Confessions Of An All-You-Can-Eat Buffet Owner

January 10, 2018 | No Comments » | Topics: Life Experiences

What is the largest amount of food you have seen/heard about someone eating at one sitting?

Personally I had seen one man pile 9 plates of Chinese food (mostly cheap noodles and chicken). When they eat by themselves, I think they eat a lot more. When they are with friends, the social pressure keeps them from gorging too much. My waiters had said a larger number, but they might be overestimating. No one can really eat more than 2 pounds.

If people constantly get multiple plates of the most expensive foods, do you lose money?

Fortunately that does not happen often, but when it does, we lost at most the price of the buffet. They will not cover the cost of labor, rent, and utilities, but I’m pretty sure no one will pack several pounds of heavy-protein food, so it’s less than the buffet price. They also bring their friends along, so if there is one glutton in the group, they convince the rest of them to go to our place, while we make money on the glutton’s friends.

Is your restaurant menu fairly standard, or do you try new menu items regularly to mix things up?

I would say about half of them are rotated regularly, but on a fixed schedule. Some things we just try because the ingredients are cheap. Right now tomatoes are at $57/cs while they were $11/cs 4 months ago. However the price of cabbage and potatoes dropped, as well as bass. That influences the new dishes we make.

How much is prepared by your kitchen vs how much is prepared outside of your kitchen?

The meat dishes are made from scratch, but the base for the sauces are from the supplier. Most of these dishes are made with ingredients common to each other, such as General Tso’s Chicken, Sesame Chicken, and other American Chinese dishes. Some things like the pizza, fries, sesame balls, desserts, are all from the supplier and come frozen. The microwave is not used that frequently, but the fryers are.

How long does it take to prep and cook everything before the store opens?

2-3 hours before we open is how long it takes, with a complete team. Most prep work is done the night before, so it isn’t that unreasonable.

What is the exact number of shrimp that you would cut someone off at?

Depends, what size. I have the ability to buy shrimps from 200 to a pound size to jumbo 4 ounce shrimps.

But really, we just would change out the type of shrimp for another type of shrimp with a different sauce/cooking method. The customer won’t come again, but if they are losing us money, we cannot let them take advantage of us. They are already getting their meal at a fraction of a la carte price, but the abuse cannot happen, as it is unsustainable. Before you know it we have to raise prices because of a group of people who become too greedy and just want to make us lose the most.

Do you ever have to ban someone from returning because they ate too much or wasted too much food?

Regulars do not eat too much, as they are there just because we provide a comfort to them. Most are very picky eaters who love the idea of getting anything whenever they want. Fortunately we make a lot of money on these people. The heavy eaters do not come very often. I still don’t know why that is the case.

We have never banned anyone because they ate too much food.

Some children however, I would love to ban, throwing food all over the place, and wasting whole plates of deserts they cannot finish, and their parents not giving a shit.

What is one item you would advise people to stay away from at an all you can eat buffet?

Crab legs. I’m being serious. I have seen Chinese buffets at the fish market going and buying bottom of the barrel seafood including crab legs past their prime. And then they don’t steam them properly either to save on volume.

The sushi on the other hand, a common misconception, is relatively safe to eat IN A BUSY PLACE, as the health code standards in the region of raw food is very strict, and you cannot skimp out on prices of salmon and tuna fillet.

Isn’t getting the crab legs past their prime dangerous? Wouldn’t it make people sick?

It does, unfortunately. Very often. But it is very hard to sue with the little amount of evidence people have. We do not even risk giving cheap crab legs for that reason

The oysters always sketched me out. You say the crab legs you should avoid and the sushi is fine. But what about the oysters?

Oysters are also to be avoided as they source them, especially in the midwest, from groceries and fisheries past their prime. Sometimes on the coasts they are imported from China and South America, but are decent quality while they are fresh.

Are sushi made from a factory? Or made in-house? The’re usually pretty bland

Sushi are not made from a factory. They are made in house, but not from the finest fisheries or filling. They are made with pretty safe treated fish, but we have to tone down the flavor since it’s a wide crowd we are appealing to.

Why are you always running out of chicken wings?

Chicken wings are hard to make in a busy kitchen. Each wing has to be spun and dipped by hand in sauce, which increases time. Chicken wings also come in smaller cases from restaurant wholesalers now for some reason, and the price increased.

Hot and Sour Soup…my absolute favorite but it is never the same place to place. Some it is ok, some it is amazing, never had one I hated, what is the story on it?

Egg composition. Hot and sour soup contains a lot of egg, and some places put less in the soup base when egg prices swing too high. It is made in a wok on high heat, so a high egg content makes it thicker.

Why do the deserts always look so delicious but taste like stale cardboard covered in colored sugar?

That’s what they are. They all come from the same factory in one of the major cities for Chinese immigrants in the US. The ingredients used are not half bad, but they lack preservatives to help it taste fresh. Some customers do say they get hard after some time on the trays. But I doubt these factories hire any food scientist to prevent them from turning into cardboard.

What measure do you have in place to prevent ‘water drinkers’ from drinking the soda?

Our waiters serve the soda, so that is not a problem.

There’s a buffet near me that charges people for any food left on their plate. What do you think about that kind of policy? Do you think it’s sensible, or risks driving customers away? Is wasted food a serious enough problem to necessitate such strict measures?

I would imagine if we implemented that policy we would lose some of our new customers. In practice, it is sensible, as running this place is very low margin, and any food wasted lowers that. But driving customers away ultimately results in fewer customers, which is more devastating than a bit more wastage.

What do you do with the food which is left after end of service? Serve it up again the next day? 

Half of the stuff at the end of the day is reprocessed much like other restaurants, even MCD and Panera Bread. You can turn so much stuff into soup, and will still taste fresh. We mark all our food to make sure that the day old soup, while it would normally last 2 days with fresh ingredients, we would only put out for a day. In almost all cases, the food is eaten and turned over within the next 12 hours by the morning. Stuff like fried food however and mushrooms, have to be thrown away.

What is the buffett crowd really like to deal with?

Some customers will bitch at you and purposely spoil the food in order to get their food for free. Some customers leave out their food at their table for 10 minutes and say it is cold, AFTER THEIR MEAL, and demanding it should be free.

What is your worst customer experience?

The worst experience was when a customer wanted a take out box from the buffet, which was by weight. He got two huge boxes, and the bill turned out to be higher than the price of the buffet. He argued and started yelling in the whole restaurant that it was a rip off that he took 5 pounds of food (verified on the scale) and should pay more than the buffet price. He said that he could eat more than the amount in the boxes, but it was 5 POUNDS of food! After arguing and initially lowering the price a bit, he threw a fit and wanted the whole 5 pounds of food for free. Regardless, we have a price policy in place, but some just don’t want to pay it. If you are going to take your food home, we cannot charge you the buffet price. This was well known before even walking in. Not to throw a fit and bother other customers.

I’m always interested to know how these all-you-can-eat for $15.00 joints manage to turn a profit. After paying salaries and operating expenses, how do you manage to stay in the green?

You only eat $6 worth of food in a $15 buffet. If my labor at $14 an hour including taxes can cook for 7 people, thats only $8 total. Add the drinks margin and you are profitable. A la carte restaurants are a rip off in this scenario, where you might only get $3 cost of food for $15.

How profitable are buffets in general?

Very low margins, but good if high volume. Low labor cost. Food cost is slightly higher.