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Has The COVID-19 Pandemic Killed Buffets?

Many Cleveland-area restaurants have reopened for indoor dining after initially closing due to the pandemic, but the future of all-you-can-eat buffets remains uncertain.

For Cleveland resident Mike Grace, the last place he wants to be during the COVID-19 pandemic is a buffet restaurant.

“That’s a hard no for the rest of my life," Grace said. "Too many people, too many germs."

Many salad bars and lunch buffets, like the popular lunch spot at Heinen’s grocery store in downtown Cleveland, remain closed. 

Health experts say buffets don’t allow for proper social distancing, and utensils are shared and touched by many people. 

Since November, self-serve buffets are no longer permitted at banquets, weddings, and funerals in Ohio, after COVID-19 contact tracing showed gatherings at these events accounted for much of the increased spread.

This ban on buffet-style dining at events is also affecting the catering businesses.

Tiwanna Scott-Williams is head chef at PearlFlower Catering in Cleveland.

Since opening in 2014, she has catered weddings and corporate luncheons for Cleveland companies and even ran a food stand at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, serving meals to hungry fans during Cavs games. 

Tiwanna Scott-Williams, head chef at PearlFlower Catering, puts together meals to deliver to vulnerable senior citizens in Cuyahoga County. [Devontay Rash / PearlFlower Catering]

But with businesses working remotely and weddings being postponed or canceled due to the pandemic, Williams lost about 90 percent of her business, she said.

"For me, it was like kind of like a deer caught in headlights. 'What am I going to do?'" Williams said

She is now temporarily contracting with the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging to prepare 250 meals a day for seniors across Cuyahoga County.

"The best thing that has come out of this is … threefold because we're providing some vulnerable seniors who need meals with great food, but I'm also able to keep staff employed and I'm also employed myself," Williams said.

But the money is nowhere near what she would normally be making. She only catered two weddings this past summer, she said.

Restaurants are not permitted to have salad bars and buffets either. While they have been able to stay afloat with carry-out orders, that is not the case for buffets.

"I think typically your buffets are not as well designed for takeout and delivery, just because a lot of that is sometimes food volume and food variety," said Larry Lynch, senior vice president of science and industry at the National Restaurant Association.

Buffet chains nationwide have taken a hit during the pandemic, Lynch said.

 “The ones we've talked to - they're surviving. I don't think any of them are thriving, but I don't think anybody in the pandemic right now is thriving," he said.

Buffets have been required to implement precautions, such as social distancing and masking, and employees must serve customers at their tables. But, the customer base isn’t what it used to be.

"We're in it for a longer haul. I think the big thing right now is how do we get through this winter?" Lynch said.

"I've heard of some some of the restaurants have just made decisions ... to close until that time they can reopen. It's not that it would be a permanent close, but it's just making that very hard decision that for now we're going to furlough, we're going to close the doors," he said.

Still, Lynch remains positive about the future of the buffet industry as a whole. A silver lining is that through carry out, restaurant owners have been able to realize which menu items are most popular and which options go to waste, which will help them make better financial decisions in the long run, Lynch said.

Williams is not so optimistic. even at catered events, many people will be uncomfortable gathering around buffets again for a long time. 

She thinks at least for the next few years, buffets will only be used at smaller, private gatherings.

“Most people, when they have gatherings, especially, I would say personal gatherings with people they know, they don't tend to care much about buffets. They're OK with it," Williams said. "I think when you get into larger gatherings and maybe gatherings of the corporate type, I think that will change. I don't think that will come back.”

In the meantime, Williams continues to prepare food for area seniors and take some small orders. She hopes once the COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely distributed, businesses will return in to in-person work, and they will start placing orders for prepackaged lunches – a safer option than a self- serve buffet.

But these pandemic precautions come with a price.

It requires more manpower, more hours ... and just the cost in general of purchasing disposables or things that are prepackaged or pre wrapped, it's just more of an expense than if things aren't prepackaged around," Williams said.

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