Has coronavirus and food waste put an end to the all-you-can-eat buffet? – Stephen Jardine

As a buffet restaurant chain in the UK closes nearly 100 restaurants amid the Covid-19 outbreak, the all-your-can-eat meal may be becoming a thing of the past, writes Stephen Jardine.
Buffet meals usually involve customers re-using serving spoons and gathering at the same place (Picture: Habibur Rahman)Buffet meals usually involve customers re-using serving spoons and gathering at the same place (Picture: Habibur Rahman)
Buffet meals usually involve customers re-using serving spoons and gathering at the same place (Picture: Habibur Rahman)

‘For one dollar a patron can eat every possible variety of hot and cold entrees to appease the howling coyote in your innards.” That was how Canadian entrepreneur Herb McDonald introduced the world to the idea of the all-you-can-eat buffet in Las Vegas 80 years ago.

Since then, the buffet has become the surprise hit of the eating-out world. From five-star hotel breakfasts to the unlimited lunch at Pizza Hut, serving yourself comes with a thrill. The room rate may be extortionate but stepping up to the buffet is where you get your own back. As Alan Partridge discovered, the only restriction is the width of your plate and your appetite but that is something that can always be stretched.

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On my first trip to America cash was so tight, the hotel breakfast buffet was an exercise in trying to consume enough to see me through the day without giving myself the pancake sweats.

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Covid forces a most celebrated Edinburgh restaurant to close – Stephen Jardine

Down the years, the buffet has saved many a cash-strapped traveller but it is also a great way to explore other tastes and flavours. On trips to the Middle East, it is a way to sample a spoonful of something that looks and sounds intriguing but is probably too intimidating to order as a full-blown main course. And then there are all the variations. I’ve stayed in hotels that offered a cheese buffet and, best of all, a place in the south of France where a dessert table groaned with chocolate mousse, lemon tart, rum babas and millefeuille as the help yourself reward at the end of the meal.

However all this now looks lost. In March, the US FDA, which regulates food safety, recommended discontinuing self-service buffets and salad bars until the coronavirus pandemic subsides. Here, the buffet has also disappeared from the menu. While there is no evidence that Covid-19 can be transmitted via food, there is a worry about shared utensils at a buffet and the fact that people tend to crowd around waiting for the newly fried eggs to arrive.

Either way, the days of helping ourselves to a bit of this and a lot of that now seem to be behind us. That is a shame. I’m never excited about ordering a salad from the menu but I’m always happy to encounter a salad counter with lots of fresh things to eat. However even offering something healthy is no salvation in a time of pandemic. Last month the Sweet Tomatoes chain, which specialised in healthy salad buffets in the US, declared bankruptcy, closing 97 restaurants and leaving 4,400 staff out of work.

So is the buffet now a thing of the past, another memory of how life used to be? The indications would suggest so. Even when coronavirus passes, the enhanced hygiene it has required may make fewer of us happy to be faced with a rib of beef that has been under a hot light at the carvery for five hours.

With a greater concern about environmental issues, the inevitable food waste that is part of the deal at buffets may also mean its time is over. However we can still keep the tradition alive at home by putting out all the cereal boxes on the breakfast table, overcooking the scrambled egg and buying a toaster that doesn’t work. Perhaps we won’t miss it after all.

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