In addition to stressing quantity, successful buffet and cafeteria operators continue to leverage a highly flexible foodservice equipment package to impress consumers with the quality of their product.
In an effort to compete in the foodservice value wars, buffet-type operations continue to add locations while emphasizing both food quality and quantity.
This strategy appears to be working. While many restaurant operators continue to struggle due to economic conditions, the expectation is that cafeterias, grill-buffets and buffets will grow by 2.2 percent in food and drink sales this year compared with 2009, according to the National Restaurant Association's 2010 Forecast. The NRA projects more than $7.6 billion in industry-wide food and drink sales this year, compared with $7.5 billion in 2009.
According to Restaurants & Institutions magazine's Consumers' Choice in Chains survey, the top buffet and cafeteria chains include Golden Corral Buffet & Grill; Ryan's Grill, Buffet & Bakery; and Hometown Buffet/Old Country Buffet.
The primary demographic for this foodservice segment includes married couples, diners with children, those living in the South or West and low- to middle-income consumers. Restaurant cafeterias were more prevalent, especially in the South and Midwest, before the proliferation of fast food chains in the 1960s and '70s. Now these operation types are more common in schools, hospitals and other institutional settings.
By definition, buffet operations are self service, with customers choosing from a variety of items organized by food type. For example, salads, side dishes, entrees and desserts each have separate sections. While some restaurants offer only buffet service, others may provide buffets for brunch, lunch specials, catered events or as part of a promotion.
The most popular type of buffet is the all-you-can-eat version, where customers pay one price for unlimited servings. Cafeteria-style buffets, which are less common, have customers passing through a serving line to choose pre-plated food items. Brunch or special occasion buffets provide a spread in lieu of, or in addition to, the restaurant's daily menu.
Although food safety and upkeep can be a challenge for buffets, these operations typically require minimal labor. Buffet and cafeteria operators also can more easily adjust menu offerings to better control food costs, which has been a major factor in the restaurant industry today.