Friday, August 22, 2008

Friends and Family Pizza Buffet

2669 Durham Road
Bristol, Pa. 19007
(Just northeast of Philadelphia, PA)


There are a number of small pizza buffet chains across the United States that are trying to do what Cici's is doing. While doing a search for buffet restaurants in Central Pennsylvania (out of the Pennsylvania Amish area and away from Lancaster County) I came across a recent pizza buffet chain that is corporate based in Pennsylvania. Now, note that this chain came up on somewhere near page 45 of the search engine. I was about to give up my looking page by page to see what I would find when Pizza Buffet caught my eye.

Friends and Family Pizza Buffet started its first restauant about three years ago in Bristol, Pennsylvania which is near Philadelphia. About a year ago they opened their second franchised restaurant in Mechanicsburg, PA. Reading their website I was delighted at what I was seeing. The chain is looking to expand across the North East U.S. - an area that Cici's has not yet set its sights on. The description of the restaurant was great. The decor is Roman with columns and an Italian flair. The descriptions of the pizzas, pastas, and desserts were tantalizing. I was going to be about thirty miles from the Mechanicsburg location - south of the state capital of Harrisburg. I had to go to Friends and Family Pizza Buffet.

I should learn that not everything always lives up to its description and my high hopes.

We found the buffet restaurant with some difficulty. Unless you can see the small sign on the shopping center sign that says "Pizza Buffet" you will never know that this restaurant exists. It is located in a side (not the front) storefront on an L-shaped row of stores. You do not see it from the busy four lane road and if you are traveling on the either side of the road it is difficult to turn around if you miss it. We managed to find it on the second pass and drove up to the side of the building and parked.

The restaurant has a small sign above that says its name. Apparently the large sign in the photo on the website is the other location. We entered and paid at the cash register that is situated much like the set up at Cici's - in fact the counter set up is similar to Cici's but smaller. The dining room is smaller than Cici's but the decor does live up to the description - it is pleasantly decorated with Roman colums at the walls and photographs of Italy. It is very pleasant and carpeted. There are real restaurant tables on a carpeted floor. The room is much quieter than Cici's and does not have the atmospher of a fast food restaurant that is Cici's. Notice that I keep comparing to Cici's - well, if this is a Cici's copy which it is trying to be that will be my basis for comparison. We went on a summer Friday night - not a hot night - at 6:30 pm so we were certainly there at dinner time. Any Cici's would have been packed. This restaurant was almost empty. It remained near empty until we left an hour and a half later. The clientele was mostly families with a table or two of teens. Can no one find this buffet that has been open for a year - or does everyone know somehting that keeps them away?

You take your own silverware and grab a plate. No trays. You seat yourself at any table and then proceed to get your meal. The price for adults is $5.99 all of the time and unlimited soda is $1.69 each. The price is fair - but more expensive than Cici's. The first thing that we noticed was the silverware was clean but cloudy - as if it did not quite go through the full cleaning cycle. Usually the silverware has a shine - no matter what restaurant you are in.The second thing noticed was that the plates were not all clean. Many were, but a number were dirty - some just on the back but someone's plates surface came out sitting on that dirty plate back. I don't mean discolored but dirty. A number of things that were very evident lead us to feel that cleanliness at this buffet is marginal. And this cleanliness problem is with the dishes and at the buffet counter. Many of the covers that covered serving trays were not clean and throughout the evening no one stopped to clean or replace them. And as I said - it was not busy.

The layout of the serving counter is opposite to the counter at Cici's. The pizza starts at the right and the salad area is at the left end of the counter. My wife headed down to the salad area - I can't really call it a salad bar because there was not enough salad items to make a bar. The lettuce was shredded like you would have for hero (hoagie, sub) sandwiches. To add was chopped carrots, shopped olives, and a few dressings. Most of the area was taken up with toppings for hot dogs, which to our surprise were on the next space on the counter next to the pasta tray. According to the website description we were to find a selection of several different pasta shapes and a choice of tomato sauce and Alfredo sauce. There was no Alfredo sauce - unless the melted orange cheese was their idea of alfredo sauce. I think it was actually there to pour over the hot dogs. Well, there was no choice of pasta shapes either - just one shape of pasta which was a twist of two strands of pasta each about three inches long. When we first went to take the pasta we were scooping the bottom of the tray of pasta and the same of the red tomato sauce. It took a while before anyone noticed that these were empty and went to get more.

The website said that there would be soup - there were two soup servers. One had Chili which in many areas is considered a soup. The other had what looked like baked beans in it - it did not resemble soup. So I would say that again, these were to go with the hot dogs.

There was also a tray in this area that was covered in another of the not so clean covers. I opened and looked in to see what looked like the remains of dried out and darkish in color macaroni and cheese. I recalled the website saying that there was mac and cheese for the kids. Well, I would not have given this t o anyone's kids. And it remained just like that the entire time that we were there.

All right already, it is not a pasta, soup, or salad buffet - it is a pizza buffet so what was the pizza like? The pizza was pretty good. The pizza actually might even be better than Cici's. There was more of a variety of regular pizzas out and little duplication. They also make it very obvious with signs all over the counter and the table that if you do not see what you like just ask and they will make it for you in minutes - just like Cici's but Cici's does not come out and say that you may do this. Each pizza was also labeled with a sign identifying it. If you would like a pizza of your own creation there is a list of toppings and you may add any three to cheese. They say that it will be ready in five minutes but do not time them. We asked for a rather unusual combination and it took about ten minutes for it to come out. When it did is is announced by its toppings and it is placed on the pizza counter for you to come back to take. The pizza that was made for us was almost what we asked for - close enough, but not exact. In addition to the standards and create it yourself - and by standards I mean regular cheese pizza, pepperoni pizza, sausage pizza, mushroom pizza, whole wheat crust pizza, white pizza, etc. - there are "Gourmet Pizzas". These include barbecue chicken pizza, hot wing pizza, ham and chees hoagie pizza, blt pizza, spicy barbecue pizza, Hawaiian pizza, chicken Alfredo pizza, meat lovers pizza, mac and cheese pizza, veggie pizza, cheese steak pizza, taco pizza, and Grandma's pizza which is a robust cheese pizza with pepper flakes. Not all of these are out all of the time, and this night only the bbq chicken and hot wing pizza were out from this list. The counter and overhead lights keep the pizza sufficiently hot and each is sliced into uneven slices. Each is set out on a small pizza tray and not the wire screens that Cici's uses. None of the pizzas that were out for any time dried out or got hard. What we tried were tasty and new pizza's came out sporadically - perhaps more would have come out if there were more customers eating.

Where Friends and Family Pizza Buffet shines is the dessert pizzas! There are 15 different hot and cold dessert pizzas and what we tried were great. I had blueberry cheese pizza - cream cheese and blueberry topping mixed in with a sugar icing glaze. We both tried the apple crumb pizza and this was much better than the apple pizza served at Cici's. We both tried the small rolled cinnamon buns which were good and my wife tried vanilla pudding pizza which was the cold pizza that was out. There is even a peanut butter and jelly pizza and a peanut butter and chocolate pizza. These were not out on this night.

The website says that there is scooped hard ice cream but there was no ice cream freezer anywhere to be seen, no signs or mention of ice cream, and no offer of ice cream. Perhaps you could ask for it but if you have to ask and there is no indication anywhere that it even exists then I consider that as there is no ice cream. Again, what you read is not always what you get.

Service was marginal. The stacks of dirty dishes were taken off of our table twice by the young lady who walked around the near empty dining room. Happily, there was no large cleaning cart wheeled around the room which is a negative at Cici's. (That cart at Cici's is put to use cleaning away dirty dishes and cleaning tables but it is disgusting to have this wheeled repeated around the room next to your face while you are eating.)

Oh yes, I need to mention the noise. Every so often it sounded as if people were bowling - in a bowling alley. I started to wonder if there were bowling lanes in the storefront next door - but no, there were not. It was a loud rumbling crash. We asked the young lady who was walking around the room - sometimes picking up dirty dishes. She said that most people think that it is thunder, but it is actually the oven exhaust fan when it intermittently turns on and runs. Oh boy!

So overall - value is ok (if Cici's $5 buffet did not exist I would say that this price is great. Atmosphere is very nice. Cleanliness at the buffet server area is marginal. Service in the dining room is marginal. The pizza is good.

If you are a parent who has the salad bar while the kids attack the pizza selections, forget it. The salad is a major dissappointment in selection. The kids will be happy. You will not.

If you always wanted a hot dog buffet you will love this - lots of hot dog toppings and steam cooked hot dogs with buns. The hot dog was good.

Don't care about anything else but pizza - not even how clean the plates are - then you will love this buffet.

It is very possible that a Friends and Family Pizza Buffet will come near you at some time in the future. This corporation is hot to sell franchises and they are doing it in several ways. There are plans for non-buffet pizza franchises as well as pizza buffets. Some day I may get to try the original location near Philadelphia - no I am not running to get there. It may very well may be that the short comings of the Mechanicsburg location - and these are all really in the area of keeping the dishes and the serving trays clean (which is very important so that people don't get sick) - are better in Bristol. Management and mature managerial supervision of any buffet is ultimately important. Properly supervised this buffet would be A-Class. At the moment - at least on the night that I was there - it was not.

I ate myself full. I managed to get a clean plate each time and I avoided anything that did not quite look up to par. I was satisfied and I was fine afterward (all important!).

If you have tried the Bristol location let us know how it was in a comment. If you are not near Philadelphia or Harrisburg, PA you will not yet find one of these restaurants. This one that I went to is located at 6499 Carlisle Pike, Mechanicsberg, Pa. The phone number is 717-697-4283. There is a website for the chain which is listed at the side of this page. The restaurant is open from Monday to Saturday from 11 am to 9 pm. It is closed on Sundays and most holidays.

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