Today's buffet ain't your father's salad bar! In today's discriminating market, a good buffet has to merchandise well and meet various guidelines.
The “cold side” of the buffet is the most important to address. You will need to keep product chilled, appetizing, and safe for your guests. There are several ways to address the cold buffet.
The cold pan is the most common and basic chilled holding and serving item for a buffet. The pan's most important function is to keep food cold at safe serving temperatures. Some pans use just an insulated bin for holding ice while others have mechanically refrigerated pans.
In response to concerns about food borne illness, the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) made significant changes to requirements on permissible ways food can be held and cold pan construction. These new guidelines require all open top refrigerated units to hold all areas of the product at not more than 41°F. The required temperature includes even the top of the product meaning cold air has to be introduced above as well as under the food.
Manufacturers have devised several new ways to comply with the requirements. Some cold pans will have more refrigeration run around the pan to fully wrap the product or lower the product in the pan. Look for the “NSF 7” label on the item you buy to be sure you comply.
There are also other ways to address the cold side of the buffet. Many operations are finding the newer “cold air buffet” units give a more upscale and less institutional look for allowing guests to serve themselves. Cold air buffet units allow you to display food out in the open without having to hide your food presentation inside a refrigerated well. These counter units introduce forced air gently blowing across the food to maintain temperature. The refrigerated air “blowers” are usually horizontal slots rising slightly above the counter at the rear of the unit. An air intake hidden near the counter front keeps the air flow rolling over food product in the depressed space between.
Another type of open cold serving unit is the frost top. A frost top is a counter-top surface chilled from below so that it creates a frosty surface for platters, bowls, or crocks of foods. The frost surface is usually raised an inch or two above the counter and has a gully around the perimeter to catch condensate. However, in many locations the frost top is not permitted for holding perishable food for serving. The frost top is great for displays and foods that don't spoil, however.
One or two manufacturers of high end hot and cold buffet counters have introduced real stone frost tops to the market. What is impressive about these units is that the manufacturer builds the units beneath the counter top slab of granite or synthetic surface. The equipment then heats or cools portions of the top to provide a buffet unit. The units can be very attractive and fit into even a very upscale restaurant interior. The surface is cooled from the bottom without cold pans for a nice clean look. Unlike traditional buffet counters, since there are no visible cooling units, the equipment can serve other functions when not used as a buffet. These units are able to solve the challenge of what to do with a buffet counter when not in use as a buffet. Since there are no steam tables or ice pans the counter tops can serve any decorative or functional purpose. The manufacturer can also remote all controls to provide a sleek looking functional top.
On the hot food side, most operations have gotten away from the old steam table or typical hot food well. There are heated plates made of tiles, ceramic, stone, or metal that allows the use of a variety of different serving vessels to be used and displayed attractively. Hot plates are available in a variety of sizes. Induction is becoming a popular alternative to traditional heated surfaces.
Induction has become widely used in restaurant buffets. These are generally 12-14-inch square countertop or in-counter units. Heating is instantaneous and can be regulated by output control buttons. In addition to being super fast, induction units are also super efficient as nearly all of the electrical energy consumed is converted to heat inside the pan.
Induction is well suited for an omelet station or a stir fry area in a cafeteria or buffet outlet. It is also far safer than open flames in these close customer contact areas.
On the buffet line, induction is also excellent as a chafing dish warmer. Induction units can be purchased separately as components or in counters of various styles, sizes, and finishes, fully wired and ready for use. The units can also be built into a countertop for a flush unobtrusive look. Some manufacturers even make units that can be mounted under a stone or synthetic top. These new units can provide a completely hidden heating surface.
If you want a warmer, be sure you purchase induction units that are warmers, not for cooking, if you want to avoid a possible requirement for an exhaust hood. You should be aware that in many locations a hood is required over units capable of cooking. Use an induction warmer that limits the temperature at the maximum setting to just over 200°F. Also, it is important to remember that any induction unit must be used with special chafers with an iron containing base.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you plan your buffet. You need to be aware food cost will likely be higher when merchandising product because of additional waste from the buffet. Displaying old, dried out, or damaged product — hot or cold — is not appetizing and will cause the opposite of the effective merchandising you are trying to achieve.
Keep it fresh and replenish often. The holding conditions for food on display may not be as ideal as holding product back of house. Also, in order to merchandise effectively, you always need product on the buffet — even at slow operating periods. For example, your salad station looks best when packed full of a variety of fresh items. No one likes to get the last item on the counter.
Don't overestimate the need for hot or cold display space or counter length because you will need to keep it full! A smaller full buffet will look better than a sparse huge display. A good rule of thumb is not to plan more than 4-6 inches of buffet counter length per restaurant seat for a good size full buffet. On the other hand, be sure to allow enough circulation space for guests to comfortably move around within the buffet zone. Try to allow for six feet of walking space in front of all counters where you can.
With the right equipment and the proper space allocated, you are ready to “wow” your guests with a great buffet!
Dan Bendall (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International.