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How buffet restaurants get their money’s worth

How buffet restaurants (and customers) get their money’s worth

by Kate Fane
Jun 29 2017, 5:31pm

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Ah, the all-you-can-eat restaurant. I love ‘em so much I dragged my ex-boyfriend to Mandarin for our third anniversary dinner. We fell asleep at 10 p.m. after an hour of rubbing each other’s distended bellies. Hot night!

While I’m a big fan of buffet restaurants — and the pair of old stretched-out yoga pants I only wear when going to them — I’ve never really understood how they make money. I mean, I went to a buffet in Hawaii that had lobster and crabs legs on offer. There’s no way they’re making back lobster money just on the fountain drinks, right?

Tom Wilson is the kitchen manager at Betty’s, an infamous Toronto watering hole formerly known as the Betty Ford Clinic. For the past two years, he’s offered an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet to sate the appetites of even the most terminally hungover.

Here are Tom’s secrets for saving money while handing out unlimited sausage links.

Recycle (in a totally hygienic way)

Betty’s brunch menu is extensive. From eggs benedict and waffles, to corned beef hash and a DIY poutine bar, they’ve got the gamut of anything that could reasonably be said to be breakfast food. So with all that food on offer, shouldn’t a ton of it go to waste once the dinner hour rolls around?

“I’ve incorporated a lot of synergy into the buffet to save on expenses,” explains Tom. “I have to buy some eggs and special things, sure, but all the salad bar stuff and whatever else we have pre-prepped in the back just goes into regular circulation for our menu.” So if you’re longing for Sunday morning’s roast, just come back on Tuesday night when it’ll be on the dinner special.

Ration carefully

Some foods can be easily re-worked for other meals. But this is brunch, and eggs aren’t notorious for keeping too well. Tom’s staff monitor the buffet very carefully to see what’s being eaten, and what can stay out a little longer.

“You just have to be very careful about how much you put out, because once it’s out, it can’t go back into circulation,” says Tom. “You almost get to a point where the buffet staff are cooking to order.”

Flip the tables quicker

You’d think the opportunity to eat all they physically could would keep people trudging back to the chicken wings for hours. But there’s a limit to how much humans can actually digest, and besides, most people go out to eat to socialize. Turning a meal into some kind of bacchanalian gorging contest isn’t generally the priority, and customers tend to leave around the 90 minute mark.

“If 15 people walked in and ordered eggs, we’d be backed up for a while,” explains Tom. “With a buffet, you can pre-prep, you can keep things warm, and this speeds service up and brings in more money.”’

Keep the labour costs low

Restaurants don’t need much in the way of waitstaff when the customers are serving themselves, and buffets are a lot easier on the kitchens too. At Betty’s, Tom brings in just one extra cook to help out with the big buffet, and if things are slow, the staff person can do prep for that evening’s dinner service.

Get people in the door

The real genius of all-you-can-eat buffets is in their marketing potential, especially when they’re part of a casino or bar that has other ways of making money. “The brunch isn’t a huge money-maker, but the goal was to provide something unique to the neighbourhood, to make Betty’s an attraction,” says Tom. “Really, it’s there to set us apart.”

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So is lining up for mini-portions of chow mein and cheesecake worth it to your bank account? An examination:

Price of a weekend dinner for two at Mandarin’s before tax and tip: $63.98
Human stomach capacity: 1 litre
Cost breakdown of what you could theoretically eat, taken from Mandarin’s takeout(?) menu:

  • Chicken Dumplings $5.99
  • Sushi Sampler $4.99
  • Honey Garlic Chicken Wings $9.99
  • Hot and Sour Soup $3.29
  • Wonton Soup $3.29
  • Singapore Noodles $9.29
  • Garlic Broccoli $5.99
  • Crab Legs: $20.99
  • Black Forest Cake $3.29
  • Sugar Puffs $3.29
  • Total price: $70.40

There you have it. After taxes and tip, buffets are slightly more expensive than ordering in. But c’mon, isn’t the thrilling experience of racing an 11 year-old to the tongs for the last piece of apple pie kind of worth the extra $11?