Buffet Supplies: Keep Your Customers Coming Back for More

Buffets are everywhere: continental breakfast at the hotel, salad bar at the grocery store, even self-serve frozen yogurt. We’ve become a society of grab-and-go eaters. Even social events strike a casual tone with buffet food service. And we like choices. It’s no small trick to offer customers a visually attractive food display replete with options without being eaten out of house and home — er, business.

Help Your Customers Help Themselves

Self-serve kiosks give customers easy access to ready-made products. Thinking about how consumers use each station helps plan an efficient and effective display.

Cheryl Kester, deli manager at Roth’s Fresh Markets in McMinnville, OR, says her crew refreshes the salad bar every hour to ensure full containers and visual appeal. Utensils are needed for every item so make sure you’ve got the right kind. “A slotted spoon is great for water-packed items like artichoke hearts, but on the olive bar, we use solid spoons to capture brine for the container,” explains Kester.

Set up an efficient station with these tips:

  • Provide an appropriate utensil for every buffet item
  • Keep to-go packaging well stocked; hot foods need sturdier containers, lids should prevent spills
  • Provide clear signage identifying menu items and pricing
  • Restock smaller pans and crocks regularly to keep offerings full and fresh
  • Use squeeze bottles for dressing and sauces

Stay in Control

Most buffets these days sell items by weight, to avoid excessive self-serving. If that’s not your business model, use an attendant to keep an eye on things. “When you have a chef watching the buffet for replenishment purposes, people will take less food,” says Stacy Zeigler, director of sales for Bold American Events in Atlanta, GA.

Another portion control tactic is buffet design. “Put proteins at the end of the line and breads and salads that are more filling at the beginning. There will be less room [on the plate] when you get to the end,” remarks Zeigler’s associate, event coordinator Erin Moore.

Some buffet items, like condiments or single-serve items, are best served in prepackaged portions. At the Holiday Inn Express in Pullman, WA, breakfast condiments like butter, jam and syrup are offered in individual prepackaged portions. The same goes for single-serving yogurt and instant oatmeal. While per-serving costs may be higher, the upside is lower “shrink” from discarded, unused product and buffets stay cleaner. General manager Meghan Wiley says it’s not a perfect solution as “single servings don’t mean people won’t pack extra.”

Keeping It Clean

Food safety concerns require regular maintenance for display fixtures. Kester’s units get cleaned and vacuumed daily and product is individually wrapped for refrigerated storage. Keep masking tape and markers on hand for labeling and dating products.

Address food allergy concerns with backup food prep equipment like cutting boards, bowls, knives and spatulas to avoid cross-contamination.

Food temperatures play a role, too. “We use chafing dishes with sterno and butane burners to keep food hot. We also use dry ice on our sushi displays and ice cream displays to keep cold food cold,” comments Ashley Raffa, event coordinator at Bold American Events. Your local environmental health department can provide guidelines for safe food-holding temperatures.

Service utensils are a must for everything. “Even if it’s easy to pick up a roll with your hands, having tongs for guests to use is important,” says Raffa.

Trending Now

Buffet trends aren’t limited to foods and flavors. “The look of buffet lines is now cleaner, sleeker, more streamlined,” observes Zeigler. “More geometrical shapes with the vessels and creativity. Food has become décor as well. Risers are important for different height levels and a more pleasing look to the eye.” Ultimately, the look of the venue and the nature of the event or environment will drive choices for service ware.

Even disposables are undergoing a makeover. Environmental concerns are driving customer demand for recyclable and compostable products. Wiley’s establishment is transitioning from Styrofoam to paper-based plates and cups. Kester orders a mix of recyclable and compostable products.

Make a strategic plan for displaying food, provide appropriate utensils for service, and make sure to keep temperatures in line. Properly outfitted, your buffets will have customers coming back for more.

Anne Nisbet has spent her career working with chefs in restaurants, catering and culinary event production, absorbing their tips, tricks and tales along the way. She is the culinary director for the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, OR, where she lives and dreams of someday raising chickens and honeybees. You can find Anne at Google +Anne Nisbet.

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