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).

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