The Future Of Buffets And Salad Bars After The Coronavirus Pandemic

Garin Pirnia

For decades, self-serve salad bars and buffets have been ingrained in the American dining experience. But now, with the coronavirus threatening to contaminate buffet surfaces, the pandemic has upended salad bar chains, all-you-can-eat Indian and Chinese buffets, cruise ship and casino buffets, hotel breakfast bars and self-serve prepared food bars at grocery stores.

On May 7, the buffet industry had its first casualty when Souplantation ― or Sweet Tomatoes as the chain is known outside of Southern California ― permanently closed its 97 locations. Was this a harbinger of things to come?

Not exactly. As restaurants across the U.S. reopen for dine-in service, these food bars continue to exist but have morphed into different concepts.

A closed Sweet Tomatoes restaurant in Las Vegas pictured on May 10 amid the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo: Ethan Miller via Getty Images)

For instance, Golden Corral has adapted to cafeteria-style and family-style dining at most (but not all) of its locations. Instead of customers serving themselves at the buffet line, an attendant dishes out the food for them. Some items, like desserts, are pre-portioned for customers to grab themselves.

A representative for Golden Corral told HuffPost that in most locations, soft-serve ice cream machines have been suspended. “In parts of the country where self-service is permitted, we provide protective paper napkins next to the machine so that our guests do not have to touch the metal lever to dispense their soft-serve ice cream,” said the representative. “We are also sanitizing guest touch points at a minimum of every 30 minutes.”

The judge-free zone was one of the best things about salad bars. ... That ritualistic part of going up and getting as much as you want and how you want it now gets lost in translation. Jason Vaughn, CEO of Frisch's Restaurants

The representative said that so far, customers like the new approach. “The feedback on our cafeteria-style service model has been extremely positive. Our guests appreciate the personalized service and the added sanitation measures we’ve put in place.”

When asked how long Golden Corral plans to continue this new type of service, President and CEO Lance Trenary told HuffPost that it’s “still not clear what the ‘new normal’ for all of us will be,” promising the brand will “adapt to meet [customers’] needs and exceed their expectations.”

At most locations of Golden Corral, self-serve has shifted to cafeteria-style, where employees serve dishes of food for customers, who aren't allowed to handle serving utensils. (Photo: jetcityimage via Getty Images)

Sizzler, which is known for its steaks and its long-running Craft Salad Bar, has begun reopening dine-in service, beginning with Arizona. The salad bar, however, will now be brought tableside. “With this new format, guests can choose their Sizzler favorites and one of our employees, who has been trained to follow additional safety techniques and precautions, will assemble guests’ selections and serve directly at their table,” Forbes Collins, Sizzler USA’s chief operations officer, told HuffPost. “As time goes by, we will continue to reevaluate different solutions based on the needs of our guests. It’s a fluid situation, and we plan to stay fluid.”

Since the 1970s, Sizzler has offered its salad bar to customers. But with the pandemic expected to last more than a year, what does the future of Sizzler’s salad bar look like? “While we understandably have our concerns, the thought of Sizzler guests not being able to make their favorite salad bar creation their way is something we aren’t ready to come to terms with,” Collins said. “But public health comes first. Even during these unprecedented times, we are confident that we can still provide our guests with a memorable Craft Salad Bar experience, safely. In fact, there’s even potential that some guests might enjoy this version better.”

In Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, Frisch’s Big Boy operates a total of 110 locations. Starting on May 20, the hamburger chain with a soup, salad and breakfast bar will reopen with “frictionless” dine-in service at two locations in Indiana. On May 27, nine Ohio locations will reopen, and every seven to nine days about 10 other locations will return for dine-in. Frisch’s has offered its Soup, Salad ’n Fruit Bar since 1982, but its entire self-serve format changed in mid-March. Akin to Sizzler and Golden Corral, Frisch’s salad bar has a new iteration.

“We’re not going to open up the salad bars right away,” Jason Vaughn, Frisch’s CEO, told HuffPost. “We’re going to have build-your-own salad. You can create your own — whatever guests want on it that normally comes from our salad bar. We’re going to prepare it in the back of the house and have a food runner bring it out to them.”

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Before the coronavirus, patrons at a Sizzler in Atwater Village, California, helped themselves at the salad bar. Sizzler has since converted to tableside salad service. (Photo: Richard Hartog via Getty Images)

Vaughn jettisoned cafeteria-style service, because he didn’t think customers would feel comfortable with employees wearing PPE and dishing food onto their plates. “If you were to walk up to our salad bar and someone was in a mask and gloves, would you be OK with that?” he said. “Right now the sentiment seems to be, probably not. So let’s just prepare it safely in the back of the house, in the kitchen.”

In the past, a person could build their own salad with whatever weird combinations they wanted (and how much they wanted), without worrying about an employee judging them. “I thought the judge-free zone was one of the best things about salad bars,” Vaughn said. “I’ve always enjoyed watching friends and families talking to each other about what they were going to put on their salad and what they like and how they like to mix it. That ritualistic part of going up and getting as much as you want and how you want it now gets lost in translation.”

If Frisch’s self-serve food bar does return, what would it look like?

If and when it does come back — and I happen to believe a version of it will come back — I think there will be an attendant making fresh salad for someone and the customer is picking and choosing the ingredients they want in it and someone is making it for them, is how I foresee it coming back,” Vaughn said.

But what about going back to the days when you could do your own thing with your own two hands? “If that ever comes back, it’s a long time from now,” Vaughn said.

At Culver City, California’s Mayura Indian Restaurant, which specializes in cuisine from the southern Indian state of Kerala, co-owner Padmini Aniyan had to shut down dine-in a few days before “Top Chef” aired an episode that featured the restaurant. Thankfully, Aniyan was able to pivot to carryout and delivery, and based on health guidelines, she hopes to reopen dine-in in mid-June.

However, the lunchtime buffet, which highlighted dishes not offered on the regular menu, won’t be returning then, or anytime soon. “We are not going to open the buffet until the situation is 100% safe,” Aniyan told HuffPost. “Not until the coronavirus is gone or a vaccination comes, because now the priority is 100% safety for our employees and our guests.”

When Mayura does resume dine-in, customers can expect something special: thali. The South Indian preparation entails 12-15 small portions of food set on a platter for individual servings. “I don’t think anyone is comfortable to go to the buffet,” Aniyan said. “Once the restaurant reopens, I know a lot of people will show up. We’ll try to block them from doing something that will create some friction in the crowd. It’s not good for anyone. That’s why we decided not to start the buffet soon. At the same time, we want to make guests happy with all the items they used to try from the buffet.”

The buffet used to be a traditional part of dining at some Indian restaurants, and Aniyan said it was a communal experience for her guests. “It’s hard,” she said. “We used to do so many celebrations here, like special Indian festivals. We had long, long lines here, and long waits. But we are going to miss all those things, at least for some time.”

It's unclear what small delis and grocery stores will do with their prepared foods buffets. (Photo: Lucas Oleniuk via Getty Images)

How grocery stores like Whole Foods will bring back their salad bar, olive bar and hot food bar remains to be seen. Whole Foods declined to comment, but Robbie Goldstein, an infectious disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, told WGBH he thinks groceries should get rid of the self-serve model and suggested customers stick to prepackaged food. Another option might be reopening the bars but having an employee constantly wipe down surfaces and supervise the area.

Salad bars and buffets, as we knew them a few months ago, have disappeared ... for now. But Vaughn offered a glimmer of hope, saying he believes food bars could return similar to pre-COVID-19 form, contingent on establishments like Frisch’s gaining the public’s trust.

“I think the customer has to trust the brand that they’re going to do it right and safe, and if and when it opens back up, they see that every precaution is being taken,” Vaughn said. “Then there’s certainly a chance. I’m not about to say it can never come back. Never say never.”

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