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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Great Night For A Buffet

One sure way to experience a higher food cost percentage is to substitute an all you can eat buffet in lieu of your a la carte menu on your busiest night of the week. Batch production and preliminary forecast data will set a ceiling on the quantity and cost of production. Service labor is typically lower on buffet service. Most likely, the buffet is priced well above your average dinner entree.

Is this a smart move?

I do not recommend allowing customers to determine portion size. You can help by having manned carving stations. Although you will see a better food cost percentage, you lose some of the service labor savings.

Does the higher buffet price make up for the greater food consumption associated with the buffet service style? I believe the higher prices encourage customers to overload their plates. Your patrons are aware of the menu structure. They will calculate the utility in selecting the buffet and make the decision based on appetite.

Years ago, I was at a training seminar for statistical sampling techniques. In the early evening, a classmate asked "where's a good place to eat around here?" and very few people responded. Finally, a friend suggested an excellent Italian restaurant with a Wednesday night only buffet. He said he heard about it from his cousin who lived in the area. It was a Wednesday. Four of us decided to join him at the buffet.

This restaurant offered both a la carte menu service and the buffet. Our waitress asked if we were ready to order. Everyone encouraged me to start first. I was a definite for the buffet from the moment I stepped inside. My friend stuck with his original plan and also ordered the buffet. The next person was dieting and she chose a chicken breast entree. The ordering dynamics changed and the last two people also selected from the a la carte menu. Both people ordered a pasta entree with a side of Italian sausage.

Our buffet was priced twice as high as the typical entree. We each enjoyed clams on the half shell, shrimp, baked lasagna, prime rib, salad and we picked up dessert for our still hungry mates. Everyone kept looking at our prime rib (a beauty) with envy.

This restaurant employed help to carve the rib and portion the stuffed pasta dishes. The portions were generous and the goal seemed to discourage patrons from going back to the self-serve shellfish selection and salad bar. Desserts were eye popping and our friends begged us to bring them each a slice of a decadent chocolate cake. Our dieter stuck with some fresh fruit.

Our fellow diners decided they would order the buffet if they came again including the dieter.

I am 100% sure the cost of the food we consumed exceeded the target food cost percentage. During the meal, I noticed most tables were filled with serious buffet lovers. Clearly, the wait staff was skeletal. They did pay for extra help to handle portion control at the carving station. Were they right in the decision to go buffet style? I believe they were doing well with the buffet strategy.

Since they used a sumptuous buffet with prime rib and a top notch seafood selection to fill seats on a Wednesday night, I liked the idea. A quick check of the other restaurant parking lots nearby showed the wisdom of the decision. Shift the same meal service to Friday or Saturday night and I'd be against the decision.

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