Buffet diners of all ages queue close together, plates and silverware perhaps already in hand, waiting for their turn to help themselves to the communal dishes of food.
Serving utensils are shared and sometimes errantly switched from one dish to another. Spills happen.
The fact that most buffets are equipped with clear sneeze guards is a reminder that there has always been a little bit of risk involved.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March 2020 and restaurant dining rooms closed, buffets ground to a halt. The heat lamps and steam tables went cold. The chocolate fountains, under whose cascading flows countless cubes of pound cake, fruit and undoubtedly children’s hands once enrobed, dried up.
Some have questioned what role buffets have in a post-pandemic world. But for a number of Fayetteville-area buffets, the last 18 months have been a time of closure, loss, adaptation and for some, a rebound and hope for the future.
The buffet inches back
Lunch and dinner buffets were a staple at Thai Lanna ever since the restaurant, then known as Thai Pepper, opened on Bragg Boulevard in Fayetteville in 1998. But when the pandemic hit, they — like so many other restaurants in the state — switched to takeout.
The dining room was closed until this spring, but even then, Thai Lanna kept the menu a la carte-only until they reopened the buffet in early July.
As of now, the buffet is only open for two meals a week: Friday dinner and Sunday lunch. With rising food costs and apprehension to raise the price beyond the current $14.95 price tag, it’s all they can do right now.
“We can only afford to have it two days,” manager Megan Munfarn said. The a la carte menu is served the other days of the week.
The buffet features a variety of Thai curries and stir-fries, noodle and rice dishes, papaya salad and mango sticky rice, among many other dishes. Some are made from family recipes, Munfarn said, requiring imported ingredients that have been harder to come by lately.
Munfarn said a move back to the a la carte-only menu is possible. They’re going to keep the buffet going for a couple more months and then reevaluate.
“We don’t know how long we can keep it open,” she said.
Buffet closures — some for good
While the buffet at Thai Lanna is holding on, albeit perilously, some buffets in the Fayetteville area have closed during the pandemic.
Super King Buffet, a long-running Chinese buffet on North McPherson Church Road in Fayetteville, permanently closed April 1, according to the Cumberland County Health Department.
Fred Chason’s Grandsons, the popular Southern barbecue buffet, closed all five of its locations in Fayetteville, Hope Mills, Smithfield, Garner and Rocky Mount at the onset of the pandemic. In a July 18 Facebook post, owners Todd and Sheryl Warga detailed their decision to reopen the Smithfield location in July 2020, before ultimately deciding to close the restaurant in November after seeing just 20% of the sales the restaurant did before the pandemic.
The Hope Mills location, which also reopened last summer, is the only location currently operating. The Smithfield spot is “in limbo,” while they were evicted from the Rocky Mount spot, sold the building that once housed the Fayetteville location, and are no longer in possession of the Garner property. The owners did not immediately return a request for comment.
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The takeout pivot
Ron’s Barn, offering a similar spread of pork barbecue, fried chicken, ribs and all the fixins’, decided to temporarily shutter its Coats location in January, said general manager Elizabeth Boone.
Boone, whose father, Ron Jenkins, bought the restaurant in 1986, said they originally planned to reopen the Coats location in August, but concerns over a rise in COVID-19 cases and the delta variant has delayed the reopening likely until the spring.
But that hasn’t slowed things down at the Sanford location, where they had to hire additional staff and convert a private party room to make space for a takeout business that tripled in size compared to what it was before the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, takeout made up around 20 to 25% of Ron’s Barn’s business. Now, more than a year after dining rooms were allowed to reopen, it’s roughly an even split between takeout and dine-in for the more than 10,000 diners the Sanford restaurant feeds monthly.
The pivot from an all-you-can-eat sit-down restaurant to takeout was something all buffet restaurants had to manage.
For Paris & Potter, the Fayetteville-based company that owns six Cicis pizza buffets in Fayetteville, Lumberton, Wilmington, Smithfield, Myrtle Beach and Florence, South Carolina, promotions and easy online ordering were key.
“That really helped us a great deal,” said Steve Paris, co-founder of the company that also runs 28 KFC restaurants across the Carolinas, including North Carolina’s first KFC on Bragg Boulevard in Fayetteville.
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Even though the last of the six buffets didn’t reopen until early this year, the restaurants remained busy, thanks to promotions like $5 large pizzas that kept customers coming through the doors. Paris also credited the company’s online ordering platform for making ordering easier for customers and keeping traffic high.
While the six pizzerias saw a decline in sales in 2020, the reopening of the buffets and the return of tourism, particularly to the Myrtle Beach location, have made for a strong rebound.
“We’re doing as well as we would’ve done without the pandemic,” Paris said.
Hope for the return
Salem Pizza in Salemburg closed its expansive salad bar and moved to takeout only when dining rooms were ordered closed, but unlike many other buffets, it reopened as soon as it was allowed, even with reduced capacity limits.
June Carter, whose parents, Goodie and Doris Spell, opened the 230-seat pizza and Southern food buffet in 1998, said business was slow when they first reopened the buffet, but she has seen business steadily grow since.
“I just feel blessed that people are still coming out,” she said.
Enticed by pork barbecue and fried chicken cooked on-site and daily specials like roast beef and baby back ribs on Thursdays, seafood on Fridays and Saturdays, and a Monday catfish night that Carter said has “taken off like wildfire,” diners come from as far as Raleigh and Goldsboro.
While they offer both a la carte and buffet menus, around 90% of diners opt for the buffet. Salem Pizza also does a thriving catering business — mostly pork barbecue and fried chicken — that accounts for about a quarter of their total sales. Some Sundays, they’ll have 20 to 30 chickens going out every hour for catering pick-up orders.
“I just pray it continues,” Carter said.
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Squeezing a tight belt even tighter
Buffet restaurants have to cook large amounts of food in anticipation of a certain number of diners arriving, which can ultimately lead to food waste, putting even more strain on an already tight bottom line.
It takes the crew at Thai Lanna around seven hours to prep all the food for that day’s buffet, Munfarn said, which makes the pain of seeing wasted food hurt even more. Everything is cooked fresh, so leftover food isn’t saved, reheated and served again later.
Munfarn said the restaurant does charge diners for excessive food waste, but even when the charge is enforced, it only goes so far.
“We need help from the customer to help us keep the food cost down,” she said.
While Thai Lanna has not raised its buffet price, both Ron’s Barn and Salem Pizza have raised their prices slightly. Ron’s Barn raised its dinner price by a buck to $11.99. Lunch, served cafeteria-style, ranges from $6 for one meat and two vegetables to $9 for four meats and two vegetables. It’s the same price they’ve been charging since 2013 and Boone said they’re overdue for a small increase.
Consumer confidence is vital to any restaurant, but particularly for buffets, where the risks of cross-contamination from touching communal utensils and interacting with other diners have been put under a microscope over the last 18 months.
At Ron’s Barn, employees serve the food to the customers, so diners don’t have to handle the utensils. Boone said the restaurant had been doing that prior to the pandemic and thinks that’s helped alleviate some of the fears from diners.
“I think that’s helped us all along,” she said.
Munfarn, Carter and Paris all said that diners are required to wear masks and disposable gloves when at the buffet line.
Salem Pizza has plexiglass barriers between the booths and hand sanitizer stations throughout the dining room.
“We try to keep it to where people feel comfortable,” Carter said.
As much as those steps are taken to protect the diners, they’re also to protect the staff, many of whom have been working in the restaurants for the duration of the pandemic.
“We’re thankful for them sticking it out with us,” Paris said. “It was a trial.”
At Thai Lanna, the mask and glove requirements are posted on signs hung throughout the restaurant and the staff isn’t afraid to remind diners. Most understand — some don’t.
“We’re scared of the virus too,” Munfarn said.
Jacob Pucci writes on food, restaurants and business. Contact him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @jacobpucci or on Facebook. Like talking food? Join our Fayetteville Foodies Facebook group.
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