Author: Conrad Belknap, Graphic: Nina Tagliabue
An American Icon
Nothing screams “America” quite like a good old fashioned buffet. A glorious smorgasbord of culinary delights, as much food as one could possibly want, all for one typically affordable price, and a true memorial to the distinctly American brand of gluttonous consumerism. Many immigrants to the United States gravitated to buffets like the late Souplantation and Sizzler for this very reason: they provide a little taste of the quintessential American experience in every overflowing plate, a taste of that ever elusive ‘American Dream.’
The modern iteration of the American style buffet emerged in the 1940s in Las Vegas with the Buckaroo Buffet, a restaurant where for the low price of one dollar, customers could dine on unlimited salads, meats, and seafood, or as proprietor Herb McDonald put it, “every possible variety of hot and cold entrees to appease the howling coyote in your innards.”
From there the Buffet concept expanded throughout Vegas and beyond, reaching its peak in the 1980s, a decade (contentiously, I might add), characterized by greed and excess. The buffet concept became the epitome of the extravagant consumerism of the era. Everywhere you turned, you saw a buffet; they were so wildly popular that even ordinary restaurants began offering them alongside their standard fare. The 1980s also saw the emergence and expansion of large scale and regional chain buffets such as Sizzler, Hometown Buffet, Golden Corral, Pizza Hut (yes, they had buffets too), and cult favorites Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes. This golden era of excess in food consumption would not last however, as changing consumer preferences and economic factors would begin the gradual decline of America’s buffet empire.
The First Signs of Trouble
The first real challenges to the spread of the buffet model emerged in the 1990s. The continued rapid expansion of the concept with individual restaurants and corporate chains alike caused an inevitable oversaturation, and eventually many buffets in close proximity to each other began to seriously cannibalize their market. Even more worrisome was the shifting consumer preferences of the 1990s and early 2000s, which saw the average consumer become more health conscious and conscious of their meal choices. Buffets typically aren’t considered “healthy options” by most consumers, and as Americans increasingly started to watch their waists, their trips to the buffet line became less frequent, further squeezing the market. Another emerging factor is that their target demographic is increasingly aging, and shrinking as a result. Buffets don’t particularly appeal to millennials and younger generations. They aren’t considered hip, aren’t considered healthy, and can’t easily tap into the influence of social media, making them unappealing to the average younger consumer as a result.
Most buffet chains are fighting a war on several fronts, even without the COVID-19 pandemic, all of these factors have had a devastating result on the industry.
Buffets Inc, the corporate entity that owns brands such as Home Town and Old Country Buffet (among others), has closed nearly 78% of their locations since the year 2000. Other chains such as Old Country Buffet, HomeTown Buffet, and Ryan’s buffet have each downsized by as much as 96%. According to foodservice research firm Technomic, the standard limited service buffet concept saw unit declines of as much as 10.3% last year, with gross sales declining an abysmal 9.1%.
The market was already heading towards the brink. Then the unthinkable happened.
The Killing Blow
As we all know, the beginning of 2020 saw the emergence of the COVID-19 virus and its subsequent spread across the globe, thrashing the United States and forcing widespread shutdowns of many segments of the economy. With restaurants and especially buffets being considered extremely high-risk, the damage to the industry was immediate and likely permanent. Across the nation, buffets went dark. And with new federal guidelines recommending the discontinuation of self-serve restaurant concepts , many chains do not see a sustainable way to continue their already struggling operations.
Even chains who were doing relatively well pre-pandemic were immediately struck with the severity of the situation. Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, for example, had been bucking the industry trends and undergoing a major revitalization of their business, with 3 years of increasing guest counts, a large scale remodeling campaign, and plans for new locations. The year before the pandemic was full of positive metrics, but when your fundamental business model becomes unviable, past successes will not sustain an entire operation. On May 7th, 2020, Garden Fresh Restaurant Corporation, the corporate owner of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, announced that due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and continuing uncertainty around self-service restaurant concepts, they would not be reopening their 97 locations across the country. As their CEO John Haywood put it, “We could have overcome a lot of obstacles, [but] the inability to reopen our service model for some time really double[d] the challenge.”
And for those chains who do survive this pandemic, they’ll likely look nothing like they did before. Many chains and local buffets alike are rapidly changing their business models to survive in the COVID-19 era. Some are drastically limiting capacity and stepping up sanitation, most others, including larger chains like Golden Corral, are reopening some locations by nixing the entire buffet concept all together, instead opting for table service like more traditional restaurants. These measures, however, are little more than a band aid on a bullet wound. In an industry associated with razor thin profit margins, the decline in foot traffic alone is disastrous to the vast majority of buffet style restaurants. Adding on additional labor costs for table service slashes any new potential profit earned from reopening. Table service and reduced capacity may help with cash flow issues in the short term, but these measures simply aren’t sustainable in the long run, as they are fundamentally at odds with the business model that buffets rely on.
So after all this, it would seem that we are likely witnessing the death of the American buffet as we know it. And in a way, there’s something almost fitting about the timing of it all. In an area characterized by rising income inequality, social and political upheaval, and stagnant opportunities for many Americans, it’s no wonder that many people have declared that the American Dream is dying. So in that sense, it feels appropriate for such a symbol of this distinctly American brand of consumerism, excess, and boundless opportunity, and in a way, the American Dream itself, to head off into the sunset with it.