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Monday, January 02, 2006

Buffet Style Events

My corporate background includes a nine year stretch with Sodexho. My field work was at major construction projects, oil production facilities, Calgary Winter Olympics and the Alaska Railroad. We served hungry men over 5,000 calories a day. They worked in the freezing cold of Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia and Colorado.

Our sites served 3 to 4 buffets a day. We had very tight cost control due to the nature of the industry. Our contracts were won in competitive bidding wars against as many as 20 companies. Serving all-you-can-eat (AYCE) buffet style meals to voracious diners is half art and half science. In our company, I was the scientist. Most of our projects were staffed with marvelous artists. I can vividly remember their efforts during the holiday season each year.

The four key people in any successful high volume buffet production team are the chef, the baker, the butcher and the chef de garde manger. It is the job of the baker to make the patrons want dessert before they ever take their meal. To accomplish this task, we staged our buffets with the pastries first. The best bakers were showmen. They worked their magic every night with batters and pies and loaves of bread.

Most of the purchase dollar in our business was spent with purveyors of meat and seafood. Our best chefs worked closely with their butchers to optimize purchases based on market conditions. We served T-Bone Steak twice a week on every Canadian and Alaskan site. The butchers would buy a variety of cuts: sides, hinds, long loins and short loins. They looked at each cut as a source for steaks. They knew the percentage yields and the number of T-Bones from each cut. Depending on market prices, they bought enough steaks (through huge cuts) for the week and used the trim in stews and ground beef.

For this style operation, it is essential to have a completely separate refrigerated area for leftovers. Ideally, the bulk of the food left over may be served at the next meal period. The chef de garde manger sliced cold roasts for sandwiches, used leftover chicken in salad. Shrimp and crab was spread lightly over well presented pasta salads.

Every day, I watched the coming and going from this cooler. At a good site, there was never much food in this storage area. The same was true for bakery items. Each baker had his own use for the previous day's leftovers. Some liked bread pudding and others liked to use bran muffins.

Most of my buffet clients serve Sunday brunch or special events. There is little opportunity for reusing over production. Food won't last until the next week. The best chefs still display elaborate desserts in a prominent location. They use trained cooks to slice meats carefully. Salad bars are presented with well made dressings and garnishes.

The best buffets have a favorable impact on food cost results. Unfortunately, many buffet operations hurt the overall food cost results. If your operation uses the weekly buffet as an excuse for poor results, I would consider changing the buffet style meals to banquet style. Portion control in a buffet operation is an art. Careful calculations are necessary to prevent over production.

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