As restaurants have pivoted to stay open during the pandemic, buffets are one of those things that are difficult to imagining continuing in a post-COVID world. Shared spoons, salad bar sneeze guards and standing in line next to other hungry customers in order to pile your plate high seems in direct opposition to the safety measures we've all adopted surrounding food service.
On Wednesday, Fresh Acquisitions, the parent company that owns Old Country Buffet, filed for bankruptcy, illustrating just how difficult it has been for restaurants whose concept centers around a communal dining experience.
But not everyone thinks that our beloved all-you-can-eat buffets are gone for good.
"COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the restaurant industry and our segment specifically," Lance Trenary, President & CEO, Golden Corral Corporation told TODAY Food. "We will forever operate differently as a result, but I have no doubt that there is still a place for buffet dining, as evidenced by the enthusiasm and support from our loyal guests."
Golden Corral currently has 312 restaurants open across the country, and has pivoted to focus on to-go and delivery during the pandemic. On their website, several safety options are outlined including "No Touch" buffet service which entails the restaurant changing all the utensils frequently and supplying napkins for handling utensils and "We Serve You" buffet service where staff serve guests from the buffet, avoiding the need for customers to touch serving utensils at all.
But as Benjamin Chapman, Ph.D., professor and food safety specialist in the department of Agricultural and Human Sciences at North Carolina State University pointed out, the main problem with buffets is not necessarily touching utensils as it is the close proximity of customers and shared air space.
"While some buffets are probably not coming back, I don’t think they are gone for good," Chapman told TODAY Food. "I think the sector of the restaurant industry that relies heavily on buffets will adjust how they manage them for public health and perceptions reasons."
Chapman said that the biggest risk in a buffet situation is patrons being so close to one another.
"While common utensils theoretically could lead to transmission of COVID from hand to spoon to hand, we actually don’t have any good examples in clusters of COVID illnesses that surfaces really matter as much as people all standing close to each other does," he said. "Managing social distancing and line-ups is really the hardest part. Or in situations where staff will serve patrons from a buffet, the staff and patron interaction is the riskiest part."
Chapman said that masks requirements, social distancing and limiting line-ups are the best ways to reduce risk. "I’d also add that other pathogens, like norovirus or salmonella, have much more of a potential to move from hands to spoon to hands and cause an illness so I don’t think we will see the end of cleaning and disinfection of those common utensils now that we are in the habit of it."
From Las Vegas's famed buffets to the neighborhood Indian restaurants in Jackson Heights, New York, buffets are more than just a means of selecting your own food and over-indulging. They are a communal culinary experience that many people seek out as a special dining event, where you can sample new foods and shamelessly take seconds on your favorites. After all, where else can mac and cheese intermingle with Szechuan chicken on the same plate? From Chef Mickey's at Disney World to the salad bar at Sizzler, for many of us, that walk up to peruse the buffet is a strong part of our American culinary experience.
When buffets return, customers can expect to see staff enforcing social distancing policies and cleaning and sanitizing common utensils for months, if not years to come, said Chapman.
At Golden Corral, almost all restaurants have reopened and are operating as buffets with enhanced protocols in place.
"In parts of the country where self-service is not yet allowed, Golden Corral has developed alternative service models, such as cafeteria-style, where gloved and masked co-workers serve guests all of their favorites," said a spokesperson for the company. "One example of an adaptation is that the brand’s beloved Chocolate Wonderfall, a flowing chocolate fountain, is now displayed behind plexiglass. Dessert items and fresh fruit are dipped by gloved bakery co-workers for guests to enjoy. Golden Corral is also testing future concept innovations, which include individual entrées and table service."
It's safe to say they are not the only buffet-style restaurant looking forward to welcoming back guests.
"We will not only be back, but we will be even better than before," said Trenary. "At Golden Corral, we have a history of pivoting as a brand, and we will do whatever is necessary to live up to our mission of making pleasurable dining affordable for many years to come."