Is it safe to eat at buffet restaurants when they reopen? What health experts say

Will coronavirus kill off restaurants like Golden Corral, Old Country Buffet and Cicis?
Breakfast in hotel restaurant
All-you-can-eat buffets will look very different upon reopening, say restaurant insiders. Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY
By Katie Jackson

After being shut down for several weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, restaurant dining rooms across the country are beginning to reopen. However, most of them are now operating under restrictive new policies.

One of the biggest changes restaurants are adapting is the elimination of traditional buffet setups. So what does that mean for chains where self-service has been the norm for years?

The all-you-can-eat, self-serve model has been an American institution since it was first popularized in Las Vegas nearly a century ago. But that was before coronavirus. Post pandemic, will popular buffet restaurants like Golden Corral, Old Country Buffet and Cicis be able to survive? More importantly, are they still safe dining options?

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According to the Federal Drug Administration's COVID-19 best practice guideline, restaurants should discontinue operations that require customers to use common utensils or dispensers. This poses a problem for establishments that have relied on tongs and spoons multiple people touch over the course of an evening. Since buffets don't need to employ as many workers on the floor, these restaurants have long been economical operations.

So far, buffets is different states are already starting to look different. In Utah, where restaurants started to reopen last week, self-serve stations and buffets are banned statewide, unless they only serve pre-packaged foods. In Missouri and Kansas, cities and counties are exercising their right to refuse buffet bans. In Texas, however, buffets are allowed to reopen if the food is served by employees.

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Amanda J. Deering, a clinical assistant professor with the Department of Food Science at Purdue University, told TODAY Food that it makes sense for restaurants to focus on reducing or eliminating high-touch points in dining rooms.

"They'd have to be somehow disinfected (very) frequently, so they're not spreading the virus if present," said Deering. "Perhaps single use serving utensils could be used, but that would be very wasteful and costly."

Deering called eating at buffets right now a "calculated risk." However, she acknowledged that many eating habits (like eating raw oysters) also come with their fair share of risk. If restaurants follow all recommended guidelines, then Deering said she would consider eating at buffets in the near future.

Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, agreed. When asked if she could see herself patronizing a buffet in the coming months, her response was, "Yes, provided cautionary measures are in place."

According to Doron, measures that customers should be mindful of when deciding where to dine include restaurants maximizing the distance between patrons and minimizing high-touch points. "Separation of tables, one group at a time at the buffet, sneeze guards and per-person serving utensils would be my recommendation," she said.

With nearly 500 locations across the United States, Golden Corral is one of the country's biggest buffet chains. The Golden Corral Corporation says it is already enacting several new measures at restaurants which have been permitted to open.

In a statement emailed to TODAY, the company said it is transitioning to cafeteria-style service (i.e. waitstaff will serve patrons at various stations) to eliminate multiple customers touching communal serving utensils. Employee temperatures will be taken daily and workers will also be required to wash their hands at least once every 20 minutes. Golden Corral is also adding family-style service where "guest favorites" can be delivered to tables in larger quantities.

Diners can also expect to see more sanitizing stations, fewer tables in the dining room and floor markers, which will be spaced at six-feet intervals, to indicate where customers should stand while in line. Kids under 12 will have to be accompanied by adults while going through the service line.

Of course, not every Golden Corral will be open for business immediately.

"The reopening timing decisions are up to the franchise owner in accordance with their state guidelines," said a spokesperson for the company. For example, even though restaurants in Georgia have been allowed to offer modified dine-in service since April 27, Golden Corral restaurants in Gainesville, Macon and Stockbridge, among other cities, have decided to remain closed.

Meanwhile, Food Management Partners, which owns Old Country Buffet, HomeTown Buffet and Ryan's Buffet, told TODAY Food that it's "embracing" the opportunity to change with the times.

"Our company has been busy behind the scenes working on a new concept that will revolutionize the buffet industry by completely changing the dynamic of how consumers will interact within an 'all you can eat' type of environment," the company said in an emailed statement.

While he wouldn't divulge any details about the new concept, Jason Kemp, a co-founder and previous chief financial officer for Food Management Partners, said he's hoping it will "bring new life to the outdated buffet industry."

When reached by TODAY, representatives for Cicis, Shoney's, Sizzler and Pizza Hut declined to comment on how their buffet operations may change in the coming months.

Of course, when it comes to buffets, Las Vegas is king — or, at least, it has been for decades. In early March, Sin City's largest casinos and hotels were forced to shutter their world-famous buffet restaurants. But are they actually gone forever?

Gary Selesner, president of Caesars Palace (part of the larger Caesars Entertainment and Eldorado Resorts group), told TODAY that while its main buffet is still closed for the foreseeable future, it is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation that will be completed later this year.

The Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace will use table delivery service and mini plates, plated by employees, when it reopens later this year.Caesars Palace

"Guests will no longer share tongs, as chefs will serve food prepared as mini plates on the line to guests," said Selesner. "Guest lines to access the buffet and dining tables will be socially distanced in keeping with CDC and local guidance.” The company is also adding table delivery service.

A spokesperson for MGM Resorts, which operates nearly a dozen properties on the Las Vegas Strip, said the company is not ready to share plans regarding the future of any buffet restaurants it operates.