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- 45 Tips for Better Buffet Service
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Operators differ in their attitudes toward buffet service. Are buffets a great way to save on labor costs, or a venue for showcasing your facility's best
OPERATORS DIFFER in their attitudes toward buffet service. Are buffets a great way to save on labor costs, or a venue for showcasing your facility's best food and service? Should they be attended or strictly self-serve? Are they an economical way to quickly serve meals at events and meetings, or a more expensive option better suited than table service for presenting certain kinds of upscale meal offerings?
Perhaps the one thing everyone agrees that buffets have in their favor is a flexible format, which lends itself to an almost infinite variety of service applications.
Whatever their philosophy, operators who frequently "buffet" have plenty of advice for their onsite peers. For this article we interviewed a mix of noncommercial chefs, operators and foodservice consultants, looking for their best tips for improving onsite buffets, from cooking and recipe advice to presentation ideas, cost saving techniques and equipment/serving suggestions. Here's what they had to offer.
The perfect solution
For Alison Negrin, Executive Chef at John Muir/Mt. Diablo Healthy System in Concord, Calif., buffets represent the perfect solution to event foodservice.
"Buffets are easier than sit-down functions with table service," she notes. "We're not a restaurant, and we don't have trained waiters ready to go at a moment's notice. That's why we prefer buffets, and, if we can get away with not having to use chafing dishes, so much the better. We'll put out interesting food that can be safely maintained at room temperature on attractive ceramic platters."
At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, buffets are often employed to showcase the foodservice department's most upscale and expensive offerings.
"The amount of money invested in food for buffets can be much greater than for sitdown dinners," says Catering Manager Donald King. "For buffets, we always offer three entrees, two starches, two vegetables, two salads and two desserts.
"We have a tradition with our buffets—we don't look to them as a way to save on food or labor costs. Rather, they're a way to give customers more options."
Labor-wise, King will employ one server for every 18 guests at a sitdown meal; for buffets, he'll send one server for every 24 customers. "We'd be very hesitant to cut corners in service for our buffets," he adds.
At the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Food Services Manager Terri Moreman features perpetual buffet service from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily, with up to 700 athletes moving through during lunch hours.
"The key to our service is that we progressively cook," she says. "Nothing is held in the warmers beyond 30 minutes."
Communication is key in a buffet situation of that size, Moreman believes. Mounted wall phones with a direct connection to the kitchen are located behind several buffet stations, so employees can easily call for replenishment. Similarly, a customer service coordinator, near the entrance of the facility, has a direct line to the back of the house, so "he or she can call and let the chef know if a crowd of 30 or more people has just entered the line," Moreman says.
A communication log, updated after every shift, keeps all employees informed. "It will note which foods were well-received, those that weren't, and flag issues that need to be dealt with that day," Moreman explains. "It's crucial in selfserve situations to make sure the last customer of the day has as many choices and as attractive a presentation as the first customer had."
At Harvard University Dining Services, Director of Catering Madeline Meehan has perfected the art of minimal labor buffets by offering a selection of drop-off, completely unattended service programs dubbed "On the Move."
Many of the program's buffet meals consist of chilled platters featuring such global fare as Mediterranean, Pacific Rim and Latin specialties. This January, the department unveiled the latest program addition, called "Give Your Budget a Break."
Disposable serviceware, boxed carafes of coffee, and thermal, disposable soup tureens allow Meehan to offer a wide variety of both hot and cold foods, as well.
"This approach really saves on labor," she says. "Since it's totally geared for drop off, we don't have to go back and pick up anything, and since the items are either in thermal containers or prepared as chilled platters, we don't have to have an attendant to watch over it."