As food businesses throughout Australia reopen, there is one type of business that is still struggling: buffet restaurants. Food businesses that run solely on buffets — and those that have them as a part of their service — are wondering what is in store for them. There are concerns about whether buffet-style restaurants will permitted to open again soon, or if at all. Other businesses are having to remove their buffets and salad bars as a condition of reopening, prompting questions about what the long-term effects of regulations will be on some food businesses. It is becoming evidently clear that there are significant hurdles the buffet industry is going to need to overcome in the near future.
Buffet industry challenges
Banned buffet service
As food businesses reopen their doors, buffet service is prohibited at this time. Strictly buffet-style restaurants will need to stick with take-out and delivery services for the time being. On the contrary, food businesses that offer buffet service as part of their operations are required to remove the buffets as a condition of reopening. For these businesses, navigating operations without that service will require time and adaptation.
One of the long-term effects of COVID-19 is customer concerns about eating outside of the home. Anxiety surrounding dining out is a significant challenge for any food business to overcome, but especially for those who provide buffets. All food businesses, especially those who normally operate buffets, will have to work diligently to reclaim customer confidence. This is because the way buffet restaurants are designed makes customers congregate around the service stations and leads to crowding. With physical distancing being top-of-mind for most people these days, this aspect is enough to make even the most loyal customer uneasy.
Food safety risks
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.
Food contamination is one risk that is higher in buffet-style restaurants. 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. In order to combat this, self-serve stations need to be monitored closely by a designated staff member.
Buffets also run the risk of food moving into the Temperature Danger Zone (5°C – 60°C) 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 and 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. This is extremely important and must be done properly to prevent food-borne illness.
Buffets also have many high-touch surfaces and objects which are easily contaminated with pathogens. Serving utensils, handles, trays and counters are examples of things that are touched frequently by customers at a buffet. It is for this reason that high standards of cleaning and sanitising are needed at buffets.
These risks associated with buffet dining have been known for some time. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened people’s awareness of health and safety protocols. These food safety risks associated with buffets will be scrutinized more carefully after the pandemic passes.
The future of buffets
While there are many challenges to owning and operating a buffet during this time, there are some positive aspects to the changes being experienced. Food businesses with buffets can and are adapting to the ‘new normal’ and here are some ways they are doing it.
Switching business models
While reopening with a new way of doing things is not easy, it is essential that food businesses with buffets strive to adapt. Buffet-style restaurants that are still conducting take-out and delivery only at this time, need to begin preparing a reopening strategy. Not all buffet-style restaurants will reopen again, but those that do should be ready to adapt and change their business model.
Cafeteria-style or family-style are two types of business models that buffet-style restaurants can consider switching to. In a cafeteria-style model, diners can choose from a variety of pre-crafted plates or a menu of individual items rather than an entire meal. With family-style service, larger plates of food are served to tables for sharing. These types of service allow for larger quantities of food to be served which is how a buffet-style restaurant is used to operating. These business models 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. There are a few different ways this can be done. A staff member can come to the table to take the order, or customers can order at a counter and have the food served to them at a table. This is another helpful business model that can be embraced by buffet-style restaurants.
Governmental restrictions and requirements for reopening can appear intimidating, but they are in place for a reason. COVID-19 regulations are there to allow food businesses to begin operating again while preventing the spread of the coronavirus. 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 to the public. Despite the challenge of keeping the buffet area closed, food businesses must embrace these regulations. By doing so, food businesses can find positive benefits in other areas of the business. For example, closing and removing the buffet station can provide more space for additional seating and this may mean that the capacity can increase a bit. Also, removing the buffet station can provide more space to help with enforcing physical distancing.
Hiring and training more staff
As buffet-style food businesses change business models and remove buffet stations, there are unexpected positive benefits with regards to employees. For example, switching to table side service will require staff to be trained on how to serve customers within this model. 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.
Switching business models also means that a food business may need to hire more staff. For example, 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. The food industry at this time is struggling, with many food workers out of work due to layoffs or business closures. If switching business models means more staff need to be hired, then it is good news for the food industry as a whole.
If a food business does need to hire new food workers, it is essential that they are trained in food safety and have a valid Statement of Attainment. If they do not, you must enrol them in a nationally recognised food safety training course, such as the AIFS Food Handler Course.