Pretty much everyone reading this has eaten at a buffet at some point in their lives. We’re not talking about that terrible potluck you went to last year during The National Night Out, we’re talking about restaurants that allow you to take your plate and gorge yourself until your heart’s content/beating irregularly. So, we wanted to lift the veil that exists at those restaurants to find out the different ways that they are making money off of a business model that you’d think would be one of the more difficult in terms of turning a profit. So, without further ado, here’s the Top 10 Ways that All You Can Eat Buffets make money off of you!
10. They Rely on Seasonal Ingredients
One of the best ways that buffets can keep their costs low is by changing their menus regularly. That flexibility allows them to purchase whatever is cheap and they obviously have to buy that food in huge amounts in order to get the costs low enough to make a profit. Part of that is buying whatever is fresh, which depending on what type of buffet you’re at and what part of the world you’re in, can vary wildly. The good news for the consumer, though, is that it tends to mean that you’re getting a lot of fresh and seasonal food that can range from different kinds of vegetables (as a whole but also in terms of types of types of vegetables, like different types of potatoes or when it comes to fruit different kinds of tomatoes) to different types of seafood or meat. Buffets use a lot of psychology to typically hammer home main idea, that people are getting a decent meal for an amazing price, and the psychology behind “seasonal” ingredients makes people believe that they’re not only getting that super full stomach for a low price but that they’re also getting high quality or even fancy food on the cheap. The reality is that the buffet is buying and providing the lowest quality product possible, however, whether it’s crawfish or the cut of meat that you’re eating. They just tend to hide it really well by mixing it into a soup or pasta salad. But at the end of the day as long as it tastes good and you don’t get sick it’s really a victimless crime, if it’s a crime at all.
9. Influencing Portions
As the first entry on this showed, psychology is a huge part of the science that goes into running a profitable buffet and a large part of that psychology is used to influence just how much food someone actually takes and eats. So, after a menu is created at a given buffet, the store manager’s goal is to really attempt to control the type of food people take and how much of that type of food they take as well. Portion control has actually been a recent trend in food science, as more and more children and adults reach the level of “obese” on the body mass index, and they’ve actually learned a lot from the people in the buffet restaurant industry as they’ve had to learn these things over the years in order to turn a profit. There are actually a few ways that they attempt to stop you from eating them out of business and most end up on our list but the first is probably the most obvious and that’s that they tend to avoid giving large or even full sized dinnerware. Go into any buffet near your home and the odds are that you don’t find what you consider to be a full-sized dinner plate or soup bowl. The rationale behind this is obvious, as the less people are able to put on their plate the less they’re going to either eat or end up wasting. Beyond that, people rarely eat more than one plate of food at home so the hope is that subconsciously they’ll finish their plate and feel more full than they otherwise might if they still have a bunch of food on their plate. One study did show that this works, with people eating 31% more ice cream when given a 34 ounce bowl than they did when given one that was half the size at 17 ounces.
8. Gigantic Drink Glasses
On the other end of the spectrum come the drinking glasses. As the previous entry showed, most buffet restaurants tend to provide smaller dinner plates and bowls as they obviously allow for less food and thus less food eaten and/or wasted. Studies have backed this up despite the fact that you’d think that people would either get up to eat another plate or simply grab a second plate. On the other side of that comes the dinner glasses that are actually a lot larger at most buffet restaurants than most places as drinks are typically huge profit makers for restaurants (a large sized pop/soda typically costs a restaurant a few cents tops and they can charge anywhere from 99 cents to a couple dollars for it) to begin with. So why make them larger? Pop, especially, makes people feel a lot more full than they otherwise would thanks to the amount of carbon dioxide in it and because of that the restaurant wants people to drink as much as possible so they’ll fill up on drinks and not on the expensive food that they’re serving. Beyond that, it helps people off-set the small glasses in peoples minds as the goal (as we mentioned before) is to make people feel like they’re getting a good deal at the buffet and if they had tiny glasses to go along with the tiny plates and bowls people might feel like they weren’t getting a good deal, so by providing endless drinks in gigantic glasses, people might be able to overlook the small plates and bowls. The restaurants just have to hope that people don’t fill up their glass with soup or meatballs.
7. Silverware or SilverWhere?
One thing a lot of people notice when they visit buffet restaurants is that it’s hard to come across fresh silverware should they accidentally drop theirs on the floor or attempt to find a new set after their first set is used on a first course. That’s not because the store can’t afford it or because they only have so many but rather because it’s part of the psychology we’ve been mentioning. Studies have shown that if people are given an unlimited amount of silverware then they’ll eat more courses on average than a person who has to use the same amount of silverware for their entire meal. While a lot of people wouldn’t mind eating with the same spoon and fork for their entire meal, it’s thought that on a subconscious level that if people are able to grab new silverware they’ll feel like they have to have another course or at least eat more than they otherwise would in their first or second course. The same doesn’t go for chopsticks, though, as eating with chopsticks slows the rate of eating down and thus ends up meaning that the amount of food consumed as a whole is far less than someone who is eating with a fork. Who would’ve thought that this much thought would go into spoons and forks at a buffet?
6. More Starch, Please!
If you were to look at a map of a buffet from someone that is in charge of laying out both the store and the menu you’d see a lot of sections that you’d expect like meat, salads, soups and desserts. One section that might surprise you is the “starch” section, even if you’re familiar with the term and what it means. Starches like potatoes, rice, pasta, corn, beans and grains are perfect for buffets because they’re cost effective, they keep well enough to be bought in extremely large amounts (for food) and they’re also relatively flexible in terms of what they can be made into (just think about how many different ways you can make a potato). That makes them perfect for buffets as you can buy hundreds of pounds of potatoes and make baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes, French fries, chips, hash browns, funeral potatoes, Gnocchi and much, much more. Beyond that, starches tend to make people feel more full than food that is the same size and so people tend to obviously eat a lot less of not only those starchy meals but of other foods in general. So, if you want to make the most of your meal (or just cost your buffet more money) in the future stick to proteins like most of their meat, which is obviously the last thing that the buffet wants as they make you jump through a few hoops to actually eat a lot of their meat or at least their best types of meat. Luckily for everyone involved, though, starchy foods can be and mostly are delicious and while they may not be great for you (unless we’re talking about vegetables) they were still the main staple of the human diet for centuries for a reason (when it comes to potatoes and bread, especially).
5. Cutting Meat
Most people that have been to a non-Chinese food buffet are probably used to the guy that stands in the meat/protein section cutting slices of some sort of meat for the world’s saddest line. While upon first walk-by it might make complete sense that there’s someone there cutting a slice of ham or meatloaf from what smells delicious, it’s actually all part of the buffets devious plan to stay in business. As it may not surprise you, meat is the most expensive thing in any buffet and because of that they need to find ways to ensure that you’re not going to simply eat a bunch of meat and leave their restaurant. One way they do that is by making sure that their starches, vegetables (which include starches), salads, soups and desserts are as delicious as possible as it’s really hard to compete with meat in that arena and by offering a wide variety of those that are as delicious and cutting edge (in terms of following trends) as possible they are lowering the amount of meat that each person eats. Beyond that, by having an employee cutting their higher end proteins they are ensuring that portions are within a profitable amount, even if a person is asking for more than one slice (which some buffets actually restrict). Beyond that the buffets do use psychology here as well, by cutting meat into smaller and smaller pieces not just from the chunk of meat at the meat station but also in terms of each portion. By cutting each portion into, let’s say, five small pieces as opposed to three large pieces, basically it’s increasing the amount of bites that people have which subconsciously makes people feel like they’re not only eating more than they actually are but also that they’re getting a better value which is clearly their end-game as we’ve brought it up in nearly every entry on this list.
4. The Layout
As this list has shown, when it comes to the buffet restaurant industry, starches are worth their weight in gold where as meat can make or break a restaurant. That creates a sort of catch-22 as restaurants don’t want to create especially delicious protein/meat products as people might end up focusing all of their attention on that dish and avoiding any other products on the floor, but at the same time they can’t make bad food either otherwise they’ll lose business. To avoid things like that restaurants tend to insulate their higher priced products. Insulate how? You ask? It’s actually as simple as it is genius! When it comes to higher priced products like meat and some desserts like pies or fudge, or fudge pies, or pie fudge, buffets actually surround those stations with a bunch of lower priced product. When it comes to higher priced desserts there are typically either tables next to or even platters on the same table of lower priced fruit in the hopes that the people grabbing one of those delicious fudge pies will also grab some fruit to go along with it. As they eat the fruit and the fudge pie (or pie fudge), the chances are that they’ll fill up and not return for a second helping. The same goes for meat, with a side of mashed potatoes (or potato mash?), the chances are that people aren’t going to go up for another t-bone steak. Nothing is left to chance because it really can’t be.
3. By Serving Mediocre Meat
Thus far in this list we’ve learned that running a successful buffet is really a science, with actual scientists doing all sorts of studies to determine what works and what doesn’t and what goes into the thought process of people that eat there, namely because running a restaurant alone is one of the, if not the, most difficult lines of business to go into in the first place. Most restaurants have a profit margin of under $1.50 on a $40 check and when you allow people to essentially go into your kitchen and eat everything their heart desires for far less than that $40, like most buffets do, it’s a wonder that they exist at all. The bread and butter of buffets is the idea that people are getting an amazing deal for not a lot of money and because of that you have to strike a delicate balance when it comes to the higher priced items that you sell because when you put “Value” in the minds of your customers you’re going to get people who are looking for a deal (or unfortunately that might be a bit hard up for money and even food). We’ve established on this list that meat is the most expensive item in the store and so stores have to make sure that they’re not providing cuts of meat that will put them out of business (like t-bones, for example). On the other end of the spectrum, buffets can’t just provide raccoon meat either, as if the product is no good then they won’t have any customers either so it’s actually a tightrope walk when it comes to finding a cut of meat that isn’t too expensive but also isn’t too cheap. The key is finding whatever is fresh and discounted and that can change from day-to-day, which means that the menu can change from day-to-day as well. Beyond that finding meat that is more versatile is important as it allows for different types of meals from hamburgers to meat loaf or meatballs. While the meat itself (in terms of it’s cut or quality) may be mediocre, the actual meals might be fantastic, that’s the magic of buffet cooking and that’s why people love them.
2. Cooking Food Ahead of Time
Despite the fact that their servers rely on tips for most of their wages, the number one cost for a restaurant outside of food cost comes from the amount of money they pay their employees. Buffets are no different, except for the fact that they don’t have servers to begin with (outside of that guy who stands by himself and cuts slices of meat for people). They do have cooks though, although the job is a lot different from other cooking jobs in that it’s far less hectic than cooking in a restaurant where food is made to order. They do, however, cook a wide range of food and because of that cooking in a buffet is actually a great crash course for anyone looking for a job in the culinary arena. Beyond cooking a diverse and wide range of food they also have to cook huge amounts of it because they obviously are going to be making food for a larger group of people that might consume a lot more than they otherwise would, and despite the fact that a lot of science goes into the buffet industry, individual restaurants still have to provide a large amount of food so they don’t run out of something even if it’s something that people aren’t going to eat (although they clearly have learned what works and what doesn’t and will cook close to the right amount). Because they cook all their food in advance they actually do put a lot of thought into the amounts they need to make it through that day, as those numbers have to be as close as possible so they don’t run out but also so they don’t end up wasting a ton of product and thus money. Obviously, though, people will only eat what they’re provided so it can actually end up being another case of the chicken or the egg (as in, are people eating this because we’re making it or are we making it because people are eating it). Doing it this way cuts way down on those labor costs and allows these restaurants to stay in business and it also cuts down on the amount of time that people spend at their table, which means more customers can be in the store and thus more money can be made. All of this is what keeps buffets in business.
1. They Can Sell Their Garbage
When it comes to eating garbage you can do a lot worse than the garbage from your local buffet, as it’s mostly food and people tend to waste a lot even at the best designed buffet in the world, meaning that there’s definitely some bread sticks and shrimp in there. Because of that this garbage is actually worth some money, but who would actually eat garbage food, you ask? Pigs, of course. It’s called slop and it takes a whole lot of slop to feed all the pigs that it takes to feed all of us humans. Bacon is extremely popular these days, even more so than it already was and it was already popular because it’s bacon. From bacon flavored… Everything (including vodka, ice cream and bacon) to ham and pork chops, basically every part of a pig that isn’t hair or bone is edible (people loved pigs feet (pickled or otherwise) and even the “head cheese” that is basically their brains). To feed all of those pigs a lot of pig farmers will actually drive around to different restaurants to collect their food waste, which they bring back to their farms and toss into their slop trough. Restaurants as a whole do this and actually can either make money by selling their garbage to pig farms or can make money by writing off the donation on their taxes, which sounds like an audit waiting to happen (“I’m telling you I donated my garbage to pigs!”) but is an actual practice that is not only good for the bottom line but is also good for the environment in a few ways. First off, they’re reducing the waste that the food would’ve been had it not been donated, which means that the farmers would’ve had to purchase food elsewhere and that would’ve had to have been created and shipped. Secondly, when natural products like food decompose it creates methane which is a greenhouse gas that is over twenty-times as terrible for climate change as carbon dioxide, and while that will still be released via pig farts, it’s far less terrible than the methane that would’ve come from the landfill. That’s why large buffets like the ones in Las Vegas donate their food waste to hog farmers, so the next time you feel bad for “wasting” the food on your tiny plate at the buffet, realize that you definitely just made the day of some pig that you’re probably going to eat the next time you’re at the buffet. The circle of life, indeed.