restaurants” that dispense bowls of hot ramen, vending machines are a convenient model that save space, require less BOH involvement, and can save time for guests. When implementing vending machines to spaces, an additional strategy must be in place for cleaning prominent machine touchpoints.
Before COVID-19, a handful of operators were testing technology’s role in an advancing society. Now brands, like The Tea Terrace in London, have gone one step further by introducing robot servers as a way to completely eliminate server-to-guest contamination.
Airline lounges and other spaces with a plethora of of F&B options surrounding them may find opportunities for exclusive partnerships that can minimize BOH needs and provide additional delivery methods for guests.
Airline lounges could explore app capabilities that might enable guests to pre-order their meals. This could enable BOH to make orders at scale, while providing a hospitable meal to the guest upon arrival.