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Shangri-La Hotel The Line buffet spread
Photograph: Shangri-La Hotel, SingaporeThe Line

What does the socially distant future hold for buffets?

Self-serving and free-flowing lines of food at hotels and restaurants are now a thing of the past

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Written by
Fabian Loo
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There’s an episode of Key and Peele that exemplifies the appeal of buffets. In it, Jordan Peele’s character discovers the all-you-can-eat continental breakfast spread at a hotel. “Where shall I fly to first?” he muses excitedly at the three plates before him. He proceeds to chow down on a danish that’s “clearly from Brussels”, slurp up Greek yoghurt, and snack on a variety of European pastries. 

While it’s clear that there’s nothing ‘continental’ about the spread, the sketch does, however, accurately capture the spirit of buffets: variety. Hungry diners can make repeated trips to the well-stocked food warmer, each time piling their plates with food from a variety of cuisines, prepped in various cooking styles. 

But the future of these self-serve, free-flow buffets is threatened by safe distancing measures. As part of the government’s Phase 2 plans, buffet and self-serve restaurants must remain closed. Other communal amenities, including drink dispensers and common condiments, are not allowed to be used as well. Restaurants and hotels that are conventionally known for their endless lines of food now have to find new ways to offer diners the same variety they crave.

“There are many reasons why buffets are so appealing. People enjoy it for its value, colourful variety, and the fact that servings are unlimited” says Christine Kaelbel-Sheares, Vice President of Food and Beverage (F&B) at Marina Bay Sands (MBS). 

“As every industry adapts to the new normal, so will buffets.”

RECOMMENDED: Live list of restaurants in Singapore that are reopening during Phase 2

Hungry for change
Photograph: Marina Bay Sands

Hungry for change

The integrated resort is now humming with activity following months of closure. Attractions, amenities, and restaurants are springing back to life, ready to welcome guests and hungry diners. Buffets, in particular, are also making a comeback at MBS.

But before these restaurants receive diners, the team is busy writing a new chapter of the self-serve experience. At soon-to-open Rise, diners can either enjoy unlimited servings – à la carte style – or pick from curated set menus. Most food, with the exception of freshly baked bread, cold cuts, and cheeses, will be pre-plated and served at the table. Christine estimates that some 90 percent of the restaurant’s original spread will be retained in this new format. 

“To minimise cross-contamination, we will be designating a service captain and server to each section of about seven to eight tables,” she adds. 

The Line at Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore, has reopened to also provide à la carte options. A pared-down selection of some 35 dishes, ranging from seafood to local delicacies, are available for unlimited orders via a digital menu. Each dish is prepped fresh, and served in bite-sized portions directly to the table. 

“With dishes that are cooked-to-order, guests can also enjoy a more personalised service with the flexibility to make requests,” says a spokesperson from the hotel. “Guests can also catch our chefs in action from their tables as they will still be cooking the dishes at the live stations within the restaurant.” 

Others, like Goodwood Park Hotel, started making tweaks to its buffet service even before the ‘circuit breaker’ period. At its English Afternoon Tea Buffet at L’Espresso, staff were previously stationed at counters to help serve dishes to diners. 

In Phase 2, the restaurant had to pivot, again, to its current tableside service. Orders are now made via a paper chit, then served in individual portions to each table. “This allows for a more personalised and leisurely experience that is similar, if not more enjoyable,” says a representative. 

Mixed spread
Photograph: Regent Singapore

Mixed spread

Other forms of buffets have had to be adjusted as well. 

Zafferano’s resumed Italian Table Champagne Brunch will serve all dishes to the table, which are meant to be shared among the same dining group just like “the way Italian families have dined together for generations”. Diners can also opt for the food to come individually plated.  

Special care will also be shown when serving its free-flowing beverage. “We will be mindful that the pouring of champagne will not have physical contact with the drinkware,” shares operations manager Vadim Korob. 

What used to be a dedicated cheese room filled with over 40 varieties at Regent Singapore’s Basilico has since been distilled into an intimate cheese pairing menu, where the chefs will recommend options based on the type of wine. 

Similarly, Manhattan’s Adults-Only Sunday Brunch had previously carried some elements of tableside service, says the hotel’s executive chef Angelo Ciccone. “Now, we have amplified that by wheeling trolleys of gins, vodkas, and garnishes, and customise Bloody Marys, gin and tonics, boozy milkshakes, and garibaldis exactly how the guests tell us they like it,” he adds. 

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“As every industry adapts to the new normal, so will buffets.”

- Christine Kaelbel-Sheares, Vice President of F&B, MBS

Tough bite
Photograph: Level33

Tough bite

But the newly redesigned buffet format poses a new set of challenges. Anecdotally, most restaurants cite increased manpower as their primary concern.

General manager of Kingdom Food Group, which runs buffet chains I’m Kim Korean BBQ and GoroGoro Steamboat & Korean Buffet, Kelvin Chui, estimates that switching to an à la carte format has resulted in a 40 percent increase in staffing. 

“We have to serve each and every food item to the diners’ tables, including drinks and condiments. This has led to an increase in our operating cost, while our sales have dropped by 30 to 40 percent due to spacing constraints,” he says. 

Of the group's seven restaurants, two GoroGoro Steamboat & Korean Buffet outlets at Centrepoint and Tampines, and I'm Kim Junior at Scape, remain closed during Phase 2 due to “resource constraints” and “the high manpower involved”. 

Kelvin adds: “By ordering via a sheet, the ‘visuals’ of the food are lost.” The buffet chain hopes to alleviate this issue by serving up an unchanged menu that keeps to the same variety, and price.

Over at the reopened Level33, its weekday lunch buffet has also been replaced with a 'plated' one. Diners can still head to the counters for free-flowing appetisers but now, a chef places the food on their plates instead. It’s a labour-intensive process, shares founding managing director of the Ponte Group, and one that’s compounded by split team arrangements. 

“We have to work with entirely separated shifts and teams that do not mix or overlap,” Martin Bèm says. “Although we do have considerably less seating capacity, the main workload has not changed much. And this causes serious rostering challenges.”

Colony at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore has also chosen to adapt its signature buffet experience, despite the need for more manpower. “The menu from our seven conservatory kitchens remain largely the same, but are now presented as individually plated dishes,” shares executive assistant manager of F&B, Nicolas Bailet.

Still, like many restaurants, Colony is committed to providing this new buffet service to its guests despite the challenges. Nicolas explains: “To offer a simple a la carte offering would have totally changed the identity of the restaurant.”

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“By ordering via a sheet, the ‘visuals’ of the food are lost.”

- Kelvin Chui, General manager of Kingdom Food Group

A new dawn
Photograph: Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore

A new dawn

Self-serve breakfast buffets – a common offering in most hotels – on the other hand, have largely been discontinued. Most hotels have removed their endless spread of bread, bakes, and other breakfast food due to the lack of guests. 

The Line at Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore now provides elaborate breakfast sets with a choice of two starters, and mains that range from local nasi lemak to Shakshuka poached eggs – all to “provide guests with ample variety” according to a spokesperson. 

Likewise at Goodwood Park Hotel’s Coffee Lounge, the breakfast buffet has been replaced with four different set menus: American, Continental, Japanese, or Asian. 

Restaurants at Regent Singapore remain closed during breakfast. “Should stays open up before buffets are allowed, we will look at creating an à la carte menu of gourmet breakfast staples,” shares Angelo.  

However, Spago and Club55 at Marina Bay Sands have plans in the pipeline to transform their breakfast into an unlimited à la carte format when they reopen. Tray-passed items of cold cuts, bacon, cereal, and yoghurt will also be served. 

Christine from MBS adds: “While this new way of buffet dining will not be an exact replica of buffets as we know them, it is the safest and most responsible way to indulge in our favourite activity – eating – for now, and at least in the near future.”

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