It was just like the old days.
Customers at New York Pizza & Pasta standing shoulder-to-shoulder Monday afternoon at the eatery’s compact buffet station, all handling the same pizza servers and tongs as they loaded plates with all-you-can-eat pizza, pasta, salad and breadsticks. Each person without a mask.
The only protective equipment was the plexiglass sneeze guards above the food.
This is the busiest the Indian Trail pizzeria has been since it opened 23 years ago, manager Mike Newcamp said. But despite his customers’ eagerness to return to the joys of pre-pandemic life, Newcamp said he’s reluctant to join them.
“Me personally, I don’t eat at (buffets) because of all this,” he said, referring to the pandemic. “I don’t see the reasoning to go eat where everybody touches the things.”
As COVID-19 vaccination rates slowly climb and social distancing norms relax, Charlotte-area buffet restaurants are divided: Some are back to normal or almost-normal, while others remain closed.
Some food safety experts, like two professors at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, also are split.
“I don’t think that any responsible restaurant owner would open up a buffet in the way that it was pre-COVID,” Robert Brener said.
Asked if he would eat at a well-managed buffet, Ray Zoller said in an email, “Yes, I would.”
The return of buffets
New York Pizza & Pasta reopened its buffet early in June, after North Carolina lifted most social distancing restrictions on restaurants. This was the earliest it was financially feasible to do so, Newcamp said, since the buffet requires more indoor diners than the restrictions allowed.
Other restaurants, such as Cicis and Golden Corral in Charlotte, also have resumed all-you-can-eat services, according to their websites. Only a handful of Golden Corrals in other markets continue experimenting with to-go and cafeteria-style options.
Representatives at Cicis and Golden Corral did not respond to Observer requests for comment.
Charlotte-area grocery stores, including Matthews-based Harris Teeter and Publix, also have reopened self-service food bars.
But returning to normalcy isn’t always a straightforward process. In uptown, for instance, two competitors have taken strikingly different approaches.
A 10-minute walk apart, Chima Brazilian Steakhouse and Brazz Carvery & Brazilian Steakhouse both offered a salad bar and carving station before the pandemic hit in March 2020. At dinnertime, both relied on a traditional Brazilian steakhouse model where a server walks from table to table carving slices from the same block of meat.
But Chima and Brazz’s reopening timelines have major differences.
Chima brought back its salad bar and carving station when it reopened last summer, manager Gustavo Lima said. But Brazz didn’t reopen its self-service station until May, owner Mital Naik said.
Brazz still hasn’t returned to the model of ordering cuts from the same slab. Instead, guests order platters of meat cuts, which Naik says is more sanitary.
Other Charlotte-area buffet tables will remain empty for the foreseeable future.
Uptown’s Mimosa Grill, Cherry’s Maharani Indian Cuisine and the university area’s Passage to India and Los Arcos Mexican Restaurant all closed their buffets over COVID-19 concerns and have yet to reopen them, representatives said. None of these places was primarily a self-service restaurant before the pandemic, but they all offered buffet-style lunchtime specials.
Food safety experts disagree
Government agencies discourage, but don’t prohibit, reopening buffets.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends against self-service stations in “communities with sustained transmission of COVID-19.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also lists“avoid(ing) offering self-serve food or drink options” under “considerations” for limiting the spread of the virus.
However, Catie Armstrong, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, pointed out that COVID-19 primarily spreads through coughing or sneezing, close physical contact or touching one’s nose, mouth or eyes with unwashed hands.
“Currently there is no evidence that people can get COVID-19 by eating or handling food,” Armstrong told the Observer in an email, citing the CDC.
Zoller, the Charlotte professor who teaches a course called “The Food Safety Manager,” said that the safeness of any given buffet depends on how well that buffet is maintained.
Heating or reheating food to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit is enough to destroy most bacteria and viruses, including COVID-19, he said. A buffet also will be much safer if it has a fast turnaround between the time the food gets put out and when it’s eaten and replaced.
Asked how safe buffets currently are compared to sit-down restaurants, Zoller said, “That really comes back to the brand and how closely they’re paying attention.”
Brener, Zoller’s colleague who teaches Food Safety & Sanitation Management, disagrees.
“I don’t think that any buffet would necessarily be safe at this time,” Brener said. “I would highly recommend not going to a buffet.”
Brener voiced several concerns about a self-serve setup like the one at New York Pizza & Pasta.
For one thing, he pointed out that customers all handling the same serving utensils could easily spread a pathogen like COVID-19. He was also concerned with the idea of food sitting uncovered in a public space, where it could collect the virus, and expressed disdain at the idea that sneeze guards could really protect against an airborne disease.
“They might protect a runny nose, but they’re not protecting anything that’s being passed through the air,” Brener said.
How to stay safe at buffets
For Brener, keeping customers safe is the business’s responsibility. Instead of shifting back to a self-serve model, Brener recommended that all-you-can-eat restaurants have employees serve their customers from behind barriers. If that’s not an option, split a buffet into several well-spaced serving stations, he said.
Brener also advocated for single-use serving utensils.
Zoller, meanwhile, suggested that customers research buffets’ food safety ratings and look for recent violations, like the ones publicly available on Mecklenburg County’s Inspection Management System. He also recommended washing hands before going to a buffet, and suggested against visiting buffets too long after their peak hours.
“I’m wary of buffets at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, especially in lower-volume facilities. You just don’t know how long that product has been sitting out,” Zoller said.