The Ins-n-Outs of a Buffet Operation

You ever wonder how a buffet restaurant can survive.  I remember a friend told me about an all-you-can-eat Japanese buffet in Vancouver that charged $15 per person.  I couldn’t believe it and the first thing I asked was how it could survive. It never did.  Not only did the restaurant offer the full range of sushi and sashimi, but also unlimited raw oysters.  Now anyone with some common sense could tell you, this would be the dumbest business idea to do.  People were no longer going for the sushi, but they were ordering mass amounts of oysters.  Who wouldn’t for $15?  The restaurant lasted three months.

Then there are the casino buffets that just give away meals for free. How do they do it?  Reality is that many casinos use buffets to draw more traffic into their entertainment venues.  Casinos could care less if they are turning a profit on the buffet.  As long as they are earning money through means of gambling, that is what counts for them.

So how can buffets make money? By keeping in mind some important tips, you can have a profitable buffet.

The Profitable Buffet

Buffets are an instant attraction for people.  You pay one price and you eat what you want and how much you want.  The only thing you have to worry about is making sure your stomach has the capacity to handle it.

Great, but how much can a person actually eat? Maybe 1, 2 or 3 plates if you are really hungry.  One of the most successful Chinese Canadian buffets is the Mandarin.  Focusing on increasing the quality of food and service has lead to surpassing the standards of their competition.

From a business perspective, the Mandarin has designed a sound business plan.  Take for example the dinner price, a $23.99 plus tax buffet meal requires a customer to eat 5-7 full plates of food to receive the full value.  This means any number of plates lower than five increases the profit margin.  If the average person can only eat two plates, the buffet must be earning outrageous money right? Not quite for all buffet operations since the Mandarin is one of few who actually understand the various aspects of running a successful buffet.  Without proper controls and procedures, a buffet may earn significant sales but could end up with low profits or even none.

Ten Steps to a Profitable Buffet

While scanning the Internet, I came across Benjamin Christie, an Australian celebrity chef who blogs.  He placed a recent post called “The Profitable Buffet.”  Coincidentally, I was recently asked to consult for a Chinese Canadian buffet.  As I read the article, I realized everything that an operator should avoid was being practiced in this buffet. From my initial visit, there were clear signs of problems.  Over-portioning, heavy concentrations in deep-fried foods and massive amounts of wastage were affecting the bottom line.  Whole turkeys, blocks of ham, roast beef and sausages to name a few were sitting there waiting for customers to request it. Observing afar, the food was hardly touched.  Even at $8.95 per person, it wasn’t drawing enough customers nor covering the necessary costs of running the business.

Benjamin Christie shares ten steps that you can do to make your buffet succeed.

  1. Purchases ingredients that are in season. Ingredients are not only higher in quality but costs a lot less (i.e. tomatoes in summer versus winter).
  2. Avoid expensive and premium ingredients.  Although high priced items such as oysters or Kobe beef will no doubt attract customers to your buffet, they are not suitable for this particular operation.  Most people who come to a buffet are already satisfied with the selection of food all at one price (i.e. Use frozen chicken bones or canned chicken stock rather than whole chickens)
  3. Source special pricing from suppliers and buy in bulk.  Ensure you are receiving the best prices for your food orders.  Negotiate a price for buying in bulk which may be ideal for frozen goods.  A supplier may offer a discount or even allow flexibility in payment terms.
  4. Create flexible menus.  Having a complex menu requires more ingredients, more time and costs in training and greater organization.  Think of menus that can generate multiple dishes using the same ingredients.  You still can be creative without changing a menu daily.
  5. Serve smaller pre-plated portions.  Desserts, sushi, pastas and salads have become a popular pre-plated item for buffets.  Pre-plating is a great way for chefs to take more control of the servings.  This method has also worked as a psychological barrier where diners may feel embarrassed of asking for multiple servings from the same chef.
  6. Portion control dishes (i.e. carving station).  Train and educate your staff of effective portion control based on the number of portions you have budgeted for.  You may also instruct the chefs at the carving station to serve only one slice of roast beef at a time instead of two to three slices.
  7. Reduce size of serving spoons.  Using large serving utensils can result in a customer taking more food than necessary and increasing the portion size per person.  This will ultimately increase the food cost.
  8. Maximize leftovers if possible by using it the next day or having it for staff meals.  The amount of leftover food at some buffets can be astonishing.  Feed your staff leftovers otherwise see what can be used the next day before throwing it away.  If an item has been sitting there for a longtime, more than likely it cannot be used the next day.
  9. Weigh and record any food wastage.  Calculate and keep track of the amount of food thrown away each day.  This will allow you to decide whether a certain item should be removed from the menu or modified.
  10. Develop strategy to undermine the customer. This method sounds harsh, but may mean be the difference of losing or earning a profit.  Examples of outsmarting the diner could mean offering larger glasses of water so diners fill up faster.  Another method is offering bread once customers are seated.

Conclusion

By following the suggestions presented by Christie, you can turn a buffet into a profitable business.  A business is only as good as it is run.  You have to believe in the concept and understand the ins and outs of the business.  I never did end up consulting for the buffet restaurant.  Sadly, the owners had given up and had no intentions of improving the business.

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One Response to “The Ins-n-Outs of a Buffet Operation”

  1. Carnivals, News, and Costco - Aug 15, 2008 | Million Dollar Journey Says:

    [...] The Restaurant Blogger gives us 10 steps to running a profitable buffet. [...]

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