Salad bars and buffets have been around for years in many types of restaurants. For a generation we grew accustomed to the salad bar popular in mid-priced family restaurant chains. The salad bar has now become old news for many operators and customers. However, don't give up on the buffet. Recent new equipment offerings have allowed even high-end establishments to feature buffets that are more like what you might imagine at an upscale gathering in a home — food served in attractive bowls and platters without a lot of institutional looking stainless steel.
The first thing to do is to calculate the size of buffet needed. The size or length of buffet counter depends on the number of covers you plan to serve and the menu you will be offering. For example, the buffet will be larger for an operation that serves entrees and desserts than one only offering salads. Beverages or an extensive menu will require even more buffet area.
After the size of the buffet is determined consider the type and style of counters you want. There are many looks and styles. The first impression seen by guests is the woodwork, stone or other material countertop. That first impression can be very important, so it is usually wise to pay close attention to the design elements of these counters and spend some money where it will have some guest impact. Sometimes budgets dictate the look or sometimes the overall décor will determine the style. The look is important but the functional elements are essential to get right for food safety and if you are to serve well-merchandised quality foods. Here are some things to consider for the functional elements.
The most common type of cold holding and serving equipment for a buffet is the cold pan or ice pan unit. The pans' most important function is to keep food cold at safe serving temperatures. Some pans use just an insulated bin for holding ice and others have mechanically refrigerated pans. Several years ago in response to concerns about food borne illness, the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) made significant changes to requirements on permissible ways food can be held and on cold pan construction. These new guidelines require all open top refrigerated units to hold all areas of the product at not more than 41°F. The required temperature includes even the top of the product, meaning cold air has to be introduced above as well as under the food. Manufacturers have devised several new ways to comply with the requirements. Some cold pans will have more refrigeration run around the pan to fully wrap the product or lower the product in the pan.
Many operations are finding the newer “cold air buffet” units give a more upscale and less institutional look for allowing guests to serve themselves. Cold air buffet units allow you to display food out in the open without having to hide it inside a refrigerated well. These counter units introduce forced air gently blowing across the food to maintain temperature. The refrigerated air “blowers” are usually horizontal slots rising slightly above the counter at the rear of the unit. An air intake hidden near the counter front keeps the air flow rolling over food product in the depressed space between. These units can be designed with very little stainless steel visible for a less institutional look.
Another type of open cold serving unit is the frost top. A frost top, as its name implies, is a countertop surface chilled from below so that it creates a frosty surface for platters, bowls or crocks of foods. The frost surface is usually raised an inch or two above the counter and has a gully around the perimeter to catch condensate. It is important to note that in many locations the frost top is not permitted for holding perishable food for serving. The frost top is great for displays and foods that don't spoil, however.
One or two manufacturers of high end hot and cold buffet counters have introduced real stone frost tops with impressive styling to the market. What is impressive about these units is that the manufacturer builds the units using a single solid slab of granite, and heat and cool portions to provide a buffet unit. The units can be very attractive and fit into even a very upscale interior. The surface is cooled from the bottom without cold pans for a nice clean look. Unlike traditional buffet counters, since there are no visible cooling units, the equipment can serve other functions when not used as a buffet. These units are able to solve the age-old challenge of what to do with a buffet counter when not in use as a buffet. Since there are no steam tables or ice pans, the counter tops can serve any decorative or functional purpose. The manufacturer can also remote all controls to provide a sleek looking functional top.
Chilled salad bars and buffet serving units are a terrific way to merchandise in many operations. You need to be aware, however, food cost may well be higher when merchandising product in open pans than in traditional storage coolers since product must be open and visible. Displaying old, dried out or damaged product is not appetizing and will cause the opposite of the effective merchandising you are trying to achieve. The holding conditions for food on display may not be as ideal as holding product back of house. Also, in order to merchandise effectively, you always need product in the units — even at slow operating periods. For example, your salad bar looks best when packed full of a variety of fresh items. No one likes to get the last item on the counter. Don't overestimate the need for salad bar space or counter length because you will need to keep it full! A smaller full salad bar will look better than a sparse huge display.
On the hot food side, most operations have gotten away from the old steam table or typical hot food well. There are heated plates made of tiles, ceramic, stone or metal that allow the use of a variety of different serving vessels to be used and displayed attractively. Hot plates are available in a variety of sizes.
Induction has become widely used in recent years. These are generally 12-14-inch square countertop or in-counter units. Heating is instantaneous and can be regulated by output control buttons. In addition to being superfast, induction units are also super efficient as nearly all of the electrical energy consumed is converted to heat in the pan.
Induction is widely used on buffet lines and is well suited for an omelet station or stir fry area in a cafeteria. It is also far safer than open flames in these close customer contact areas. On the buffet line, induction is also excellent as a chafing dish warmer. Induction units can be purchased separately as components or in counters of various styles, sizes, and finishes, fully wired and ready for use. The units can also be built into a countertop for a flush unobtrusive look. Some manufacturers even make units that can be mounted under a stone or synthetic top. These new units can provide a completely hidden heating surface.
If you want a warmer, be sure you purchase induction units that are warmers, not cookers, if you want to avoid a possible hood requirement. In many locations a hood is required over units capable of cooking. In some instances you will need a hood over units intended to warm buffet items, since technically you could cook even though it would not make sense in most layouts. Use an induction warmer that limits the temperature at the maximum setting to just over 200°F. Also, it is important to remember that any induction unit must be used with special chafers with an iron containing base.
Dan Bendall, FCSI, is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm that specializes in planning foodservice facilities. He can be reached at 240-314-0660.