Hilton's Emma Banks on the future of the hotel buffet restaurant

The VP F&B strategy & development for EMEA says COVID-19 has changed it forever

COVID-19, Hilton

As the COVID-19 pandemic took its firm grip on the globe earlier this year and brought the hospitality industry to a virtual hard stop, one of the immediate reactions and predicted outcomes was the much loved and commercially successful buffet was dead.

The buffet had continued to prove popular and a necessary business model to serve thousands of guests in busy resorts where customers enjoyed the convenience and variety of helping themselves at the numerous and often extravagant self-serve buffet counters and stations. Added to this business model and equation is that the buffet breakfast is, in many cases, viewed as the only way to serve hundreds of guests in resorts and properties at peak times, and guests really do enjoy the luxury of a full buffet breakfast, coupled with lavish buffet-style brunches at the weekends or afternoon teas.

Buffets are often seen as key at events both leisure and MICE, often involving huge gourmet extravaganzas at weddings and special events. In many countries the buffet and sharing style is deeply entrenched in eating cultures and traditions, particularly in Asia and some parts of Africa.

Take into account that thousands of hotels around the world have traditional all-day-dining restaurants housing large buffet counters and in the current downturn the prospect of simply ripping these out and rebuilding a different style of predominately a breakfast room is not practical, coupled to this is the back of house and equipment investment also required to support a new style of culinary operation.

The buffet has continued to survive the debates of hygiene, as the huge and clear majority of operators have always put health and cleanliness as the key operational priorities and therefore managed levels of food on the buffets to ensure freshness and safe rotation processes, as well as first class back and front-of-house hygiene practices and infrastructures.

Apart from safety and sanitisation, the buffet was having to adapt to the very clear signals from guests that food waste was high on the agenda and that lavish displays right up to the final minute of a buffet’s closure resulting in disposing of food were and are indeed totally unacceptable from a moral and environmental standpoint.

The buffet was slowly starting to adapt to the calls on hygiene and waste. And to some guests’ desire for a more curated breakfast or meal option. Hotels began to respond, designing and building their all-day restaurants to flex to these trends. They were capable of delivering a buffet breakfast, serving an à la carte lunch and a dinner service involving large parts of the restaurant to be sealed off, with strategic design and lighting elements incorporated within the space to improve the look and feel of the restaurant, as well as creating a more intimate lunch or dinner experience.

The buffet evolution and debate rumbled on in a procrastinated fashion and then a crisis hit… Was the buffet over?

“When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters – one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity,” said John F Kennedy. Reflecting on this, now is the time of opportunity to force change and evolve the slightly outdated buffet model and really address the issues of hygiene, waste, experience and theatre.

So, what are the hotel operators to do? We have seen so many operators, such as Hilton, respond with programmes such as CleanStay and Hilton Event Ready to ensure that heightened safety measures and precautions are 100 percent in place to make guests feel safe and event bookers trust venues to host their meetings and events once again.

These programmes from operators have received significant exposure and guests that are willing and comfortable to travel once again are responding very favourably to these highly visible new practices and procedures. Let’s look closely at what has happened to the buffet amongst these big cleanliness and safety programmes and review the changes. Gone are the self-serve stations with communal tongs, where guests jostle and elbow each other at peak times. They’re replaced by spaced-out directional flow staff-served stations that offer either small single plated items or assisted stations.

The increased number of served stations and live cooking allows the guests to interact with chefs and hotel staff, to ask questions and increase engagement between the property employees and the guests. Operators are looking at fun, innovative and interactive ways to present buffets such as vertical buffet stations, interesting single covered plating items such as beautiful bento boxes and little cast iron pots, housing a full traditional breakfast that the guest can just grab and go at the hot counter. The outdated cloche may make a return, but many vendors are now supplying beautiful updated models for operators to protect food from air water droplets.

Guest fl\ow at the counters is being managed with strategically placed planters, artwork and loose furniture to allow the space to appear more interesting, and the new spaced out dining tables to allow for physical distancing does lend itself to a less chaotic breakfast period and perhaps more relaxed affair for the guest.

Some operators benefiting from busy staycation business or domestic leisure travel are having to control peak buffet periods with restaurant bookings and time slots, which at first may seem inconvenient to the guest, but it does allow for a less frenzied breakfast experience and fight for a table or buffet counter space.

Guests are adapting to these new measures and appreciating the new safety protocols. Increased cleaning and sanitisation have only increased hygiene levels and, in some cases, screens are being installed for extra protection. Back of house have implemented even higher levels of cleaning and hygiene, physical distancing of staff, many wearing face coverings alongside their front of house colleagues. The crisis strengthens the case for improved air quality systems in restaurants and kitchens.

Kitchens will also benefit from potential further investment in automatic lighting that is sensor rather than switch controlled, cooking equipment that can be voice activated and increased thermal sterilisation in pot wash areas reducing in sink washing. There will be increased use of anti-bacterial stainless-steel wall cladding instead of glazed tiles and measures to eliminate as many hand contact surfaces as possible. All this can only improve and benefit already high hygiene practices.

Whilst the extra measures and increased staff numbers have increased costs of the buffet operation, this is far more realistic and practical than a full restaurant and business model redesign. Hotels need to entice their guests back and these measures are key to encouraging guests to travel and stay in the new norm. Longer term, I believe that the buffet restaurant design will evolve and adapt further.

The pandemic has challenged the hospitality industry like nothing else, but necessity is the mother of invention and I believe the crisis will allow the buffet to reinvent itself and become what it needs to be.

Based at Hilton’s MEA Regional Office in Dubai, Emma Banks is responsible for F&B strategy and development across EMEA, supporting Hilton’s trading and future pipeline of hotels.

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