Family brunch_lead
The traditional ways of operating a buffet-focussed restaurant has undergone a full-scale transformation. The pandemic has ensured that. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

A microscopic virus has taken over humanity, crippling the world economy faster than we could have imagine or could have been prepared for. The virus outbreak has again shown us nothing is certain.

The COVID-19 has brought the hospitality and restaurant industry to a standstill, while the “buffet restaurant” concepts have received the worst blow. Many of them will not survive…

Buffet restaurants run on volumes - the higher the number of customers per session, the better for profitability. It is not surprising these types of restaurants are spacious, have to bear high rents. The cost of food is secondary as fresh food is being prepared in bulk every day, whether customers show up or not.

Customers are avoiding high-density buffet restaurants as there is a fear of being exposed to surfaces, tongs or spoons around chaffing dishes, common plates section, proximity to others while waiting in queues, etc.

Reaching out for a solution

There’s only one thing to be done - change the way buffet restaurants operate

• Adopt manned or assisted Buffets, where staff would assist customers with the spreads;

• Family-style buffets – all served on the table, while customers don’t need to move about the restaurant; and

• Cafeteria-style buffets

But challenges multiply

High rents, increased manpower to justify new serving methods, low footfall leading to poor sales, and with the restrictions for 30-50 per cent occupancy and 2-meter distancing norms would lead to further costs, by beyond 50 per cent. With no respite, especially on high rents, it is impossible for any restaurant to make money.

In the last two months, our buffet sales have been a disaster; we have incurred massive losses in the hundreds of thousands; and our revenues have fallen by over 95 per cent. Sales during Ramadan, for example, traditionally help us cover the drop during summer.

But this year, revenue during Ramadan was close to zero.

Grand Barbeque, as many other buffet restaurants, has evolved through the years. It seems only yesterday when we used to be packed to the brim, serving 300-400 customers a day.

We faltered, made mistakes, faced down the competition, learnt and kept on going. Our team grew, our skills sharpened, the back-of-the-house coordination and planning went on. From concept to execution, we remained relentless.

Customers gave us valuable feedbacks, and we always saw the opportunity and room for improvement. Our customer appreciation told us that we were on the right track, and we were slowly inching towards our goal.

And then the world changed overnight in the truest sense of the word.

Not going to take it passively

There is a saying, “When you aren’t at war, it is time to sharpen your saw”. During the shutdown, we learnt about the new challenges. The obvious question is “What now?”. And followed by “How do we evolve through this”?

With the support and guidance provided by the Dubai Municipality and local authorities, we re-engineered our work practices and work space. The new “law” of the day is have ideal hygiene and sanitation practices.

Who better than a restaurant owner can understand the extreme need for such measures, as peoples' health have always been in our hands.

With a focus on rebuilding customer confidence, we dedicated ourselves to lead the change, to innovate and evolve to the new norm of “all you can eat” dining.

Our new concept is an “a la carte menu” with an option of all you can eat barbecue. We have also adopted assisted-serve contact-less dining experience.

To make this happen, we broke down our daily operations from door-to-plate. We have been meticulously working on how we receive materials, sanitize, store, prepare, cook and serve them and, last but not least, dispose.

We strictly follow social distancing, ensure repeated sanitation and disinfection, and temperature monitoring of customers and staff alike.

Clean up of all work surfaces and contact areas has become a new routine. There is constant emphasis on health and safety of employees, providing them with regular health checks, PPEs, and approved chemicals that will help us keep the pandemic at bay.

The old days of the buffet has quickly faded away… at least for now. But what has stayed the same are unlimited portions.

Challenges will always arise every now and then - but I also know we are here to stay…

- Haji Gani is owner of Grand Barbecue Group.