Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Buffets and Finances

Take a look at this blog article about buffets and finances:


Yours truly was interviewed, this site is referenced, and there are some interesting findings.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The NOT All You Can Eat Buffet

The NOT All You Can Eat Buffet... what would that be? It is the take out buffet and there are many of them - some part of regular All You Can Eat buffets and some that stand on their own.

So how does it work? You are given a Styrofoam tray container as you enter and you go to the serving tables. You fill the container - which is usually about ten inches square and perhaps three or less inches deep with an equally deep lid. Now, if you could fill that container for one price, you would be close to All You Can Carry Out, but not always so. What happens is that in many places the container is weighed by the cashier and you pay by the pound. Usually, the pound price is less than the "all you can eat buffet" price. Sometimes it is significantly less. Sometimes, specific items are either not included, or are more.

"Hmm..." you may be saying, "I know what a pound is - what it feels like, but how much food is that actually?" Obviously, it all depends on what you take. A pound of cooked meat is pretty substantial. So if you would be happy with a pound of chicken for $7.99, that is not bad. A pound of vegetables for $7.99 is not such a deal. A pound of salad - not good at all. Put it all together and you can get a decent meal, but how much of each do you know you are taking? There are never any scales along the way (get it, way - weigh (bad pun, "what pun?)).

There are some things that people take (when they are not extra) that amount to very little by the pound. Crab legs are very popular at Chinese buffets and many of the Chinese buffets offer a Take Out buffet. Some will not include the crab legs or seafood, some do. You are taking the crab legs which are in the shell. The shell weighs a lot. You are not getting not so much to eat in a pound of crab legs. Yet you see people taking the crab legs to go. Sushi is another example, when you need to take the rice with the fish, you are paying for a lot of rice.

Steamed or cold shrimp is a good deal at the by the pound serving. Despite the thin shells, a pound of cooked shrimp is more in substance than a pound of raw shrimp and at the take out buffet price, this is pretty good. Remember this the next time you are having a party and want to serve shrimp cocktail. Go to the Chinese buffet and get a pound of shrimp on the Take Out buffet - IF they let you.

But can you do this? Often, not. Here is an example of a Chinese Take Out buffet in Maryland. The pricing reads - Buffet-To-Go (At least 3 items per pack). Clever. They figured out that a pound of any one thing is greater than the sum of a collective pound of three items. Here the per pound price is $5.95 at dinner ($3.95 for lunch). Seafood and sushi, however, is $7.95 per pound - still not bad at this particular restaurant. (In case you are wondering where this is - it is the Fortune Star Buffet in Rockville, Maryland. I have never been there and do not attest to anything about this restaurant except what is quoted here. I found it on an Internet search for this article.)

It is required that you fit everything that you are taking into the one tray. You could fill two trays, but they usually will not let you take a separate tray for each item, as stated above in our example. The containers are not sectioned. This means that you are piling everything on top of each other, pretty much mixing them together. Not a big deal for those who regularly pile their buffet plates high with everything together until there is no longer any recognition of what anything is or tastes like on its own. However, for the fussy that like to eat things as they were intended - not mixed together, you are either going to take less or give in and mix it up. You are paying by the pound, though I am not sure they are going to let you pay for less than a pound. You will pay if you take more than a pound - and one buffet in Georgia makes a point of saying that there is a three dollar charge for overfilling the container - meaning that the container will not close easily - evidently you are paying by the container there, not by the pound - or what difference would it make how the container closes. Some buffets offer container prices, but will be restrictive on how the food fits into the container, as this one is.

One of the absolutes - by the pound or by the container = is no eating as you are go along. You will be charged for the sit-down buffet price if you start eating as you are going around the buffet tables filling your container.

Not all Take Out buffets are Chinese, and not all Take Out Buffets have All You Can Eat, eat in buffets. One example is the Sbarro chain which is located in 1,000 locations all over the United States, as well as franchises world wide. This is Italian cuisine. Not all Sbarro's have buffet bars, but they do exist. I have seen them in shopping malls, a casino, and food courts at interstate rest areas all along the East Coast and I am certain they are in other parts of the country as well. Here you fill your container at the food bar with Italian specialties - with salad at the beginning, for those so inclined. At the end of the bar is a cashier and scale. You can close up your container and take it home, or you can sit down at one of the tables and eat. BUT there is no going back for more/

There are supermarkets with buffet-style salad bars that have some hot items and you fill a container and pay by the pound at the check out. There usually is a scale at the bar here for you to see how much you are taking - they want no putting back once you get to the checkout aisles to pay.

For the most part, however, - in my findings - most of the take out buffets are Chinese or "International"/Asian. I have found many Indian buffets, pizza buffets, barbecue buffets, etc. that offer take out - but the take out is on a platter/menu basis packaged for you by the restaurant to the restaurant's portions. Some restaurants talk about buffet catering, but this is something altogether very different.

So next time you want buffet, but don't want to eat at the restaurant, see if you can take the buffet out. Let us know your experiences at the Take Out buffets and comment.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Buffet Pricing

I had hoped to be writing about a Chinese buffet in Piscataway, New Jersey, but in looking for it off the exit at I287, we missed finding it by about a half a mile. Never got to eat there - but I was right, saw it on the way back to the Interstate - there was one there. I should be back in the area in a few weeks - and now I know where it is - if I can find it again.

So, instead, I am writing about buffet pricing. How do buffets make a profit offering "all that you CAN (care) to eat"? I will start by stating that what you are about to read is opinion and not based upon interview, questionnaire, or research. But that would not be any fun, now, would it?

One would think that a buffet should go out of business quickly by offering everything for less than $12 (or less) (or more). Some do. Many don't and make a good profit in the process. How do they do it? It is my theory that they count on people not eating as much as they would if the restaurant put the food out on the plate and sent it to the table. What goes to the table at a sit down restaurant cannot come back to the kitchen. BUT in a buffet - it all comes back to the kitchen. It may be reused in some other way - left over roast beef may becomes beef stew. It may get wrapped, refrigerated (I hope), reheated, and put out for lunch the next day. It is also put out based upon the crowd at the time (if it is put out again, at all - as we have written about). For the average person, this theory holds true from my observation. Many people do not take more than they would eat (or get) at a "regular" restaurant. Many eat less. (I will talk about the exceptions later.) What people may do at a buffet is take a variety of foods but when this is all put together in quantity, it is not much more than (if more) than they would have been served to them by a waiter.

Here are some things that I noticed many times when I dined at "family style" restaurants in Pennsylvania (where you are supposed to be eating like the "Pennsylvania Dutch" farmers who have worked in the field the whole day). In these restaurants a waitress brings platters of food to the table and they are passed around by diners in groups of fifteen or more (never just you and yours at a table - but always families and people seated together in large groups). Everyone takes what they want and as much as they want. When the platter is empty, the waitress will ask if she should bring more. Now - here is the psychology. You have filled your plate. You need to ask for the dish to be passed back to you - by strangers - for you to take more. Hmm - a little social pressure now. Some are bold and ask. Others don't - especially when the comments are made that there will be six kinds of dessert coming.

Another thing that these "family-style" restaurants always do is that the first platters to come to the table are bread and some relishes. They are sure to tell you that this is home-baked bread. (Whose home?) But - "WOW!", people are heard to say, "Home baked bread!" That dish is empty before it goes halfway around the table - and the waitress (no comments - they are always waitresses in these restaurants - it's like mother is giving you dinner) will always bring more bread right away - and again the plate goes around. Everyone (except those "knowing" few of us) have filled up on the bread (one of the cheapest things that they can serve) before any of the chicken, ham, beef, sausages, vegetables, potatoes, etc. ever come to the table. And when the potatoes come out - it is the same story - "These are home made mashed potatoes - not from a box. You have to try them!" And those potatoes go around three times. Starch is filling. When you eat the bread and then the potatoes, you are not going to fill your plate with meat a second time. Especially, when you think that SIX deserts are coming (more starch and certainly less costly than meat). Do these restaurants lose money on a meal? Rarely. I am sure that they are well into their profit margin. Several of these restaurants have been around in Lancaster County, PA for more than forty years.

Chinese buffets make out well too over a served Chinese meal. What is often put out in the trays in a Chinese buffet is about what is put out in two or (maybe) three individual table serving platters. This is there for everyone in the restaurant. Count the patrons and count what is out and it is not equal to what would be out if each person ordered and a platter was brought to them. They also are counting on the attraction of diners to rice and noodles, along with popular dishes that have much less meat than vegetables (which is true of most Chinese restaurants - buffets or not). I was in one last week where a guy had to have the crispy snack noodles and was frantic to find them. (With all that was there - why eat the snack noodles?) Again, you fill up on the starch.

What the diner can do well on at an Asian buffet is the Sushi. Sushi costs a lot at non-buffet restaurants (and at Sushi-only buffets). At the Chinese buffet, Asian buffet, or "International" buffet the Sushi is put out along with all of the other variety of dishes - and the price is (seemingly) not effected by the comparative cost of the Sushi. If you make an entire meal out of Sushi you are more than getting your money's worth. An equivalent meal in a regular restaurant would cost much, much more.

What is put out at other than Chinese buffets is limited in quantity as well. This particularly is true of the carvings. When you go up for steak at a buffet, do you get a whole steak? Rarely. You get a piece of steak. You get one or two thin slices (if the slicer knows what he or she is doing) of turkey, roast beef, etc. Yes, you can go back for more. But as I have written about in the past, many people fill their plate (everything on top of everything else) because they do not want to get up again. In these instances the restaurant is making out. It is also the case at many buffet restaurants is that prices are higher on nights when there are "special" features - seafood nights especially.

Now, there are the exceptions. There are some incredibly large people who frequent buffets because, frankly, they could not get enough to keep themselves satisfied in any other restaurant. (No digs - but it is true - just look around the room at most buffet chains. (Not often the case at Chinese buffets - not sure why not.) These people take much more for their $11.49 than others. (My wife had a cousin, who it was joked about that if he went into an all you can eat restaurant, the owner would faint. - JUST A JOKE - NEVER REALLY HAPPENED!) Conceivably, if all the patrons at a buffet ate as these people do, the restaurant would not be able to get by. It does not seem to be a problem though. (Though it may be a myth, but I have heard stories of buffets telling people - "no more". I do not think that this is true because it would result in a great law suit.) We did have one of our readers comment once that he was told that he could not leave the rice over in his plate after eating the fish of the sushi - and that if he took the sushi he had to eat the rice with the fish. Again - starch fills.

Another thing about buffet dining that leads to profit is turn over of tables. In a regular restaurant the meal is paced by the kitchen and the wait staff. In a buffet, the food is there - you start eating just as soon as you have a table. The meal is usually faster (though it does not have to be, as referenced in our "Rules") at a buffet. The tables turn over more rapidly and the room is usually filled on Friday and Saturday nights - almost the whole night from the moment dinner time starts until closing. Apply this to what I have written above, and the buffets are making a profit.

So there it is. Please remember, "All that you can eat is not a challenge!" Again, these are my theories. Buffet owners are invited to comment (as is everyone else).

Friday, February 09, 2007

Has Buffet Dining Become Too Informal?

When I was growing up in the 1950's and 60's ("Oh, now we know he is old!"), dining out at a restaurant was something special. It did not matter if it was the corner family restaurant or some place fancy - it was still special. There were certain manners that were to be exhibited. There was a certain behavior that was expected. In the restaurant you spoke quietly. You were to keep your attention to the people at your own table. This was wear the "inside voice" that your Kindergarten teacher taught you was to be used.

For the most part in most restaurants this all seems to still exist - with the exception of buffet restaurants. Now, I need to state right off from the beginning here that what I am observing in buffets may (perhaps) just be observed in New York buffets. I say this because much of what I will describe as "too informal" I do not see in buffet restaurants outside of New York - and I have been to many. What the conclusion may be - before I even start - is that people in New York are too informal in buffet restaurants - and it is New York that is the common factor in the equation of the various types of people dining in the buffet restaurants. But that said, I shall continue.

How come in buffets people look upon dining as a community event? They talk between tables. Entire long, loud, and detailed conversations take place in a section of the dining room among people who are unrelated. This does not happen in other restaurants (even in New York) with the exception of a few comments or pleasantries exchanged. In buffets it is common.

Everyone laughing at a table is the sign of a good time out - wonderful! But, does that laughing need to be so loud and constant that everyone in the restaurant's attention is drawn to it. I am not looking to dine quietly, but it is often impossible to carry on a personal conversation with the people at my own table over the noise coming from a table at the other side of the room.

I wonder if it is the ability to get up and walk around to go to the buffet tables that leads to the informality. If one can leave the table and move about, then perhaps one forgets that this is a restaurant - and therefore, all the manners of being in a restaurant do not apply. I have not seen these things in fast food restaurants - and if there is any place informal, it is McDonald's and Burger King.

Two weeks ago I spoke in the update to the Rules of the Buffet that someone brought a hamster into a buffet and then set the box with the hamster down onto their table, opening the box to play with the hamster -and then moving around the room with the hamster to show it off. Could this have happened in any other type of restaurant - without this person and the animal being tossed out? I am going to hope not. It happened at a buffet.

I will go back again to my beginning speculation - about this all being a New York phenomenon. There are not many buffet restaurants in New York. There is only the Old Country Buffet chain and those are few and far between. There are Chinese buffets scattered about. Perhaps the buffet experience is too unusual for average, every day New Yorkers - and, therefore, they do not know that what applies in all other restaurants applies at the buffet as well. They come in and see it as a large eating playground - and not just the kids. They think that it is like being at home - you get up and serve yourself - so what you might do at home is ok to do in the buffet restaurant - speak and laugh as loud as you want, yell across the room, put your hands into the serving dish. No , you are not at home.

There do seem to be some people who understand that they are dining out - and they present themselves with proper and polite manners and decorum. They have paid good and hard earned money for a night out and expect restaurant behavior from those around them. And it for this minority that I speak out here.

I shall not go on, as anymore would be beating the dead horse to further death. Perhaps the informality is not a New York thing, and those of you in other States have seen this too. Maybe the many buffets that I have been to outside of New York have just been the exceptions. Buffets do get a bad reputation and are often referred to jokingly in television comedies. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why. Use the comments here to speak out and let us know what your experience and observations have been.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Three from the Sea at OCB

I have tried the new special feature at Old Country Buffet and I do have to admit that it is better than Shrimp, Shrimp, Shrimp. Three from the Sea is the new feature served on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. As the name implies this is a seafood combination that includes fish, crab, and shrimp (naturally).

The fish is called Butter Crunch Alaskan Pollack. It is not bad. It is the best of the three and far surpasses the other fish dishes that Old Country Buffet has served to date. This is thin strips of pollack fillets, a light, white fish, that is coated in a very light crusting. It is broiled (or baked) in what is presumed to be butter from the name - but the butter (or whatever) was not overwhelming. It had a nice mild taste and I went back for more.

The crab is crab cakes or what should be called here "mock crab pancakes" are thin patties of fake crab meat (it did not have the texture, the color, or the taste of real crab, but more resembled "sea legs" which is what it must be). There is a lot of breading and a few pieces of green pepper chopped in. All of this is broiled and comes out as flat disks about thee inches in diameter. The taste was ok, but these were not crab cakes as anyone would expect. The Maryland shore has nothing to worry about here.

The shrimp was Orange Shrimp. It is exactly the same as OCB's Orange Chicken but made with shrimp. This is breaded shrimp that is fried and then mixed into an orange glaze with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. These were ok at first, but after a few became too sweet and I wound up peeling away the coating to get to the shrimp inside. I have had the Orange Chicken and liked it. This was sweeter. Perhaps the shrimp is not enough to carry the orange sauce.

While the name of the feature says "Three" from the sea, there was also fried clam strips. The ones that were out when I took them were burnt - and as a result were terrible. I could not finish the few that I took to taste. Later in the evening more were brought out and these did not look burnt. They may have been better tasting - but the first batch put me off them and I did not take more - even to try.

While this is feature is being served the regular items have not seemed to be discarded. On this Thursday night they were still carving beef brisket and ham and beef ribs were served. Despite the lack of signs about steak, there was still steak being served. Of course, there was regular fried shrimp as well. (Somebody at OCB corporate must love shrimp!)

So all in all, Three from the Sea, is ok. It is worth a try, if for nothing but the pollack.