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All-you-can-eat buffets are making a major comeback

The pandemic threatened the survival of self-serve restaurants. Now they’re back and better than ever.
/ Source: TODAY

During the pandemic, many people couldn’t imagine a post-COVID world that included all-you-can-eat buffets. Shared serving spoons and tongs? Plexiglass sneeze guards? Standing in line in such close proximity to your fellow diner? No chance.

Back in 2020, Garden Fresh Restaurants, the company behind popular buffet chains Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, permanently closed all restaurant locations. And then, in 2021, Fresh Acquisitions, the parent company that owned Old Country Buffet, filed for bankruptcy.

But not everyone believed buffets were a thing of the past.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the restaurant industry and our segment specifically,” Lance Trenary, president and CEO of Golden Corral Corporation, told in 2021. “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.”

And Trenary was right: In 2023, buffets are back and better than ever.

According to IBISWorld, an industry market research company, buffets were a $5.5 billion industry in 2022 — up 9% from 2021.

Why are people returning to buffets?

“It’s family and it’s budget,” restaurant expert Robin Gagnon told Joe Fryer on TODAY Aug. 11.

Gagnon has worked with Golden Corral, which boasts all-you-can-eat buffets for under $20 a person.

Amid record inflation, the buffet chain’s sales were up 14% last year, while at-home food prices rose more than 11% in the same period.

“You have a wonderful selection of items, based on only one price,” said Gagnon. “You know what it’s going to cost you to get in and get out.”

Budget-friendly buffets are booming, serving up comfort foods like mac and cheese and pizza.

And so are high-end options, like those in Las Vegas, focused on luxury dining.

“The buffet business after the pandemic has been amazing for us,” Mark Crane, executive chef at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas’ Wicked Spoon, told Joe. “It’s a real creative outlet for us, as chefs, to kind of push the envelope a little.”

At the Wicked Spoon, weekend brunch — including bottomless beverages and an indulgent smorgasbord of crab legs — costs $74.

“Well, I think there’s something really thrilling about seeing piles of food,” Lilly Jan, lecturer of food and beverage at the Nolan School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, told Joe.

Jan said social media is also feeding our appetite for buffets and our desire for experiences.

“What we saw when restrictions started to be lifted was that people had a lot of pent-up energy, and so they were really looking forward to going out and having fun and exploring,” said Jan.

She said the pandemic was toughest on middle-of-the-road buffets — like the aforementioned Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation. But higher up the food chain, in Queens, New York, at an eatery literally called The Buffet, owners say business is fantastic.

The Buffet even has a cotton candy machine and chocolate fountain — perfect fodder for social media.

“We’re trying to cater to a certain type of palate, and I think we’ve achieved that here because the food speaks for itself, our customers keep coming back,” Kristy Kung, partner at The Buffet, told Joe.

Yuena Li, a diner at The Buffet, said her strategy is to go for the seafood first so she knows she’s getting her money’s worth.

“I feel like I have an instinct at first where I need to get fruit and salad,” explained Joe.

“Fruit?!? Salad?!? What are you doing?” asked Li, jokingly.

The options — like the opinions — are endless.

Emerging from the pandemic, many buffets took extra precautions like masks and sneeze guards, even offering gloves to diners, which helped keep customers safe and ease fears.

Gagnon said that buffets often serve comfort food, and when times are tough for families, especially with inflation over the past year, we could all use a little food for the soul.

“I’m Team Buffet,” proclaimed Savannah Guthrie. “Especially a breakfast buffet. If you’re on vacation and there’s a free buffet, it’s like (to the kids), ‘You know what? Have 17 pancakes, if you like.’”