Friday, November 07, 2008

Downfall of a Buffet - Failed Economy or Failed Management? - PART 2

PART 1 appeared one week ago.

On my visit in 2006 I found that the recipes were too spicy for what is expected at this type of restaurant in this specific area. This is the Pennsylvania Farm Country - home of the Amish people. The Amish are an American culture all onto themselves with religious beliefs that have them living today as they did in the 1800's. They are farmers with no use of electricity or gasoline driven engines. They travel by horse and buggy on today's roads along side the trucks and cars. They farm with horse-drawn plows. These are "plain" people and there food is wholesome and filing. What they cook is tasty, but they do not generally use hot spices. The food at this buffet in 2006 could have been described as Pennsylvania Dutch Tex-Mex. This was not going to appeal to locals or tourists who were looking to dine "Pennsylvania Dutch". So, bottom line - in 2006 the recipes were just WRONG!

I also found in 2006 that the food trays were not well maintained. Food was dried out. Many items needed stiring. This is all very unappetizing and not at all appealing to the people dining. All and all, my first experience at this restaurant in 2006 was not bad. Were there better choices to go to at the time - absolutely, but this was one of the few that remained open on Sundays - so business should have been a shoe-in!

Let's move on to 2007. I went back expecting a pleasant experience, hoping for better recipes, but willing to have the same experience that I had in 2006. Well, not so. On this visit things had taken a downward turn. What was wrong? Oh, there was oh, so much!

It was a very hot July evening and there was NO air conditioning running. There were floor fans that just seemed to blow the hot air at you faster. This alone made for an unpleasant dinner.

The one soup that was offered on the buffet - where there used to be two - was not hot - in fact it was cold (not intentionally). In the heat of the room this unheated soup server was a breeding gound for bacteria. Looking over to the food servers, there was a single piece of fried chicken and two pieces of pale barbecue chicken in two trays - all not very appetizing in appearance. Other meats that were out looked to be deli-counter sliced meats, heated in broth. Was any of this going to boost business here? Absolutely not. And the temperature of all of the food was just barely warm to cold!

Then there was the incident with the raw chicken. It was discovered by a diner a table away from us and by me that the "barbecued" chicken and the fried chicken was raw inside when you cut it open. I mean blood dripping raw. I said nothing because the gentlemen at the other table said everything. The response he got from the young lady waitress was totally unacceptable.

Let's talk for a moment about the front line staff at a buffet - the people who have direct contact with the customers. If you have this job, whether you like it or not, the basic tenant that the customer is always right and always watch what you say to a customer has got to always be in the front of your thoughts when you are speaking with a customer. Your job is to pleasant, appear to be ready to solve all of the customer's problems should there be any during the course of the meal, and to make the customer feel that he/she is not only welcome but special. Some of the people working at this particular buffet were wonderful and tried to do exactly as I describe. However, there was one young woman who was there in 2007 and involved with the "raw chicken incident" and surprising was still there a year later in 2008 communicating with the customers in just the same manner. Here is the situation - the customer calls the young lady over to his table and tells her that the chicken that is out on the buffet server is raw. What she should have done is apologized on behalf of the restaurant and ran and grabbed the tray of chicken so that no one else would take any. What did she do? She stood there in a defensive tone and said, "You know, I don't do the cooking." She did actually go and bring out the chef who properly thanked the gentlemen for telling him - but you know he did not go immediately over to get the tray of chicken right away. He went back into the kitchen and then came out to take it away. Buffet owners - your staff can make or break you! You can have the best food, but if you have staff that is not on the ball and pleasant with your customers you will not succeed.

So I said that this young woman was still there in 2008. What did she do then? A customer told her that the tray of mashed potatoes was empty. Her reaction, "Yeah, they know. When they come out, they come out." Oh boy. How about, "I am sorry. The kitchen told me that they will be out in five minutes."

In 2008, again on a hot July day, there was still no room air conditioning. There was a through the wall, house air conditioner built into the emergency exit. It churned away in futility trying to cool this large room with steam tables that was open to a room twice its size that had been closed down for some time. Needless to say, it was still hot in the room and not very pleasant to enjoy a large buffet meal. (What would happen if there was a need for the emergency exit I am not sure.)

The food had improved some in 2008. There seemed to be two cooks - at least one was Amish and the recipes were now more in line with the area. The majority of the food was good and the prices were right.

Efforts had been made to advertise and offer coupons that brought the price of dinner to $10. 00 per person. Yet, the parking lot was still empty. There were just a few tables filled. This restaurant is off the main road, but not that far off. People were filling the other restaurants while this one was empty. Can a restaurant that has a two year poor record not turn itself around? In this area it should be able to. Many of your potential customers have never heard of you before and your reputation of lack of it does not necessarily proceed you, because your target customer is the tourist - many here in the area for the first time. Think about the "average Joe" when he travels with his family who is deciding where to have dinner tonight. If there is something to grab his attention - a billboard on the road, a large ad in the tourist newspaper handouts, coupons left in hotel lobbies - he is going to come and try your restaurant. If you have turned your restaurant around for the better, he is going to tell his friends who will come next month to be sure to try your restaurant. You cannot blame the economy when there are tourists in the area looking for someplace to eat - especially when you are open on Sunday and few others are.

We went to see if there was a crowd at this restaurant around the beginning of September 2008. We were struck by the restaurant's sign on the main road where the turn is made up to this buffet that said, "Under New Management". A month before it had not said this. What "new management" was this referring to? Did someone new come in and take over? Or was this the old "new management". The sign also referred to menu dining with hours along with buffet hours - there was no menu dining at this restaurant since 2007. We went up to the restaurant and there was another sign that said "Closed for Renovations". Later that evening I went to the buffet's website. The website had a message that explained that the restaurant has gone out of business - due to the economy.

Now, perhaps someone else is going to give this location a try. Anyone thinking of going into the buffet business - or any restaurant for that matter - can learn a lot reading this article. In a tourist area, every tourist has got to eat. If the economy has not kept them away - and here, certainly, it has not - then be ready to provide good food geared to the locale, served and maintained properly, have good employees who have the interest of your business at heart, provide a clean and comfortable dining room, and give value. In this particular area you can't miss.

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