OPERATORS DIFFER in their attitudes toward buffet service. Are buffets a great way to save on labor costs, or a venue for showcasing your facility's best food and service? Should they be attended or strictly self-serve? Are they an economical way to quickly serve meals at events and meetings, or a more expensive option better suited than table service for presenting certain kinds of upscale meal offerings?
Perhaps the one thing everyone agrees that buffets have in their favor is a flexible format, which lends itself to an almost infinite variety of service applications.
Whatever their philosophy, operators who frequently "buffet" have plenty of advice for their onsite peers. For this article we interviewed a mix of noncommercial chefs, operators and foodservice consultants, looking for their best tips for improving onsite buffets, from cooking and recipe advice to presentation ideas, cost saving techniques and equipment/serving suggestions. Here's what they had to offer.
The perfect solution
For Alison Negrin, Executive Chef at John Muir/Mt. Diablo Healthy System in Concord, Calif., buffets represent the perfect solution to event foodservice.
"Buffets are easier than sit-down functions with table service," she notes. "We're not a restaurant, and we don't have trained waiters ready to go at a moment's notice. That's why we prefer buffets, and, if we can get away with not having to use chafing dishes, so much the better. We'll put out interesting food that can be safely maintained at room temperature on attractive ceramic platters."
At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, buffets are often employed to showcase the foodservice department's most upscale and expensive offerings.
"The amount of money invested in food for buffets can be much greater than for sitdown dinners," says Catering Manager Donald King. "For buffets, we always offer three entrees, two starches, two vegetables, two salads and two desserts.
"We have a tradition with our buffets—we don't look to them as a way to save on food or labor costs. Rather, they're a way to give customers more options."
Labor-wise, King will employ one server for every 18 guests at a sitdown meal; for buffets, he'll send one server for every 24 customers. "We'd be very hesitant to cut corners in service for our buffets," he adds.
At the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Food Services Manager Terri Moreman features perpetual buffet service from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily, with up to 700 athletes moving through during lunch hours.
"The key to our service is that we progressively cook," she says. "Nothing is held in the warmers beyond 30 minutes."
Communication is key in a buffet situation of that size, Moreman believes. Mounted wall phones with a direct connection to the kitchen are located behind several buffet stations, so employees can easily call for replenishment. Similarly, a customer service coordinator, near the entrance of the facility, has a direct line to the back of the house, so "he or she can call and let the chef know if a crowd of 30 or more people has just entered the line," Moreman says.
A communication log, updated after every shift, keeps all employees informed. "It will note which foods were well-received, those that weren't, and flag issues that need to be dealt with that day," Moreman explains. "It's crucial in selfserve situations to make sure the last customer of the day has as many choices and as attractive a presentation as the first customer had."
At Harvard University Dining Services, Director of Catering Madeline Meehan has perfected the art of minimal labor buffets by offering a selection of drop-off, completely unattended service programs dubbed "On the Move."
Many of the program's buffet meals consist of chilled platters featuring such global fare as Mediterranean, Pacific Rim and Latin specialties. This January, the department unveiled the latest program addition, called "Give Your Budget a Break."
Disposable serviceware, boxed carafes of coffee, and thermal, disposable soup tureens allow Meehan to offer a wide variety of both hot and cold foods, as well.
"This approach really saves on labor," she says. "Since it's totally geared for drop off, we don't have to go back and pick up anything, and since the items are either in thermal containers or prepared as chilled platters, we don't have to have an attendant to watch over it."
TIP: SET UP and LOGISTICS
FOR EVERY 100 GUESTS, include one complete buffet line; a two-sided table can serve 200 persons. (Paul Fairbrook, Paul Fairbrook Associates, Stockton, Calif.)
WHEN USING A STEAMSHIP ROUND or other carved meats, position the carver at the end of the buffets; he/she can then serve two lines at the same time. (Fairbrook)
ASSUME EVERYONE WILL WANT TO TRY A LITTLE of everything, so keep portion sizes to four ounces for the main items. (Alison Negrin, John Muir/Mt. Diablo Health System, Concord, Calif.)
SET UP THE HIGH-COST ITEMS LAST on the line, and put out larger selections of fillers first. For instance, on a fajita bar, start with refried beans, Spanish rice, nacho cheese sauce and chips to fill the plate; then have the meat and peppers follow. (Linda Wenman, Via Christi Regional Medical Center, Wichita, Kansas)
PURCHASE CERAMIC HOTEL PANS to use in the chafing dishes. Food looks better when offset by a background of ceramic versus metal. (Negrin)
BRING THE FOOD IN ROLL TOP chafing dishes up to half level after everyone has gone through once. (Don King, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio)
WHEN FOOD HAS GOTTEN DOWN to 30 percent, consolidate buffets. (Sonja Kehr, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio)
KEEP SEVERAL TYPES OF OVERLAPPING event logs. Track menus, size of events, location and transportation issues. A rolling calendar helps forecast where there will be challenge areas and helps guide when booking additional events. (Kehr)
USING TWO-WAY RADIOS is crucial for communication between the front and back of the house. (King)
IF OFFERING CHILLED PLATTERS, you don't need an attendant, which saves on labor; with sterno set-ups, it's good to have people on hand to oversee them. (Madeline Meehan, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.)
TIP: FOOD PREP and RECIPES
WORK WITH CLIENTS to determine preferences in food preparation and probe to find out if there are cooking techniques or ingredients a client believes are important. Another tip: let regulars know you're open to trying appropriate family recipes.This has the added benefit of providing a source of new recipes to try out in other areas of your business. (Kehr)
ON BREAKFAST BUFFETS, add cream cheese or sour cream to scrambled eggs to prevent their drying out. (Fairbrook)
BATCH-COOK HARD-TO-HOLD ITEMS and include sauces and cheeses to keep items moist and allow them to hold longer. (Wenman)
YOU DON'T ALWAYS HAVE TO COVER cooked items with plastic film when keeping them in the warmer; it tends to steam food that might have been seared or roasted, altering their texture. (Negrin)
COOKED VEGETABLES DETERIORATE FIRST; be sure to put them out only a few minutes before service, being careful to replenish them with small freshlycooked batches when necessary. (King)
USE GLAZES ON SLICED MEATS instead of gravy to keep them moist. (Kehr)
AN ENRICHED BROTH made with wine, shallots, chicken or beef stock and thyme (or bouquet garni) works well to moisten buffet items. A bit of frozen glacÈ product (packaged in brick form) for a rich, intense beef or chicken flavor. (Negrin)
MIST COLD ITEMS with water spray just before service or cover them with moist towels during their refrigerated storage to maintain moisture and shine. (Kehr)
FOR "GRILLED" ITEMS, sear the grill marks on first and finish off the cooking in an oven or steamer. For instance, grilling 500 steaks may mean too long a delay between the first and last steak: instead, mark them ahead, put back in the chiller, and bake them in the oven before service. (Kehr)
FISH CAN BE HANDLED the same way; poach in a steamer or use stock in steam table pans, cover them and put in the oven. That way, the fish still gets moist heat, but stove tops are freed up. (Kehr)
STEAM ROASTED VEGETABLES 75 percent of the way, toss with seasonings, and roast in a 450F oven; this maintains a high moisture content. (Kehr)
BLANCHING VEGETABLES for veggie platters keeps them moist longer, brings out color, and helps with sanitation as well. (Kehr)
TIP: PRESENTATION and GARNISHES
INCLUDING ROOM TEMPERATURE FOODS (grilled vegetables, pasta and grain salads made with vinaigrettes) helps you get away from using chafing dishes, permitting more attractive ceramic platters for serving food. (Negrin)
SERVE ENTREES ON A BED of some contrasting vegetable, such as sautÈed onions, leeks or spinach; this helps keep them moist. (Negrin)
SALMON ON A BED of colorful vegetable slaw, served on a white platter is eye-catching and attractive. (Meehan)
SET OUT FRESH PANS in the chafers after all customers have gone through once; they will see and appreciate this extra service. (King)
GARNISH WITH FRESH HERBS at the last minute; greens will wilt and turn brown in warmers and under chafer lids. (Negrin)
TRY GARNISHING WITH HYDROPONIC WATERCRESS; it's very spring-like and eliminates stems . (Negrin)
USING ROLL TOP SILVER CHAFERS makes a statement for upscale buffets. Also, incorporate lots of contrasting colors and use candelabras, mirrors, candles, fountains, risers, mirrored boxes, silk and fresh flowers, and lots of greenery. (King)
TIP: TIME and COST SAVINGS
EXPLAIN TO CUSTOMERS UP FRONT that you will man the buffet for one hour, and then pull out. (King)
HAVE ALL ORDERING DONE by e-mail. (Negrin)
MARKET THROUGH E-MAIL as well, and avoid having to print lots of menus. (Meehan)
DEVELOP BUFFETS geared for drop-off only, in which everything is disposable. (See sidebar for more info.) (Meehan)
USE DISPLAY COOKING at buffet stations to save costs and avoid prepping in advance. (King)
CUSTOMIZE PURCHASED ITEMS to give them a homemade look without the extra labor. For instance, add kiwi or pineapple to generic, bought salsa. The customer doesn't always know what is made and what is purchased, only how it's presented. (Kehr)
DURING SPRING BREAK or other times of lower volume, take all available labor and make up batches of things like lasagna; cook and freeze roasts, slice them and prep for barbecue, for instance. (Kehr)
DEVELOP A BATCH COOKING system; it does a wonderful job of keeping food costs down. (King)
WHEN STAFF IS AVAILABLE, try to have them serve the guests. It's a good way to control portion sizes and take care of the customer. (Negrin)
SET UP A VIENNESE dessert buffet that's manned, in which the cake slices are individually cut and garnished on the spot with chocolate stripes, dollops of whipped cream and peanuts, cinnamon dust, or set in a pool of crðme de menthe. You can actually go through one-third fewer desserts that way than when they're cut beforehand; and there's no waste. (King)
TRY A GOURMET COFFEE BAR buffet, which can serve as dessert, too. Set up coffee urns with two-centperserving coffee, place cups alongside for self-service, then add mini pastries and biscotti (less expensive than pies and cakes), flavored syrups, flavored swizzle sticks and chocolate pirouettes. Try serving the coffee cups margarita-style, dipped into corn syrup and then into cinnamon sugar or cocoa powder with sugar. Staffing should be about one server per 50 to 60 guests. (King)
MAKE SMALLER TRAYS; if items are leftover in the back, they can be reused, but once they've gone out front, they're lost even if they're not eaten. (Kehr)
E-MAIL EXISTING CUSTOMERS with menu PDF attachments announcing new or special buffet menus, and post them on the web. (Crista Martin, Publications and Communications Coordinator, Harvard University Dining Services)
TRY DRAWING SOME NEW CUSTOMERS by emailing "budget" menus to a broader selection of staff on campus. (Martin)
OFFER MENU TASTINGS to customers who may have questions about a particular item. This enables them to feel confident in what they'll receive. It also gives you the opportunity to up sell a particular event by showing something better for an additional cost. Usually the customer takes the higher item, because once they see it, they want it. (Kehr)
TIP: FOOD PREP and RECIPES
Gear production and recipes to the customer base. If there will be too many guests to allow for labor-intensive prep such as skewers, switch to a different way to present similar flavors. Instead of Asian beef kabobs with green peppers, go with Szechuan beef and broccoli stir fry; instead of hand-battered fried chicken, move to an ovenbaked product instead. (Moreman)
TIP: PRESENTATION and GARNISHES
Consider a self-service salad garnish or a potato bar at one end of the buffet line. This lets customers gather around without blocking the rest of the line.