If you had to choose one painful reminder of a pre-Covid-19 time, what would it be? For countless UAE diners, it’s the restaurant buffet.
A UAE culinary institution, the concept of piled high, beautiful displays have formed an integral part of both residents’ lives and restaurants – to the extent that many restaurants in the UAE became synonymous with buffets. A lot of us who grew up in the UAE have been obsessed with buffets from a very young age - from the visual stimuli of a breakfast buffet with its pancakes, hash browns, sausages and eggs cooked up in about nine different ways, to tables heaving with soups, salads, cold starters and hot mains, along with a dessert section replete with chocolate fountains and bite-sized pastries.
Pre-pandemic, you could drive through any area of the UAE, and know that a buffet would have been laid out somewhere.
Which means both buffet buffs and restaurant businesses were hit hard when the pandemic arrived on our shores early last year. With concerns over contamination and hygiene, the AYCE (all-you-can-eat) spread was one of the first culinary casualties.
So is the buffet table just taking up space now, or are restaurants innovating to get the serve-yourself spread to stay?
High value, low costs
Most of dining has seen a new approach – that of increased service, with staff serving the food from the buffet to the table, or spooning it directly on to diners’ plates. But this operation model also increases costs. Being value-driven has proved tough for restaurants over the past year - besides additional waiting staff, there’s also the limits on diners allowed in and social distancing to contend with.
Traditionally, both restaurants and diners have seen great value in the buffet-style dining. “For the restaurant, a buffet is cost effective with the right number of guests - table turnover is high, number of waiters per guest is low and kitchen preparation in bulk is more cost efficient,” said Kyra Bommelje, cluster director of food and beverage at JA The Resort Dubai.
For the diner, there’s the value-for-money perception with a buffet, “as it provides an ‘all-you-can-eat’ option and if the first dish was not of your choice, it’s easy to get it changed for something else,” said Bommelje. “There is also a wider variety of food options, which is often a benefit for multicultural communities like the UAE, as you may not be able to tailor for everyone’s taste in one specific restaurant. Finally, it can be great for children, who are often not interested to stay seated for a long period of time, and a buffet allows them to get off from their chair from time to time without being disruptive to staff or the other guests.”
Buffet dining in the new normal
At the start of the pandemic, when diner apprehension was high, Bommelje said the resort’s restaurants changed tack. “Guests were very cautious and nervous about any interaction in restaurants, so at that time we opted to provide all meals fully served to the table with a la carte orders. As the year progressed, and people became more aware of the situation, guests felt more and more comfortable being out of the house, assured that we follow strict procedures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Once Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing announced that buffets were allowed albeit without self-service, we opted to put our buffet service back on for breakfast.”
Bommelje and staff then implemented a new buffet experience, complete with acrylic covers to separate the guest and the food, and the chef putting the food on the plate to avoid cross contamination with utensils. “This with social distancing signages, reminders for all guests to wear their mask, and a one-way-queueing system to avoid strangers from walking into each other,” said Bommelje. “We also advise guests to book a timeslot for breakfast, to ensure the restaurant will never be over-crowded. For other meals we have continued the a la carte service, as we feel this provides a better service and better restaurant experience.”
Similarly, over at Taj Dubai, executive chef Vikas Milhoutra said the hotel witnessed a change in requests from guests with regards to buffets, with demand veering more towards set menus and table service. “People have also become more conscious about the quantum of food that gets wasted during buffets and brunches.”
Taj responded by serving diners unlimited buffet servings straight to their table, and with a shift in focus towards a la carte service with sampler platters and individual portions. For in-house guests, breakfast was made available both in-the-room and on-the-go.
Taj responded by serving diners unlimited buffet servings straight to their table, and with a shift in focus towards a la carte service with sampler platters and individual portions. For in-house guests, breakfast was made available both in-the-room and on-the-go. The hotel also diversified its buffet and brunch offerings, launching a new picnic concept at its rooftop lounge, Treehouse, with a basket filled with sandwiches, salads and other sweet and savoury snacks, and a live barbeque grill serving up a feast of meats. “Desserts and drinks are served at the table,” said chef Milhoutra.
Customers seem to have adapted as speedily as restaurants. “People like to see a selection, and make their choices based on what they see, rather than what they read,” said Bommelje. “So the feedback on the ‘served buffet’ with acrylic covers has been good. Overall, people got used to being served, and they enjoy having food brought to the table, knowing food is freshly prepared in the kitchen, therefore the demand for buffet meals has reduced, and we have kept most meals as a la carte. Since the start of the pandemic, we have discontinued our brunch as we feel it is not the same without the crowd, the activities, and the entertainment. There are a lot of people who now opt for a beach day with lunch instead.”
Is the beloved buffet coming back?
Sebastian Nohse, Hilton Europe, the Middle East and Africa’s senior culinary director, doesn’t see the traditional buffet coming back, and imagines it looking quite different as a result of the pandemic, with less of the linear long-line buffets and more broken-up live cooking stations, with food being cooked fresh by chefs in front of guests, “which will add more fun and theatre,” he says. “Customer hygiene awareness is now much more heightened as a result of the pandemic, which may mean the end of the piled high chafing dishes, with breakfast and brunches likely to move to smaller offering tables, complimented by an a la carte menu.”
While he acknowledges that 2020 has been challenging, Nohse strikes an optimistic note on the whole: “It has forced us to think on our feet about how we keep the magic of dining alive, despite the necessary restrictions.”
For Hilton, this meant making changes to their offering, “evolving the traditional buffet and our brunches in fun, innovative and interactive ways, as well as focusing on small but important details such as improved design, music and lighting.” The team also put focus on injecting atmosphere and a feeling of intimacy into their buffets, to overcome the challenges of physical distance between diners and our team members.
“For example, at Skafos restaurant at Canopy by Hilton Dubai Al Seef guests can also view art displays by local students, some of which are available to purchase. Meanwhile Graphos Social Kitchen at Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island has live ‘show-cooking’ to create a theatrical experience, designed to showcase live international cooking stations, in a setting that combines the atmosphere of a European food market with culinary story-telling and clever spotlighting. This is all operating to Hilton CleanStay, which delivers an industry-defining standard of cleanliness and disinfection in its properties.”
Small scale, big impact
The pandemic’s effects have been devastating across five-star hotels and small-scale restaurants too, which has found the past year anything but smooth sailing. Fazal Abbas, manager of Al Ibrahimi Group of restaurants and hotels, saw a massive dip in business at the start of the pandemic, and isn’t seeing much improvement even a year after. “There’s still a fear in large sections of the public, because they don’t know who’s coming into a restaurant, they’re fearful they’ll bump into people who could be Covid-19 negative now but could test positive in a few days. And of course we cannot mandate only vaccinated people come in, as that will badly hit profits further.
“This coupled with the tourism industry being badly damaged... we used to serve 300-400 Chinese tourists daily, and now numbers barely hit double figures. Besides, with parties and get-togethers facing limits in number of people, plus the seating distance… and disposable crockery, which diners appreciate but increases our cost, it has been a stressful time for us.”
Abbas says Ibrahimi is now struggling to sustain the business, and tries to minimise impact by implementing various measures, such as moving more manpower towards buffet stations so that staff serve food onto diners’ plates, limiting the number of hands touching serving ware. “And with restrictions on people allowed, there’s no queues unlike before so it’s easier to serve. Sometimes, in the case of large families or the elderly, we offer to serve food directly to the table.”
Abbas doesn’t believe things will look up much in the future, what with “new strains and restrictions. And with redundancies and less purchase power, how can you justify spending on a buffet?”
While Ibrahimi used to serve buffets for both a daily lunch and dinner before the pandemic, now there’s a buffet only on weekends in its Karama, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah restaurants (lunch Dh55-Dh60, dinner for Dh65-Dh70). In the restaurant at Madinat Zayed in Abu Dhabi, the group cancelled buffets entirely after only about two to three people turned up per day.
All you can waste?
Despite its popularity within the UAE, there are many who aren’t gunning for the return of the buffet, and the pandemic has put a firm spotlight on the food waste a buffet can generate.
One price, so many choices – what’s not to like? Plenty, says Bommelje at JA The Resort Dubai. “Buffets generate a lot of waste. We must keep in mind that the last guest that gets his food before closing, wants to have a visually appealing buffet just like the first guest of the day, and this is challenging to maintain. Portion control is difficult, as you are unable to identify in advance what the popular items are going to be. Today you may have many fish-lovers, while tomorrow everyone is vegetarian.”
It [buffets] will be back at some point, in the sense that buffets and brunches will be allowed again, but not soon. People are conscious about other guests’ behaviour, and they now understand what cross contamination is (using the same utensils, touching the same areas, maybe someone’s hair flying into the food)...
Not to mention the queues.
“A buffet operation will almost always have a queue. This can be at the entrance of the venue, or at the buffet counters itself, but at some point, when you reach the peak of operation the venue becomes crowded. Service is less personal, as most servers only approach a table to clear plates and place beverages, whereas with full table service, the restaurant team is in control of the seating, there is less movement in the restaurant, and the service is personalised.”
There’s light at the end of the empty buffet table…
For fans of it, will the industry turn the corner anytime soon? Bommelje believes so. “It will be back at some point, in the sense that buffets and brunches will be allowed again, but not soon. People are conscious about other guests’ behaviour, and they now understand what cross contamination is (using the same utensils, touching the same areas, maybe someone’s hair flying into the food). Also, many restaurateurs and hoteliers may reconsider re-implementation. I have seen a lot of industry colleagues who have changed their approach to different service styles. Previously, large groups were almost automatically offered a buffet meal, while we have now experienced that with the right menu design and service sequence, we are actually able to deliver high volume table service just as efficiently. The reduction in food waste, and the improved hygiene are big advantages of providing table service.”
I don’t think Dubai will ever bid adieu to buffets and brunches entirely as they play a huge part of the city’s lifestyle and are very much a part of the fabric of this city. However, hotel groups and standalone restaurants will have to think smartly and creatively to re-engineer menus, portions, and presentation style. Reducing portion sizes will also contribute to waste reduction and ensure guests are served extremely fresh food. Dubai is always one step ahead of the curve...
Chef Milhoutra agrees. “I don’t think Dubai will ever bid adieu to buffets and brunches entirely as they play a huge part of the city’s lifestyle and are very much a part of the fabric of this city. However, hotel groups and standalone restaurants will have to think smartly and creatively to re-engineer menus, portions, and presentation style. Reducing portion sizes will also contribute to waste reduction and ensure guests are served extremely fresh food. Dubai is always one step ahead of the curve, and I feel this is a temporary phase with life resuming normalcy cautiously in a couple of a months. Restaurants have undergone big changes and have adapted to the new rules with the elimination of traditional buffet setups. In my opinion, with the current market situation, a combination of table service with the offering of smaller portions and interactive live stations will be a huge hit.”
As for the future of the brunch scene? Nohse thinks when these return, less will be more.
“They will become more sophisticated, with better quality food and the introduction of more a la carte dishes, rather than the old ‘pile it high’ experiences. I think we will see a continuation of more low and no-alcohol beverages consumed.
“I know there will always be an appetite for great buffets, those that can keep up with guest expectations and are served in innovative and safe ways.”
Looks like the buffet isn’t going down without a fight.