The general definition of the word buffet is a meal consisting of several dishes from which guests serve themselves. This, clearly, means many high-touch surfaces and objects. It also entails the congregation and contact with others around food stations. There was a time during the pandemic peak when restaurants and hotels offering buffet services had to shut operations. But they are back with all safety norms.
But with food businesses getting back on track, consumers are now likely to opt for the buffet services. However, some important questions still persist. Can we find innovative ways to re-introduce the buffet and create a unique customer experience? Can we create the perception of high touch in a low touch environment?
Hyderabad-based Ohri’s group have three buffet concept brands, namely Ohri's Eatmor, Sahib's BBQ by Ohri's and Nautaki Galli by Ohri's. The Executive Director, Amar Ohri informed that while the business was paused for a while, it was restarted back in November - December 2020.
“We have had a very positive response from our guests for our buffets. Our internal research does state that the positive response can be attributed to the decades-long trust in the brand,” he added.
Ohri's have been in the restaurant business for over four decades and have seen an interesting shift in the preferences of the guests. Especially when the city of Hyderabad turned into an IT/ ITES hub, there was a huge shift in the behaviour pattern towards buffets opting over A’la carte.
But to operate the buffet of the future, operators within these purpose-driven spaces are going to need to invest time and financial resources in redesigning the layout and flow in addition to increasing the number of visible cooking stations to ease that level of fear and anxiety.
Abhimanyu Maheshwari, Founder and CEO of Zing Restaurants that has just launched a buffet restaurant Asia! Asia! Asia!, told that the popular buffet brands are back to 80-90 percent of pre-covid levels depending on specific geographies (not all), which is comparable to A’la carte numbers.
Profitability over A’la carte
Ohri believes that buffets are typically a profitable affair only if they are present at a high footfall location where the table turnaround is higher. Otherwise, they could prove to be a bit expensive affair and can result in a lot of wastage too.
Thus, the choice of the restaurant type should be based on the demand and sentiment of the area. Restaurant operations generically owe their sustenance in revenues and profits to the delicate balance between buffet setups (harnessing the power of the bundling strategy) and regular a la carte menus. That buffets are far more profitable than A’la carte menus is indisputable, however, having a slick balance between the two is the trick to maintaining consistent revenue streams and profitability.
“A format is always married to a location to gauge its profitability. At a unit economics level, A’la carte format is probably more profitable. At the risk of strict generalization, a la carte formats rely on churning a greater margin per customer, whereas buffets look at volumes - smaller profits per customer but spread over a larger base,” added Maheshwari.
What’s scene with in-hotel restaurants
To cater to the current need, Novotel Hyderabad Airport has changed the layout of its restaurant to ensure social distancing norms are maintained and all the equipment’s on the buffet counter are changed and sterilized after every 30 minutes. Also, the entire range of cutlery and crockery are sterilized in a specially designed UV cabinet to ensure the hygiene and safety of the guests.
“Buffets are definitely integral to hotel business as it brings in better footfalls into the hotel which in turn helps us optimize our food and beverage revenues on a daily basis,” commented Rubin Cherian, General Manager, Novotel Hyderabad Airport.
Similarly, JW Mariott Kolkata has witnessed a surge in the number of guests, especially for buffets. So is the buffet model a profitable business when compared to A’la carte?
Buffet requires fewer employees and a manageable service period cutting the costs. “It is definitely profitable, especially when the number of patrons is more,” said Executive Chef Prakash Chettiyar of JW Marriott Kolkata.
Not to forget that a well-laid buffet is a visual delight, that provides an array of food options to the diners and is convenient for one to pick and choose their favourite delicacies without having to wait for them to be served.
“Through buffets, the cost incurred is less as compared to A’la carte meals. Also, the manpower cost is lesser in the former,” pointed Kush Kapoor, CEO, Roseate Hotels & Resorts.
Whether it’s a revised purpose-driven buffet setting or a pivot move within a local business, efficiency will be key. There may continue to be challenges around seating arrangements, capacity levels, service flow, hygiene, waste, and labour to meet financial requirements. Not to mention the financial investment required to make these changes. However, the trend clearly states that the buffets are back to business.