Hotels & Lodging

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With Breakfast Buffets a Casualty of COVID-19, What Will Replace Them?

3 Jun, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
A Big Selling Point for Team Hotels is History, at Least for the Time Being

At first glance, it seems a minor point: buffet-style restaurants will cease to be offered, at least for the foreseeable future, in the ongoing pandemic.

America has bigger things to worry about, after all.

But when you consider that such setups have become a dependable mainstay, particularly for breakfasts in the hotels teams popular with youth sports teams, it’s worth it to ask what will replace them.

According to CNN, the whole conundrum started all the way back in mid-March, when the US Food and Drug Administration answered a social distancing question on its website: "How do I handle self-service food buffets such as salad bars in a retail setting related to COVID-19?"

While stating there was no evidence to support the transmission of the virus from food or food packaging, the FDA said it recommended "discontinuing self-service buffets and salad bars until these measures are lifted." Later, on an April call to discuss the best practices food and beverage industry members could take, Frank Yiannas, the FDA's Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, gave a more blunt directive.

Retailers should "discontinue operations such as salad bars, self-service buffets or beverage service stations that require customers to use common utensils or dispensers," he said.

The FDA has also recommended ending buffet-style and other self-service food service including fast food soda and ice tea stations.

While buffets have fallen in popularity among Millennials, there is still a strong contingent of parents who patronize hotels that offer them, particularly as breakfasts in the morning before teams head out. In fact, in an SDM article on hotel negotiations and planning, Nic Colins of HBC Event Services noted that this is one of the most popular and in-demand amenities offered.

As states gradually reopen, so do restaurants. Many are using reduced capacity and others are still take-out and delivery only. But, CNN notes, when it comes to the eventual reopening of salad bars or buffets, if they come at all, the challenge will be maintaining social distancing in order to minimize direct person to person spread, said Erin DiCaprio, a virologist who specializes in community food safety at the University of California, Davis. Along with installing "sneeze guards" in places that don't already have them, staffers should plan on switching out commonly used utensils to minimize cross-contamination risks, DiCaprio told CNN.

"Where feasible, perhaps provide single use utensils for dishing out food," said DiCaprio, who also recommends installing hand sanitizing stations at the start of self-serve food lines and continued mask wearing.

So if the buffet gets sidelined, what will take its place? Some restaurant chains already have plans in place:

"We are prepared to temporarily provide our guests an enjoyable Golden Corral experience delivered in new ways, including cafeteria-style, where we serve you on our buffet lines, or family-style, where our servers bring an endless buffet of Golden Corral favorites to your table," the company says on its website.

Arden’s Kountry Kafe & Katering told First Coast News they had made some changes to their format. “We only allow two people at each side of the buffet at one time” Arden de Saussure said. They change out the serving utensils every 15 minutes. We did away with the salad bar, took away the dessert bar and tweaked it all down so we could focus mainly on the customers so they could feel comfortable.”

The restaurant has also discontinued some items on the main buffet.

“Some days it’s a little challenging but people wait their turn. They respect that,” Michelle de Saussure said.

Other restaurants have made changes, including offering “family style” meals, where large portions of main dishes and sides are brought to the table by a server and passed from person, and cafeteria-style, where workers put food on plates as people pass through.

Whether either of these options will work in hotels where traditionally, hotel patrons have gathered to eat breakfast (something that may not be possible anyway, with social distancing restrictions) means that hotels may have to try other options, including foregoing the sit-down option and offering boxed meals (with all contents labeled) or “grab and go” stations with a staff member who can drop pre-wrapped offerings into bags or onto boxes held by team members.

The Points Guy, which did one of the most complete reviews of the subject (found below, in bullet points), included input from a variety of hotel authorities. Many hotel companies, the article noted, aren’t yet providing clear answers, but are trying to remind guests that they’re doing everything in their power to maintain cleanliness:

  • “For instance, a Marriott spokesperson told TPG the “planned changes in food and beverage operations include the [spacing] of furniture to facilitate social distancing, signage and food preparation and distribution. These would work hand in hand with other operational changes being implemented now and in the future throughout our properties.”
  • As for Hilton? As part of their new CleanStay initiative, expect “enhanced cleaning and other changes to buffets, in-room dining and meeting spaces.” That rollout will begin worldwide in June, although it’s not clear what exactly guests can expect. A spokesperson said some interim changes are in place and more permanent changes are coming, but those plans are still in development.
  • A spokesperson for Hyatt told TPG that at “full-service hotel restaurants with a buffet, hotels have temporarily shifted to à-la-carte menus and made-to-order options. For select-service hotels with a breakfast buffet, hotels have shifted to individually prepackaged items.” Of course, there are sure to be more changes.
  • IHG hotels said that, as part of their new safety protocols, hotels will move to “assisted-serve instead of self-serve buffets,” and that beverage stations will be replaced with beverage service. Guests will also find disposable or laminated menus for sanitizing and disinfecting, and staff will sanitize all tables and chairs between each guest. Social distancing will also be practiced through the placement of tables.”

It may be that many hotels take their cue from cruises, where buffets are a longstanding tradition. “The idea that you’re going to have a buffet that everybody reaches in and everybody touches the same tong, I think it’s very likely that you’re not going to see that on land or sea,” Royal Caribbean Cruises chairman and CEO Richard Fain said during a recent call with travel agents and analysts. “But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a buffet.”

While, for some, the appeal of taking whatever food they want, in whatever amount they want, without feeling self-conscious, is part of the appeal of the buffet, change will be inevitable. And like many other aspects of travel, it will necessitate adjustments on the part of consumers.

And, notes the blog, SCMP, “the classic buffet experience – touching 100 communal tongs and spoons to stack piles of food onto your fifth plate – is likely to be a relic of a time before the coronavirus, before consumers started to make decisions based on safety more than anything else.”

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