Friday, May 04, 2007

CiCi's Pizza Buffet - THIS TIME I ATE THERE!

I have been writing about Cici's Pizza Buffet ever since I heard about one on a cable ad. There are none in my area - though they are all over the country. The closest is in Maryland and on my recent trip south I knew before I left that I was going to find that Cici's. The Cici's that I went to is located in Hagerstown, Maryland - and this does seem to be the closest one to the northeast region of the United States.

So was the wait (and the trip) worth it? Well... I have to say a kind of yes. So you ask, what does that mean? Was it good or not? The food was good. The organization of the restaurant was not so good - and this seems to be intrinsic of the general design and not related to the particular location visited. Let me start out with the usual pattern of my buffet reviews and I will get to the high and low points as we go along.

This particular location was in an outdoor shopping center and the restaurant is the size of two deep store fronts. There were two doors near each other. One said "ToGo" on it and the other said buffet. Both doors led to exactly the same place which was the line to the one cashier. At Cici's you pay as you enter. The cost of the buffet - all times - is $4.49 per adult and $2.99 per child. Unlimited soft drinks are extra and cost $1.59 per adult or $0.99 per child. Bring CASH because they DO NOT take credit cards at CiCi's. We visited on a Sunday afternoon and there was a short line to get in, but the restaurant was full. Once up at the register you pay and are given your cups. The cashier line then automatically moves into the buffet line.

The buffet layout consists of one long cafeteria-style counter. Once you pass the cashier you pick up silverware and napkins and then there is a stack of dishes. There are also trays. You take your plate and continue to move on down the line.

You first come to the salad bar. There were two types of lettuce and a variety of the usual salad toppings - mostly raw vegetables along with dry toppings as well. There was a good choice of several salad dressings. The only prepared salad on the salad bar was pasta salad.

Passing the salad bar you come to what seems to be a new addition to the buffet at Cici's - soup. There was chicken noodle soup (which was nice chicken broth with pieces of chicken and carrots with the pasta that is served on the buffet). The soup was good. Not too salty, nice flavor, good pasta. There were plenty of bowls next to the soup along with soup spoons.

You next come to the pasta. This is an odd shaped macaroni. It is a twisted tube. It was nicely cooked - al dente. Next to the hot pasta is a choice of two sauces - a tomato sauce and a white Alfredo sauce. I tried the tomato sauce and it was quite good. (As an Italian American who grew up in a very Italian home I know good tomato sauce. There was (and is) never anything out of a jar in my home.) The tomato sauce at Cici's was not bitter, acidy, or sweet. It was just right.

Past the pasta you come to hot garlic bread (seasoned pizza crust) and then you get to the center of attraction - PIZZA. Pizza pies are 12 inch pies that are being cooked right behind the counter in view in a mechanized pizza oven. The raw pie goes in one side and rolls through as it cooks to come out the other side ready to eat. The pizza is placed on trays with mesh bottoms to keep them crisp. They are cut into ten pieces and there is a serving spatula at each tray. As you go down the line you will find the variety of pizza that you may take. AH - here is one of the problems that I observed immediately. There is no order or organization to how the pizza is put out. As one pie is finished another takes its place - but that new pie is not the same as the one that was finished. That one might have been pepperoni and this new one might be mushroom. As a result there were several of the same type of pizza out at the same time - and this was consistent through the time that we were in the buffet. There are also no labels - except for their specialty macaroni and cheese pizza which has a big sign on the counter in front of that pie - EXCEPT that the first time through the line, the pizza there was definitely not macaroni and cheese. With no labels it is a guess what everything is - you can ask the several people behind the counter, but it would have been nice to have labels - and find all of the variety of pizzas that they have. As pizza's come out of the oven they are placed under the counter until there is a need for another pie to come up. When there are just a few slices left on a tray, they will be combined onto a serving tray - making it even more confusing - as in - there is pepperoni pizza on a tray with beef pizza and also something else.

At the end of the pizza was a dessert pizza - apple. There are also hot brownies and hot cinnamon rolls.

The counter ends and the soda dispenser comes next. You serve yourself from Coke products along with sweet and unsweetened ice tea. There is no coffee (which I do not care about, but some can't survive a meal without coffee).

The dining room is set up like a large fast food restaurant - regimental rows of booths and tables that filled the deep room. At the rear of the room was a three or four arcade machine game room. There were two ceiling televisions playing in the dining room with captions running and no sound. The room was noisy with loud background music and a lot of people. (The music could have been quieter and there really was no need for the televisions playing.)

There you have the basic set up. The restaurant was crowded when we went in and from the cashier area it looked as if there were no more tables so I sent my wife on ahead to grab what she could. You seat yourself at Cici's and she found a table in the front that had been cleaned. Several others were waiting to be cleaned (which they soon were). We placed a tray with our empty drink cups down on the table and went to the buffet. This meant getting into the line which was coming from the cashier. There were lots of dirty looks from people thinking that we were going to get into the middle of the line moving on to the counter. We went to the end and moved along. There were big tie ups at the salad bar. No one wanted to move past those taking salad to go to the pasta, pizza, etc. As a result of this set up, people were taking multiple plates and filling trays with them - and then filling those plates overflowing with pasta and pizza. Any of you who have read our "Rules of the Buffet" know my feelings about filling plates in advance. The design of this restaurant made this a necessity - or you would be getting back at the beginning of the line every time you went back for another slice. This was not good - and then something else happened that made this way of filling plates even more of a need. After our first plate we went up together for more. While we were away from the table, the table was cleared and cleaned - along with our drink cups. When we returned it was all gone. This was a warm day (surprisingly) and we had no jackets to leave at the table to show that it was occupied. There are no little plaques or paper slips to put down, as you get in other buffets, to show that the table is occupied. We had to find the person who cleaned the table, tell her that we were still eating, and ask for new drink cups. We got them, but this was not good. For the rest of the meal we went up separately, leaving someone behind to guard the table. This made the meal even more haphazard, since each time back up, each of us had to get back at the end of the line and we rarely got to eat anything together - unless we gave in and filled plates to the brim on one trip - as others seemed to do to avoid this. This was not a leisurely meal - and very different from other buffets - and as you know, I have been to many.

So about the food. The pizza was nice. This is not the large, fold in half slice of pizza that is common in NY but it is like the "Pizza Hut" small slices of pizza that are common in most of the US. There were some unusual pizzas such as barbecue (actually good), taco pizza, macaroni and cheese (it eventually made its way out and to the marked spot), vegetable pizza and others. Many of the toppings for the pizza seemed to come from the vegetables on the salad bar. The macaroni and cheese pizza disappointed the both of us. We expected it to taste like mac and cheese on pizza - what they do is put the macaroni from the pasta bar on the dough and cover it in cheese which all melts together hard in the oven. It is not creamy like mac and cheese but more like baked ziti without the sauce. I tried a variety of pizzas - some of them I could not taste any difference from one to the other. I could not tell if it was chopped beef, plain, mushroom, even pepperoni, etc. from the taste. It tasted good, but it all tasted the same. One of the slogans on the wall is "You can taste the difference." Well no, I could not taste the difference between most pizzas. Of course they mean taste the difference in freshness, but I had to laugh when I saw the sign.

The desserts were ok. I liked the apple pizza the best of the three desserts. The chocolate brownies were mushy and the cinnamon rolls were small and not very cinnamony. The apple pizza is pizza dough baked with apple and crumbs on top. It takes like apple strussel.

Some questions left unanswered - when we entered there was a sign on the buffet menu on the wall (not the to go menu) that said mega your meal with extra meat and cheese for two dollars more. No one seemed to do this - and there were no special pizzas out that had extra meat or cheese on them. So we have no real understanding of this with the exception that this sign should have been on the To Go menu on the wall which would make perfect sense. Another odd thing was the offer by the cashier of an extra large drink for more money. Since the drinks are unlimited refills (other than cashing in on the idea that you better not leave your table or lose it) why would anyone buy an extra large drink? - again unless it was for the To Go - but the cashier offered it to those going into the buffet.

Staff are friendly. The man who cleans the floors and the tables was diligent in moving his cleaning cart around the restaurant. There are few people to take dirty plates from tables and as a result plates stacked up a bit until they were taken away.

So I have some suggestions -and I hope that someone from Cici's corporate offices is reading this.

First, there needs to be a simple method of marking a table as occupied. A simple plastic coin - face up for occupied, face down when you leave - would solve this problem instantly. Many buffets use a strip of paper with the number of diners written on it placed on the table. This would work too.

Second, separating the serving counters to the typical free standing buffet servers would eliminate the lines and cafeteria approach to taking all that you can carry.

Third, each pizza type should have a place and that pizza should be clearly labeled on the counter. When mushroom is finished, mushroom should replace it. There were several pizzas that we would have loved to try. We saw a spinach and cheese pizza come out once, but when I got there, it was gone and never came out again.

So I traveled about four hundred miles one way (with the price of gas today) to try Cici's Pizza Buffet. Would I go regularly if there was one around the corner? No, not regularly - as this is a cholesterol and carbohydrate watcher's nightmare - that is not a bad thing overall for the restaurant - because, if I could, I would. To eat healthy here means to mostly eat from the salad bar and add a slice or two of pizza (maybe). It can be done, but requires a great deal of will power. The price is right either way - for salad or pizza you cannot beat $4.49 for all you care to eat. The soda is on the high side, but together with the meal price you are set for $6.00 per person - still a bargain for decent food. The system, however, is another thing - and needs a lot of change (in my humble, but experienced, opinion). I like to relax while I eat, take a some things to try, and then go back for more - without feeling like I am getting on the end of the school lunch line each time. We also like to eat together and wait for each other to go up for more - as noted, we could not do that here.

So, if you come across a Cici's Pizza Buffet, give it a try. Take my experience with you and watch your table and try to avoid a crowded time when there are no lines. The hours of the restaurant are extensive - they open at 11 am every day and on Friday and Saturday stay open until 11 pm with other days closing at 10 pm. There is a web link at the side of this page. You can find out where the restaurants are on their website.


JTan said...

Hmm, the no credit card policy must be just for this location. The one I went to in Gaithersburg, MD accepted credit cards.

Robert A said...

When I posted this article I informed Cici's through two different corporate department emails. I invited them to respond or comment - particularly about the suggestions made. To date there has been no response. Interesting, as they claim to be attentive to customer feedback.

Robert A said...

Cici's did eventually respond. A great plus for this corporation chain buffet. See the article on May 11, 2007 for the response.

Anonymous said...

I've been to several Cicis and each has offered to make me any kind of pizza I wanted (if they had the ingredients) included in the price. They don't always advertise this but I don't think it can be beat for the price.