Buffets:Encouraging Appetites

Buffets have become an attractive force for the millenials as well as those who want to savour variety of dishes and want to pick and choose after having a look at the dishes. As the saying goes: you eat with your eyes first! So the lavish spread set out in front of you allows you to feast your eyes and then sate your appetite with all the delicacies. With increasing demand for buffets, more and more hotels are now laying lavish spreads for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But can they afford these spreads at economic prices? Ashok Malkani tries to find out the secret behind an increasing number of hotels preferring to offer buffet and much more – like how they prepare the menu, and controlling food wastage, et al.
  
Be it marriages or Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Events (MICE) buffet seems to be the order of the day. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, one finds several F&B outlets offering buffets. When a friend of this writer was asked why he preferred buffets he replied with a smile, “Have your fill. No worry about the bill.” Well, when one thinks about it the statement seems to be quite true. At buffets you eat at your will and pay a fixed amount, irrespective of the quantity. But is this the only reason for the success of buffet. There are other variables which define the success and profitability of the buffet business.

Buffet is less expensive, with more food choices and it also allows you to socialize with the other diners. These three reasons are also the rationale behind why people hosting parties or organizing business meetings opt for buffets. 

There is something magical about when you walking up a row of brightly lit fresh fruits with an option to pick and choose a few strawberries, a couple of chunks of pineapple, some pieces of watermelon plus some red and  green grapes . And that’s just the first trip through the line!  

So how did the concept of buffet start?

It is believed that it started in the 18th century, in France. The term buffet originally referred to the French sideboard furniture where the food was served, but eventually became applied to the serving format. It was in the second half of the 19th century, especially in the English speaking world, that buffets became popular for meals. Today, buffets are popular for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

So what is the reason for its popularity?  
  
Debabratta Banerjee, F&B Manager Alila Diwa Goa, believes, “Buffets have become popular because it offers plenty of cuisine choices to suit every palate. Everyone likes variety and the ease of trying out different dishes in small quantities. It works especially well for time crunched guests who can quickly fill up their plates f r o m the buffet spread and not wait for a-la-carte service. Buffet is also considered an informal way of dining. Guests tend to be more relaxed, eat at their pace, try out everything. The live interactive counters and varying themes with live music add to the experience.”

P Daniel Koshy, Executive Chef at JW Marriott Hotel Bengaluru, speaking about the popularity of buffets claims, “Generally most buffets are either Multi-cuisine or of a specific region. This affords a lot of variety for the guest at a reasonable price point. The guest is able to savor lot more variety compared to the a-la-carte price point.”

Sagar Kulkarni, F&B Manager, Hotel Marine Plaza, Mumbai, states, “There are various reasons why buffets are popular. Most of the demand of a buffet is the prospect of being able to eat as much as you want, for a single price. People think that they are putting one over on the restaurant, because they eat more than they would normally be served. The different cuisines and their different and creative preparations have been appreciated around the world. Key aspect of opting for the buffet is the live stations. Culinary teams always strive hard to think and offer something unique in their daily buffet affairs.”

Manoj Rawat, Executive Chef at Hilton Garden Inn Gurgaon Baani Square, says,” Main attractions of buffet style food are:

  • More variety of food/cuisines.
  • Less or no waiting time as food is already ready and displayed beautifully.
  • Better overall presentation.
  • More economic than other options like a-la-carte

Krishna Rao, F&B Manager, The Corinthians Resort & Club, Pune, declares, “Buffets offer value for money, especially when you are not sure of what to order. Here you can see the dishes and opt for the ones you like. Buffets offer you 5 course meal at an economic rate.”  

Making Ends Meet 

With increasing number of F&B outlets, particularly in the urban areas, the restaurant owners have become competitive and are keen to attract guests to their restaurants. One of the interesting changes in the restaurant field is that more of them are serving buffet food, which only a few years ago existed solely in fine hotels. Is offering guests a variety of dishes at economic prices to attract them is the aim of these dining places? If so how do these places make profit? 
  
Daniel states, “The reason why more establishments are serving buffets is because they are aware that people don’t want to restrict themselves to a particular dish or the restrictions they face during a-la-carte ordering both in terms of portion size and cost. The price point is also very high and the variety they get to taste becomes a hindrance.”

He adds, “At JW Marriott Hotel Bengaluru, we make them profitable by balancing our buffets by having cyclic menus and strictly following production cycles based on bookings. This ensures minimum food wastage.”

Krishna avers, “When you have the concept and strategy ready, the hotel is sure that it will get a certain amount of footfalls and this encourage them to start buffets. The establishment’s strategy to target the market is: have planned cyclic menus, have live stations with raw ingredients and sauces, which will provide diners with hot and fresh food.  It is all number game, when you have more footfalls than expected it works out, since the food cost comes down. This happens especially in banquets when the number of expected persons goes up.”

Sagar declares, “The reasons for increasing number of establishments offering buffets is that they play a key role in increasing the property’s revenue as well as APC (average per customer). They help to reduce cost of running the outlets. However to sell or to promote buffets you need trained people, elaborate plating and presentable structure of buffet. One trick I have often seen, especially in newly opened outlets is to put the cheap dishes with a twist and guests will often fill up the place.”

He further added, “You have to make unique offerings as compared to your competitors. Nowadays hotels have increased the offerings and also made them more appealing with colour combinations and introduction of local cuisines. If it is banqueting then theme becomes the main trend.“

Manoj iterates, “More and more eating out places are offering buffets because of the following reasons: 

  • Running cost of buffet comes out to be more economic for establishments
  • Lesser operational challenges
  • More profitability even if discounts are given
  • The hotels achieve profitability because they are:
  • Offering variety of delicious food
  • Offering discounts or beverage packages
  • Selection of thoughtful smart menus

Debabratta believes that buffets are being increasingly offered by hotels as this format allows you to offer variety to your guests. The choice of so many different items and cuisines excite the guests and they come pouring in. It’s also a great way of showcasing the restaurant’s expertise in being able to cater to different palates and earn a reputation. The self-service model works specifically well when there’s high volume of guests as it helps keep labour cost low. You don’t need as much staff.

Debabratta says “Hotels can have profitability by proper planning of the buffet. We must pay careful attention to guests’ preferences; highest consumed dishes etc. and plan the next menu accordingly. Preparation in large quantities ahead of time, reducing wastage and striking a balance between the cost and quality of the food can go a long way in making buffets profitable.”

Food Wastage

Buffets are beautiful. You are tempted in by the abundant display of food in every shape and colour, your mouth waters at the aromas, and you cannot resist the prospect of trying a bit of everything. This is all highly appealing to guests, but it is also one of the top generators of food waste in India’s hospitality industry.

Manoj conceded “Wastage can’t be controlled to 0%. However with some smart techniques it can be reduced to great extent. For examples:

  • Cooking food in small batches. 
  • Going for easy live counters wherein chef can cook only what is required.
  • Excellent storage equipments/fridges which can be used as dispensing and storage.
  • Knowing the quantum of business/bookings for better planning.
  • Simple menus wherein food can be made faster if one runs short of the food.

Daniel declares, “At JW Marriott Hotel Bangaluru, the buffet food production is made as per the booking reservations we have. Yes there is a minimum quantity which is always made as per the serving sizes of the chaffers. We have chaffers of different sizes and we use it according to the day of the week. For example, on Monday we use half and half chaffers to reduce the amount of food we lay out on the buffet, since it is traditionally a slack day. There is a certain amount of food which remains on the buffet at the end of the day, but that is taken as part of cost of doing business. We ensure that it is as minimal as possible.”

Krishna avers, “At Corinthians Resort & Club Pune we normally prepare buffet for minimum number of people – between 25-30 persons – and when we find that the crowd is more then we cook afresh and keep adding in smaller quantities. If there are any left overs we give it to organizations like Robinhood Army, which distributes this food to the needy.”

Sagar states “Nowadays wastage of food is carefully monitored as it links to food cost as well. And if you have a creative culinary team then they are best ones to recycle the food in a creative manner.”

Debabratta adds, “Efficient planning can help reduce wastage and save cost. Leftovers can be converted to leftover recipes like a Turkey Taco salad.”

Common Beliefs 

Leftovers, particularly f r o m buffets, are common according to laymen who believe that these leftovers as well as other leftovers in the hotels are recycled in the form of Sunday brunch.     
   
Sagar strongly negates this notion with the statement, “It is definitely not true. Sunday Brunches have gone far ahead and left no stone unturned to impress the guest by its extravaganza theme, food, music, kids brunch. Especially for Sunday brunch, at Hotel Marine Plaza Mumbai, I have seen that planning and execution starts at the start of the month. Food and beverage teams sit together, brainstorm their ideas and the outcome is the innovative way of food presentation, innovative buffet set up, well planned marketing strategies. The result, hard work pays off when guests actually appreciate the buffet laid out for them.”

Daniel denies that there is such thing as recycling of leftovers. “At JW Marriott Bengaluru, on Sundays we have vibrant lunch buffets with a variety of special dishes which our patrons love to come and partake. We don’t take chances with food quality and it is reflected in the feedback we get f r o m our guests and the awards we have won, for the best Sunday brunch in town.”

Manoj adds, “Sunday brunch is most elaborated menu any establishment can afford to offer as it’s highly prized due to the offerings. So, it can’t be left over food. In fact, it’s the most elaborate spread where chefs get opportunity to showcase their culinary skills.”

Debabratta also pooh poohs the idea of leftovers being offered as Sunday brunch. 

Krishna Rao asserts “No hotel or restaurant of repute offers leftover food for Sunday brunch or any buffet. With FSSAI norms in place, it is not possible for any eating out establishment to do this.”   

Another belief is that the restaurateurs organize the buffet table in such a manner that the expensive dishes are placed at the end of the service table because the guests normally take only f r o m the first few dishes on offer at the service table. 

Debabratta declares, “That wouldn’t be an effective strategy as it would lead to wastage anyhow. I’d prefer placing them on live counters to ensure it’s prepared a la minute. It also adds to the entire experience when you see it prepared in front of you.”

Manoj too has a similar view. He states, “There isn’t any good logic in this; for if I have to save the expensive dish I cannot do it this way. A guest who is having buffet would have seen the buffet before hand, and select what he is going to pick. I would rather put the most expensive dish in Live Station form as this would be the star of the buffet and I wouldn’t be wasting /over-producing it.”

Daniel disclosed, “At our hotel we have a structured layout for out buffet. We tend to have live counters which include the carving counters which are the expensive cuts of meats, right in front.”

Krishna avers, “Buffet are always laid visible to the guest and dishes will be placed as per their sequence.  If there is non- vegetarian section, then we place the dishes in a systematic order – like chicken, lamb, fish & prawns. We cannot keep prawns in one corner because we want our customer to relish and come back. Anyone who is going for the buffet needs to check the buffet display before serving themselves.”

Several people tend to look down on buffet due to the notion that here quantity takes precedence over quality. But in the restaurant world, it must be realized that everything has its place and niche. Buffet offers diners a chance to sample multiple menu items in one sitting without going all in one entrée. And sometimes it is fun to pig out! 

But to be fair, is this concept true?   

Manoj is of the view that quality will always surpass quantity. “Quantity may be good for a while but quality is ultimate winner. I may take one dish and enjoyed it fullest if it is of quality and would definitely leave the plate full of 5 dishes if quality isn’t satisfying. And if its quantity with quality… that’s The Best.”

Debabratta states, “Favoring quantity over quality purely depends on the business model adopted. Economies of scale has always worked in a hotel industry because we cater to a large number of guests, however, quality is equally important. One cannot be compromised for the other. I personally believe that quality thrives over quantity. Small portions of a really delicious dish can be more satisfying than more of not so tasty food.”

Daniel too refutes this concept. He asserts, “This is certainly not true. We believe good quality food will always be appreciated over quantity in the long run. Guests would initially be excited seeing the quantity on display but if the taste and quality is not consistent, they would never come back.”

However, Krishna concedes that there are a few chains operating on the belief that quantity is more important than quality. He states, “As an individual, I would personally go in for quality. If I have to invite a group of people, I look for both, quality & quantity with value for money.”

Planning Buffet Menu

Planning a proper menu is one of the essential things to make the buffet a success. Which cuisines would be preferred by the guests, the ingredients to be used, etc. are things which the chefs and F&B managers have to plan ahead carefully. So how do different hotels manage this?   

Sagar says “Planning of menu requires proper strategy. The hotels have to decide the target clients who are going to opt for buffet and organize the menu accordingly. In today’s world where the healthy eating and fitness is the majority goal, the chef has to keep a variety of options to satisfy different palates.”

He further added, “Variety of the buffet is always appreciated and is the only way to regularize the guests at the restaurants. Apart f r o m North Indian now day’s hotels always keep International Salads & Soups. The most preferred cuisines are Continental, European, Thai, Vietnam, Japanese, Malaysian, Provincial cuisines.”

Debabratta reveals, “Buffet menu requires a lot of planning and modification based on past experiences and trends. It has to have a variety, not only in the cuisine but also the colours. It has to be appealing to the eyes first which attract the guests. It’s a mix of both cold and hot choices, soups, salad counters, breads, main course, dessert etc. The best thing about buffets is that it offers multiple cuisines. South Indian, coastal cuisine, heritage dishes and roasts are preferred.” 

Krishna states, “Menus normally have a weekly cyclic circle. Change occurs if some ingredients are not available. Normally the menu comprises of multi cuisines, with Indian being the major part. Pan Asian takes the next priority. Besides that one can also add Italian, Mexican, and Lebanese. All this would depend on the kind of clientele that visit the hotel regularly.” 

Daniel declares, “Hotels generally plan their buffet menus where Indian cuisine is showcased extensively like North Indian, South Indian, Maharashtrian, Rajasthani, etc. At JW Marriott Bengaluru, we also have other cuisines like Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Malaysian, Western, Mediterranean, etc.  The popularity of the cuisine dictates its presence at the buffet.”

Manoj says, “Generally buffets has multicuisine food base and that becomes the novelty factor. A lot of other factors like seasonal ingredients, budgets/food cost to be maintained, taste of the target client, geographical factor (local cuisine) play a vital role in planning buffet menus. Apart f r o m Indian cuisine, other cuisines mostly enjoyed are Chinese, Thai, Italian and Mediterranean. Buffet menus are generally done on cyclic basis in set of 6 or 8 menus wherein same menu is not repeated on same day. And it consists of starters/salad/soup/mains/desserts pattern.”

Pros and Cons of Buffet 

Enter a restaurant buffet and you'll be faced with an overwhelming choice of appetizers, salads, vegetables, roasts, seafood, breads, rolls and desserts. This leaves on wondering how these restaurants are able to earn profit f r o m buffets and what are the pros and cons of a restaurants serving buffet? 

Debabratta disclosed, “Proper planning is of utmost important for a buffet. We must pay careful attention to guests’ preferences; highest consumed dishes etc. and plan the next menu accordingly. Preparation in large quantities ahead of time, reducing wastage and striking a balance between the cost and quality of the food can go a long way in making buffets profitable.”

The pros and cons of serving buffet are:

Pros

  • Helps to cater to a larger crowd, Convenience of handling bigger operation with buffet theme.
  • Helps keep costs low, especially the labour cost, better profitability.
  • Guests get a variety of cuisine and dishes to choose f r o m.
  • Rotation of stock of food is faster thus risk of food spoilage is controlled.
  • It’s the ideal 4 course meal that comprises of soups, salads, main-course and dessert.

Cons

  • High margins on drinks.
  • It leads to the wear & tear of crockery, cutlery and glass.
  • More space required for buffet set up.
  • More operational equipments and challenge to keep them in working and presentable condition.
  • Wastage of food is likely more.

Daniel declares, “We balance our buffets by having cyclic menus and strictly follow production cycles based on bookings. This ensures that food wastage is minimized. We have very good feedback on our buffets but we have to keep innovating to keep our guests excited to keep coming back. Guests want to see a mix of comfort food and some new dishes regularly.”


Krishna claims, “Profitability is a number game. When you have more footfalls than expected it works out.  We can cater to larger numbers in buffet, serving fresh and hot food prepared in batches.”   
Sagar says “Profitability is achieved by laying unique food as compared to the competitors. Hotels have started offering not only increased number of dishes to sate the diners’ appetite but also colour combinations to make the dishes more appealing.”

Future of Buffets 

Buffet style of food service has become a norm for several established eating out places because it is easy, efficient and fast for the kitchen staff. But what may be a perceived efficiency in one respect could, inadvertently, be leading to a much greater inefficiency: food waste.  

So what is the future of this trend?

Krishna is of the view that the word, ‘buffet’ would remain but concepts would change. 

Daniel feels “Buffets are here to stay. Guest would always appreciate buffets since they offer 5 course meal at reasonable price.”

Debabratta is also of the same opinion. He states, “Buffets are evolving and adding local cuisine to their menu. In the future they may be accompanied by music, entertainment or themed decoration. Guests will continue to patronize buffets, which would soon become one of the best outings for the family and friends.”

Manoj believes that in the future they would have Live and interactive stations and less of chaffing fish food. He adds, there would be creative and new style of presentation like induction buffets etc. There would be more of individuals and miniature presentation; less of bulky stuff. 

With almost everyone believing that buffets are here to stay what one can expect in future is possibly ways being devised to avoid food wastage. Reducing food waste in hotels isn’t rocket science. It’s a matter of rethinking past practices, embracing new approaches and implementing relatively simple solutions. 

The first step to reducing food waste is to start measuring food waste. By consistently tracking waste, a site can identify how much and where food goes to waste. In order for any food waste-reduction program to be successful, management must work to catalyze a culture shift among employees. 
There is, however, little doubt that buffets will stay.

So have a hearty appetite and take your pick of the lavish spread laid out for breakfast, lunch and dinner at various eating out places. Bon appetite! 
 

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