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What is a Buffet Restaurant?

At buffet restaurants, customers pay one flat price and then help themselves to an array of different foods arranged on hot and cold food tables.

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Built for Restaurants
Buffet Restaurants

1. What is a buffet restaurant?

At buffet restaurants, customers pay one flat price and then help themselves to an array of different foods arranged on hot and cold food tables. Inspired by Scandinavian smorgasbord-style restaurants, the classic “all-you-can-eat buffet” first became popular in Las Vegas casinos. 

The concept took off, and now you can find buffets all around the country. The food is generally filling and provides good bang for your buck, a popular choice among families with picky eaters and large groups. 

Buffet restaurants are often operated as chains, with locations serving a set menu of a particular kind of cuisine, like pizza or steak, or focusing on regional or international fare, such as Southern food or Chinese. 

The lunch buffet option at traditional restaurants, where a subset of the menu is available at bargain prices, is a popular way to attract customers during the day.

2. What is the history of buffet restaurants?

After World War II, buffets were all-night affairs that popped up in Las Vegas casinos. Casino operators realized that late-night snacking fueled more gambling, and the first buffets, known as Chuck Wagons, put out cold cuts and a smattering of hot dishes to keep their customers in action. 

The casino eateries became more elaborate through the years, turning into a Vegas tradition with all manner of foods, from fancy spreads serving lobster tail and filet mignon to breakfast buffets boasting hundreds of dishes. 

The ‘90s brought a boom in self-service Chinese buffets in cities around the country, and now there are thousands of buffets serving a variety of cuisines nationwide.

3. What is typically on a buffet restaurant menu?

Customers go to buffets to fill up with as much food as possible at a reasonable price. Satisfying and filling comfort food dishes comprise the majority of the offerings, food that can stand up to heat lamps or remain fresh and tasty while sitting on ice. This includes everything from fried chicken and meatloaf to salads and fruit. 

Popular themes include Italian pasta and pizza, soup and salad, steak and potatoes, and seafood buffets. 

Perhaps the most ubiquitous is the breakfast buffet at hotels, beloved by travelers far and wide, usually featuring an omelet station in addition to eggs, breakfast meats, muffins, bagels, yogurts, and more.

4. How do you start a buffet restaurant?

Opening a buffet is a multi-step process that requires planning and research. Once the style of cuisine is established, an important step is to find a suitable location. 

Buffets are typically vast restaurants that can accommodate many customers, so finding an appropriate space will be critical. In addition to a large seating area, buffet owners will need extra space to display the food and allow for foot traffic as customers return for second or third helpings. 

Parking is a key consideration, as table turnover is quick, and many eateries feed hundreds of customers a night. Equipment is also essential, as buffets must keep the food safe and at the correct temperature.

5. How much does it cost to start a buffet restaurant?

The average cost to open a restaurant is $275,000 for a leased space and $425,000 if you want to buy a location. Many variables can make the cost higher or lower, such as location, food expenses, equipment, and staff. 

Generally speaking, the labor cost of operating a buffet is much lower than an average restaurant. There is little to no waitstaff, and food prep can be managed with fewer employees since all dishes are prepared ahead of time in bulk. 

Additionally, buffet menus change often, allowing owners to take advantage of wholesale discounts on ingredients.

6. Most popular types of buffet restaurants

There’s no doubt that people choose buffets to fill up for cheap, but they’re also an opportunity for customers to try new delicacies without paying for an entire portion. 

The most popular buffets incorporate a sense of adventure into their offerings. Some provide unusual items or innovative twists to allow customers to discover new tastes. 

Interactive stations are another way to mix it up. Having attendants prepare a special dish that’s “made to order” conveys a feeling of freshness. Likewise, food served on smaller trays and platters also sends the message that there’s not an endless supply. 

The appeal of the all-you-can-eat buffet is clear. Choosing from a variety of food at one low price can make guests feel like kids in a candy store. Post-pandemic, one of the biggest challenges will be conveying a sense of freshness and safety.

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