The Economics of All-You-Can-Eat Buffets
January 27, 2020 7:37 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to out-eat the price you pay for a buffet? How do these places make money? Zachary Crockett of The Hustle looks at "the dollars and cents behind the meat and potatoes."
posted by Etrigan (73 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
$20??? Man, my local Chinese buffet (where it's legit like Cheers soundtrack: the owner/operators know my name and ask me how my kids are and I do the same) is half that at lunch and actually really well done.

I'm doing keto and basically just go every so often and get a plate of (non-breaded) meat and egg drop soup/broth and I absolutely feel like I'm getting my money's worth. As to if I'm putting them in the hole, well, I doubt it since chicken/steak/broccoli, soup, water to drink only cost so much at that quality level.

Thanks for the article, I'll read the rest of it now and quit with the hot take...
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:45 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]




As I recall, a CEO of Red Lobster was fired for badly misestimating the pricing for one of their all-you-can-eat promotions, so it's possible.
posted by tavella at 7:54 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]


Feeling a lot of affection for Deborah T in the article comments.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 7:59 AM on January 27 [5 favorites]


As I recall, a CEO of Red Lobster was fired for badly misestimating the pricing for one of their all-you-can-eat promotions, so it's possible.

I vaguely remembered that so searched for "Red Lobster all you can eat fiasco" and got this NY Post article as the top hit: ‘ENDLESS CRAB’ PIGOUT IS END FOR RED LOBSTER BOSS.
posted by msbrauer at 8:02 AM on January 27 [13 favorites]




I really like the idea of charging people for uneaten food at a buffet. A sushi place i visited did it by piece, but i just did a quick google, and some may charge for full plate, half plate, etc. That would help the bottom line for these places for sure (although I'm not really convinced all-you-can-eats should exist at all, but whatever).
posted by CPAGirl at 8:06 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]


I'm curious if and how the economics change for "ethnic" (is there a better term for this yet?) restaurants. There are a ton of Chinese, Indian, and pan-Asian restaurants around here that do lunch buffets and a more traditional dinner service. Seems like a good way to get a few more dollars out of the rent - open a few hours early with the skeleton crew mentioned in the article to earn some money when the restaurant would otherwise be closed. They seem to be pretty popular for office workers since lunch breaks are so short and you can get fed and get out pretty quickly.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:12 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]


When we were in college, my roommates and I could definitely get our money's worth from a Ponderosa soup, salad and Ice cream bar. Four stoned college students who purposely starved themselves for the day leading up to the outing could do some serious damage to that buffet.
posted by octothorpe at 8:12 AM on January 27 [7 favorites]


I'm curious if and how the economics change

There was a post on the blue a short while back about how these family run/ethnic stores may be closing up due to the next generation not taking them over as they move up the social/economic ladder. Basically I think the gist was that they run on the sweat equity of the owner/operators so that the breakdown of costs in this article from the OP would look much more like 6 or 7 bucks of profit per customer rather than only a buck or so. At least that's my take. But they're working much harder/longer/cash trade/etc so that it doesn't scale and only works with family equity.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:15 AM on January 27 [8 favorites]


Once every couple of months my college crew team would go to a Mongolian Beef All-you-can-Eat Buffet after a long weekend practice. It was a small school and we weren’t actually very tall, for crew, but in winter we were voracious.

The second time an owner came over and said something like You have eaten enough! Go home! And my most adorable, apple-cheeked teammate said quietly Oh but I’m still *hungry* and he said All right, how about you fill up on rice and soup? So we did.
posted by clew at 8:21 AM on January 27 [23 favorites]


$20???

Yeah, Ryan's and Golden Corral are like $8 - $12. I seem to recall our favorite Chinese buffet is $14, and the Mongolian grill place is $12-$15.

I wonder where $20 is an "average" buffet price?
posted by Foosnark at 8:22 AM on January 27 [4 favorites]


As I recall, a CEO of Red Lobster was fired for badly misestimating the pricing for one of their all-you-can-eat promotions, so it's possible.

Yeah, that might be my bad... sorry about that. Back in 2005, all-you-can-eat shrimp was $19.99, and my college self and three buddies (all of us at least 6'2" and 200 pounds) used to make a ritual out of this in the depths of the frigid winter months in upstate NY. It was a 2-day affair, as you had to maximize the amount of shrimp you could fit by fasting for most of the day BEFORE you went for shrimp, and then maxing out on water and lettuce the morning of the main event.

With proper pacing and discipline (you want to go straight for the cheesy biscuits, but be ye not tempted by that siren's song!), 8 plates of shrimp per person is totally feasible, with 10 as an outside possibility. I'm pretty sure there's no business model in the world that can absorb ~40 pounds of cooked shrimp selling for $80. We always made sure to tip generously, so as far as I can tell the only victims of our gluttony were the franchise owners and possibly the corporate office that had to subsidize them for the loss-leading promotion.
posted by Mayor West at 8:29 AM on January 27 [19 favorites]


The greatly missed quarterly Lucky Peach had an issue titled “Gluttony” that had some great writing in buffets. I did a quick search and wasn’t nice able to find it but maybe someone else will be more successful.

I’m surprised the article didn’t mention luxury buffets in Vegas or the cruise industry.
posted by misterpatrick at 8:35 AM on January 27




That $20 average must take in all kinds of buffets, like averaging my local Chinese lunch at $7 with the $40 Las Vegas tourist spreads. While I avoid the local "hog troughs" with tons of bland chicken and instant potatoes, I do love me a Chinese buffet. Who cares that I won't eat $7 in food, since I get to enjoy dishes that would be too much of a hassle to make for myself at home in the proper amounts. I only wish we had a nearby Indian lunch buffet.
posted by Miss Cellania at 8:43 AM on January 27 [14 favorites]


With proper pacing and discipline (you want to go straight for the cheesy biscuits, but be ye not tempted by that siren's song!), 8 plates of shrimp per person is totally feasible

I think I saw a (hilarious!) YT video series of a couple of people working to best some personal record of shrimp (?) or crab(?) consumed at an all-you-can-eat Red Lobster, but can't find it now.
posted by praemunire at 8:45 AM on January 27


Mayor West - I just went to Red Lobster for the first time in 10-20 years because an elderly family member chose it for a birthday, and there's *still* a weeknight special in 2020 of all-you-can-eat-shrimp, except now it's $15 instead of the $19.99 it cost in 2005. I'm not sure how that's possible, but there it is.
posted by freecellwizard at 9:26 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]


I wonder where $20 is an "average" buffet price?
The Golden Corral near me is almost $20, which in my opinion is what is killing them. $20 a person isn't really family budget friendly, so it's more like special occasion and that isn't necessarily going to be a 900 people every Sunday kind of crowd. Golden Corral (and nearly every buffet I've ever been to) also have waiters. They are the people who refill the water - the article kind of glosses over who does that when it says that 'most have shrank wait staff to save on costs'.

The only buffet that is less is CiCi's Pizza.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:39 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


> The Golden Corral near me is almost $20

iirc Golden Corral is like most AYCE buffets, in that they're cheaper at noon than in the evening.

Cici's is so cheap because flour is cheap. They can mass produce pizzas with a skeleton crew (one person on register, one person cleaning the dining area, four people baking pizzas and maintaining the buffet counter) and the customers are basically filling up on dough. There's also a salad bar which would cost Cici's a lot more per serving, but nobody goes to a pizza buffet to eat soup and salad.
posted by ardgedee at 9:47 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]


and then maxing out on water and lettuce the morning of the main event.

wtf i dont understand this part of your ritual or was it some sort of protective/performative aspect to be experienced later either way please dont say
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:52 AM on January 27 [6 favorites]


I suspect that $20 number is because of higher-end buffets like hotel specials, brunches, semi-buffets/endless plate systems like Brazilian churrascaria. If they're also including the AYCE offerings at American casual sit-down restaurants (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, I'm not even sure who else does it anymore, but they're not sub-$20 anymore), that would definitely bring the number up.

I too would like to see more data/analysis on lunch/weekend buffets vs all-buffet restaurants. Lunch buffets still seem to be hugely popular for office crowds, since not only can you actually get done in under an hour but also buffet seems to soothe some anxious eaters.

In fact, I wonder if that's exactly what drove the heyday of the buffet. You generally knew there would be something there you knew and liked and then might also get to try a couple new things with no risk, you knew you could get "enough", you knew exactly how much it would cost, the offerings would likely satisfy multiple palates, you don't have to wait for food to come out, and you can generally seat a larger group than most fast food restaurants. I'm probably not the only person in the world, either, who sometimes wants to go out and it doesn't need to be *fancy* but I do want someone to refill my iced tea for me.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:53 AM on January 27 [9 favorites]


Technically it's all you can eat, not all you do eat

It's not all you want to eat, it's all you CAN EAT
posted by GuyZero at 9:56 AM on January 27


I wonder where $20 is an "average" buffet price?

Yeah I'm assuming it includes places like Fogo de Chão which is technically an AYCE buffet, but it's really the same as Golden Corral.

It also depends on how they average it - I doubt they're weighting it based on the number of diners.
posted by GuyZero at 9:58 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]


Cici's is so cheap because flour is cheap.

I think Cici's is kind of hurting too, which it comes to price. Well, that or they have a bunch of bored pizza engineers, because they are getting rid of non-pizza dough based deserts (chocolate brownies, cinnamon rolls) in exchange for pizza dough based deserts (pizza cinnamon roles), which I can appreciate. "Team, how many different foods can we make from pizza dough? There are no bad ideas here!"

Technically it's all you can eat, not all you do eat
Technically it's a statement, not a question: Can you eat all?
posted by The_Vegetables at 10:11 AM on January 27 [2 favorites]


When I lived in Vegas, I used to go to buffets with a very tiny friend of mine who was definitely Diner 3. She would head straight for the crab legs and steak, and one time they stopped putting out more crab until we left. She used to scold me for "wasting" my money on potatoes and bread, but I've always liked that more than crab legs.

"Never get macaroni and cheese at a buffet," she used to scold me. "The macaroni and cheese is a scam."
posted by betweenthebars at 10:22 AM on January 27 [7 favorites]


wtf i dont understand this part of your ritual or was it some sort of protective/performative aspect to be experienced later either way please dont say

At the time, we rationalized it as "stretch your stomach to its max capacity in the morning, but with something that digests quickly so you'll be ravenously hungry by 6PM," but I think I like your take better.
posted by Mayor West at 10:26 AM on January 27 [5 favorites]


When I was a kid, I loved to go to cafeteria/buffet type restaurants, but only if my dad didn't go. He was a real buzzkill at these places. I loved being able to get mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, jello, etc but he would see me and yell, "don't get all those side dish foods, get the meat, that's the expensive stuff!" Which I guess I could understand if this was the only food we were going to be getting for a long while and needed to carefully maximize our nutritional intake, but we were lucky enough to eat 3 relatively well balanced meals every day at home,including meat, so it's not like we needed to get as much protein as possible while the gettin' was good, or anything like that. Meanwhile, I just wanted to eat tasty things I really liked like homemade macaroni & cheese, and Jello with whipped cream, which we never got at home.

With proper pacing and discipline (you want to go straight for the cheesy biscuits, but be ye not tempted by that siren's song!)With proper pacing and discipline (you want to go straight for the cheesy biscuits, but be ye not tempted by that siren's song!), 8 plates of shrimp per person is totally feasible, with 10 as an outside possibility.

This doesn't seem like that much fun to me. I'd rather eat a couple of cheesy biscuits, a loaded baked potato and however many helpings of shrimp it took to fill me up (admittedly probably not a lot) than plate after plate of nothing but shrimp. I mean, if that is the only thing you like, sure, but if the biscuits were calling to you??? Gimme. I don't really care if the restaurant "wins" price-wise if I really enjoyed my dinner.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:22 AM on January 27 [31 favorites]


I would like to know which type of diner is my grandma, who has been known to fold food items into a napkin and smuggle them out in her purse.
posted by Fleebnork at 11:33 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]


I don't really care if the restaurant "wins" price-wise if I really enjoyed my dinner.

That's always my approach. Making a deliberate effort to screw over the restaurant owner seems like an asshole move to me. I eat whatever appeals to me, stop when I feel comfortably full (and usually then skip the next meal at home). I feel that's fair value for whatever I paid.

I still remember the time I went to a breakfast buffet in Las Vegas. I felt like a lioness cruising on the calories derived from a really good kill and feast. I didn't eat again until breakfast the next morning, and even then I felt like I was packing my (light) breakfast in on top of everything else and didn't really need it.
posted by orange swan at 11:33 AM on January 27 [10 favorites]


which type of diner is my grandma,

Mine was the kind of diner who claims to barely eat but then could almost certainly detach her lower jaw to swallow a whole turkey at Xmas dinner. There's probably an Attenborough documentary about her.
posted by biffa at 11:39 AM on January 27 [15 favorites]


There seem to be two general types of buffet enthusiasts: the hedonists and the maximizers.

The maximizers want to eat only the low-margin items, get as much money out of the transaction as possible, sometimes with little regard to the enjoyment of the experience. The meat-only folks and the crab leg gluttons.

The hedonists honestly don't care whether they're going to eat $20 worth of food, they just know that there's not much chance of having mac and cheese, 2 little pizza slices, a spicy tuna roll, a handful of mini tacos, followed by tiramisu, frozen yogurt and a brownie for anything short of $50 any place else, if all those things even exist on the menu at all.
posted by tclark at 11:41 AM on January 27 [32 favorites]


I hate ayce buffets, but nevertheless I eat at one at least once or twice a month. The thing is, I take a ferry regularly, and I always buy a heavily discounted ticket weeks in advance. They have an offer: if you buy their lousy buffet at the check in stand, you will go first on board like the rich people who buy business class. I only do it when I arrive at the harbour and can see the ferry will be stuffed, but like I said, that is at least once or twice a month. As I see it, buying the cheap ticket + the buffet saves me a lot of money, since I get a good table and some peace and quiet for the duration of the ferry ride. I also get food and drink, which is not interesting. I may eat a little of the meat and fish, but if I eat too much of it, I'll get heartburn which I never get otherwise. It's sooo over seasoned and greasy. So I go for the potatoes and the salads and some cheese and fruit.
During the holiday season they will have a traditional Danish Christmas table, and I'll get dark rye bread, heering and an alcohol-free beer. That's a treat.
posted by mumimor at 11:56 AM on January 27 [13 favorites]


The hedonists honestly don't care whether they're going to eat $20 worth of food, they just know that there's not much chance of having mac and cheese, 2 little pizza slices, a spicy tuna roll, a handful of mini tacos, followed by tiramisu, frozen yogurt and a brownie for anything short of $50 any place else, if all those things even exist on the menu at all.

The best hedonist place IMO isn’t in Las Vegas. It’s the N’Joy buffet at the NUO Hotel, Beijing. When I was last there it was about $100 per head, so not exactly cheap, but it’s the only place I’ve seen that has the foie gras station by the curly fries. They also turn an entire tuna into sushi and sashimi over the course of the morning. Plus oysters, lobster, etc etc. (The only thing that isn’t AYCE is the caviar, but they serve each guest a portion to kick things off.) Really anything that you could imagine eating for breakfast, wherever your tastes lie on the spectrum from “childishly sweet-toothed” to “arrives by helicopter and only eats wagyu”. It’s a veritable paradise if your objective is to give yourself gout in the shortest time possible. Another major advantage is that you almost certainly won’t remember paying the bill, as it’s AYCD champagne as well, with hyper-vigilant servers filling your glass and several alternatives if you don’t fancy Veuve Clicquot. Anyone stuck in Beijing with time on their hands due to nCoV could do worse than treat themselves to an orgiastic bacchanal there - the curly fries are nice and crispy and go really well with foie on top.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 12:22 PM on January 27 [32 favorites]


Three buffet stories:

1) An ex-gf's dad used to tell this story about how when he was in college and broke, he'd barely eat during the week, then hit up a buffet at the end of the week, so that at least he'd have one big-ass meal a week. One time, he goes like 3 days without eating anything (according to him) so when he hits up the buffet, he's starving. He keeps eating and eating and eating and eating and eating, like plate after plate after plate. The owners tried to work various angles to get him to stop eating, but the guy kept coming back to the fact that this was supposed to be an AYCE buffet. Exasperated, the owners were like "Okay, if we refund what you paid us, will you leave?" And the guy thinks about it, and realizes that he will have eaten for free, and he takes them up on it. I think he really liked that story, he told it a lot.

2) I used to eat at buffets, and there was this Chinese buffet that I used to go to when I was living in the Bronx. It had two AYCE prices- one for "without seafood", and one for "with seafood". They gave you different colored plates, I think, to help employees keep an eye out for people trying to eat seafood dishes without having paid for them. I never got the "with seafood" option because A) I was cheap, and the without seafood was something like $16, and the with seafood option was like over $20, and B) the seafood buffeters at this place were hardcore about it. Like, instead of a buffet line, there was just this island with dishes on either side and a sneezeguard on top. And like the seafood option buffeters would camp out, waiting for the dishes to be restocked. Like, an employee would come out with a big tray of crab legs, and people would be waiting around the island, with tongs borrowed from other dishes, and as soon as the employee dropped of the tray of crab legs, everyone standing around the island would empty the tray in like 3 minutes, no joke. Then, there wouldn't be any seafood for a while, but by the time the next seafood tray was brought out, the campers were already there, ready to empty the next tray.

3) There was this all-night AYCE buffet that was by the last place I lived in town (like 10 years ago), and it had a massive selection: Indian food, Chinese food, pizza slices, burgers, and I can't remember what else. There was always some, but not many people in there whenever I would go in. The place "mysteriously" burned down, and it caused some fire damage to the nearby laundromat, and the people the laundromat would say that they heard the owners arranged the fire to collect insurance money because it was too hard to make a profit running a buffet
posted by 23skidoo at 12:36 PM on January 27 [8 favorites]


I think people overestimate how much they can eat. And overestimate the cost of food.

I bet less food is wasted at a well-run buffet than at many restaurants that charge more & serve off a menu.
posted by chavenet at 12:37 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


The best hedonist place IMO isn’t in Las Vegas. It’s the N’Joy buffet at the NUO Hotel, Beijing. When I was last there it was about $100 per head, so not exactly cheap, but it’s the only place I’ve seen that has the foie gras station by the curly fries. They also turn an entire tuna into sushi and sashimi over the course of the morning. Plus oysters, lobster, etc etc. (The only thing that isn’t AYCE is the caviar, but they serve each guest a portion to kick things off.) Really anything that you could imagine eating for breakfast, wherever your tastes lie on the spectrum from “childishly sweet-toothed” to “arrives by helicopter and only eats wagyu”. It’s a veritable paradise if your objective is to give yourself gout in the shortest time possible. Another major advantage is that you almost certainly won’t remember paying the bill, as it’s AYCD champagne as well, with hyper-vigilant servers filling your glass and several alternatives if you don’t fancy Veuve Clicquot. Anyone stuck in Beijing with time on their hands due to nCoV could do worse than treat themselves to an orgiastic bacchanal there - the curly fries are nice and crispy and go really well with foie on top.

$100????? that's a steal!! I wanna hop on a plane right now and go eat my body weight in foie gras french fries and drown myself in bubbly.
posted by supermedusa at 12:42 PM on January 27 [14 favorites]


This is interesting. I don't quite know how to reconcile it with the knowledge that I can get at least three really nice meals of leftovers for $30 when visiting most of the cloth-napkin restaurants downtown. I'm sure their margins are tight, but they also serve way more food than one can eat, have more staff, and have been in business for decades. It's certainly possible to spend a lot more on a fancy meal. . . but, at a buffet? I've always assumed they were making huge profits from nearly every customer.

I love the concept of a buffet. I'm not sure the experience has ever lived up to it, aside from a few surprisingly good Indian places with lunch offers. Though, when I was 10 or so, Sizzler had an all you can eat fried shrimp deal that provided several years worth of calories in quick bursts once a month when my father took me to dinner. Eventually they changed it so that you couldn't get the shrimp without also ordering steak and raised the price. I remember getting yelled at by a waiter for ordering more shrimp without eating the steak. I still don't entirely understand his motivation. But, a few years later, the restaurant got bought out by a less appealing chain restaurant with no buffet, so perhaps he wasn't wrong.
posted by eotvos at 12:44 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


Hedonist:

The Nordic Lodge ($106)

The One Delicious All-You-Can-Eat Buffet In Rhode Island That’s Actually Worth Visiting
In Rhode Island, there is an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet where you can graze on lobster and crab legs until your stomach is content. But this spot doesn’t just feature seafood, you’ll also find prime rib, filet mignon, fresh fruit, and more sides and desserts than you can shake a stick at!
posted by mikelieman at 1:33 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]


You might enjoy this tongue-in-cheek New Zealand article & video about beating the house at a buffet.
posted by slightlybewildered at 1:44 PM on January 27


And yeah, I love Indian and Chinese buffets because as much as I like a pint of mattar paneer or pork lo mein, I _really_ want a bit of dal, some biryani and maybe a couple of pieces of tandoori meat too, and doing that off the menu is a $50 meal. Or maybe I takes my chances with the thali special and hope the entree is something I like. Orrrrr there's the buffet, where they don't judge.
posted by Kyol at 1:45 PM on January 27 [8 favorites]


There was a very good buffet I used to go to in Pittsburgh that had your standard buffet fare but also a surprisingly large section of non-Americanized Chinese dishes. Stuff like braised chicken feet, wood ear mushroom stir fry, lots of fermented bean based dishes, hot/numb Szechuan food etc. I don't know if it was catering to foreign students attending Carnegie Mellon or UPitt but it was super fun to get food you never see on ordinary menus. They did charge you for wasting food but in my experience they never dinged you for not finishing something you didn't care for so long as you didn't grab a huge portion.

The only other buffets I feel are worthwhile are places that buffet out the last night's dinner as a lunch buffet.
posted by Ferreous at 1:45 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


Super interesting article. I always knew restaurants had slim profit margins but 5% just seems beyond the pale to me. I would especially bet that around DC where I live, rent takes another couple percentage points off that.

I thought it was nice to see big football players as the example of the overzealous buffet patron. The article could have gone for an easy dig at the overweight and I deeply appreciate that the author chose a different option.

In the analysis of why buffets are declining, it was odd not to see a mention of the fact that buffets are now considered, well, painfully uncool. They are going the way of the classic white-tablecloth fine dining place. No one Instagrams their buffet meal (I mean, I do, but just to be clear I am not even remotely an ~influencer~). The way to get a whole lot of food for not a lot of money now is to go to a fast-casual spot or a food truck.
posted by capricorn at 1:46 PM on January 27 [7 favorites]


hmm, on second thought, "overweight" is a loaded and probably offensive term (as in: over what exactly?), and I shouldn't have used it. Let's go with "could have gone with a low-effort mean, sizeist joke".
posted by capricorn at 1:49 PM on January 27 [7 favorites]


I've always thought one benefit of the Chinese or Indian buffet was to ease Americans into eating unfamiliar foods. Sauce+protein+rice hold up pretty well under heat lamps, the skeptical consumer gets to see everything before they choose to put it on their plate, and there's no downside in trying something new (because they've already paid for it).

Sushi buffets, on the other hand...I don't get those at all. Just order a single roll from a regular sushi place and eat it with a double order of rice; it's the same thing, even cheaper than the buffet!
posted by grandiloquiet at 1:52 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


Last month i was in DC for business, it was a Sunday and a colleague went to Founding Fathers, a farm to table place that has a buffet brunch for $29, if I remember correctly. More than I would typically pay for brunch especially since only water and coffee came with it, but we could expense it so we went all in.

The food was very good but from a profit margin perspective, the restaurant must love vegetarians, because if you remove the high-ticket items like brisket, ham, sausage, etc. it would be pretty hard to fill up on the alternatives. (Although to their credit they had an Impossible Sausage Patty).

The really bizarre disconnect though was even though it was 10am or so, they had breakfast and what they called the "supper" table open side by side.

I found it really disconcerting to see people getting plates of french toast or pancakes, but then going back for the chili and fried chicken. We just stuck to breakfast stuff that we would have probably paid $15 for anywhere else in DC., but I would say the restaurant definitely came out on top.
posted by jeremias at 1:52 PM on January 27


Founding Farmers.

And they're odd in several ways.
posted by Naberius at 1:59 PM on January 27


If you order one sushi roll and extra rice, you get one kind of roll. A buffet is good if you want several kinds of rolls. It’s a low-risk way to try something new.
posted by Anne Neville at 2:30 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]


In Rhode Island, there is an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet where you can graze on lobster and crab legs until your stomach is content. But this spot doesn’t just feature seafood, you’ll also find prime rib, filet mignon, fresh fruit, and more sides and desserts than you can shake a stick at!

It's definitely on my bucket list.

Of note: they saw the maximizers coming a mile away, and there's a time limit for what your $106 gets you... IIRC, you get 2 hours to gorge yourself on all the lobster and filet mignon you can stuff into your gaping maw.
posted by Mayor West at 2:38 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


So as not to abuse the edit window: I just pulled up their website, and yup, it's a 2-hour maximum at the buffet. And because this is a Classy Joint, they felt the need to include this disclaimer on the main page:
Proper casual attire is required. Please no tank tops or muscle shirts for men and ladies please no bare midriffs. Jeans, shorts and sneakers acceptable.
Wish I could have been there for the fateful night that prompted that warning in big bold letters.
posted by Mayor West at 2:42 PM on January 27 [5 favorites]


My brother and sister were super into oysters as kids and a buffet place near us was $20 for adults with kids eating free. They must have regretted that every time these two got through 30-40 oysters each in a sitting.

As for the question above about a better term for "ethnic" restaurants, I guess I'd suggest thinking about what the feature is that is making you want to class these specific places together, and describe them that way. In this context, it's presumably something about what gives them cheaper overheads. "Family run", maybe? Or restaurants where rice is the staple food? Or else if it's a variety of features and there are a few different kinds of restaurant that you want to include, just list by nationality, maybe. It doesn't take much longer to say "Chinese or Indian buffets" if that's what you have in mind.
posted by lollusc at 2:46 PM on January 27 [2 favorites]


As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to avoid all you can eat, with a lot of it having to do with food related shame issues. I mean, living in Japan as an overweight American usually means I’m a) the biggest person most people know, and b) means people feel free to look at my plate (or shopping cart) to confirm their ideas about the big foreign guy. That, and yeah, a lot of buffets just aren’t that great, with food sitting out, not being great quality to start.

That said, Japan is pretty much heaven for all you can eat. Yakiniku, sushi, desserts, hell, there’s a branch of KFC in Tokyo doing it. When I used to go, I definitely brought my American sense of needing to “beat” the house, which is one more reason why I try to avoid them.

Of course, the big all you can in Japan is the nomi hodai, where hodai is AYC, and nomi is drink. A lot of places offer these deals, from karaoke bars to izakayas and bars, and they are wildly popular, usually with a two or three hour time limit. I’ve definitely gone to these, and, yeah, tried to beat the bar. Even if you win, you lose.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:38 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]


Buffets are a fascinating late-stage capitalism phenomenon. At an restaurant that charges per-item, possibly with free appetizers, it's a mostly cordial relationship. The restaurateur makes food that the customer wants to eat, and charges a reasonable price. There's an understanding of some amount of profit being made by the restaurateur, but that profit does not seem to be as interesting a subject of study as it does for buffets.

For some reason, all-you-can-eat upends the cordial-enough relationship between restaurateur and consumer, turning it antagonistic, and an us (eaters) vs them (restaurant owners) mentality takes hold. (RolandOfEld's experience at the top of this thread with their local buffet feels like the exception to me. Maybe others have positive experiences they can share?) At some level there's the simple challenge - I bet you can't! (eat that much food) Buffet die-hards go far further, aiming to drive the restaurateur out of business because... why? That act has been the subject of popular culture; that one Simpson's episode is far from alone, but I've not found extensive analysis of the Why. "I would like to drive you out of business" is not the mindset that most take to ordinary every-day business transactions. Or maybe I need to be more cutthroat at Target to survive in today's society.

As the saying goes - there are no winners in an eating contest, and I guess it turns out, so, too, is the restaurateur in the AYCE case.
posted by fragmede at 4:09 PM on January 27 [8 favorites]


The only other buffets I feel are worthwhile are places that buffet out the last night's dinner as a lunch buffet.

The Broadway Diner in Bayonne does a Monday Night buffet that looks to be from the weekend's operations at their adjacent catering place. Which is fine by me, since I like a bit of sliced ham with my sausage and peppers. Their chicken soup is amazing. Like 12 bucks IIRC.
posted by mikelieman at 4:18 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]


Buffets are a fascinating late-stage capitalism phenomenon.

I think they're a more socialist phenomenon, and late-stage capitalism is putting them out of business.

In a more community-minding society: The buffet allows several diners to each have a variety of foods they like, of an amount they prefer to eat, at a simple, fixed price, which is presumed to be a reasonable price for "a tasty and nutritious meal; nothing specifically fancy."

The owner gets to skip the headaches of deciding how much pepperoni goes on the pizza before he must raise the price, or how many fries are "a serving," or how many pancakes are a "kid's meal" vs "adult meal," or whether bacon and sausage should have the same price. They put some cushion in the pricing to allow for "milk went up by 2% this week," and the diners cover the extra so they can have variety - they may not normally have a cinnamon bun with their spaghetti dinner, but hey, as long as it's here, maybe they're in the mood for that tonight.

It's only when the relationship gets antagonistic, when the diners think they know what "a $20 meal" should contain and decide to make sure they get more than that, that the buffet system fails. (It's not all on the diners. When the owners have decided to cater to minimum-wage customers but the min wage hasn't changed in 15 years while costs of food have gone up, the buffet price has usually gone up with food costs, not stayed pinned to the average client's wage rate.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:35 PM on January 27 [10 favorites]


When I was pregnant with my youngest child, I was in a stressful job up the road from a local family-run Indian buffet. And I craved Indian food like all get out. And I wasn’t gaining weight. So twice a week I coerced different coworkers to eat with me.

Then I got put on bed rest. And I was in hospital. A coworker arrived with Indian food...which the restaurant had sent free of charge when my coworkers went there and the owner asked after me. And sent all my favourites including a jar of pickled carrot.

When my baby was 6 months old, not really on solids, I took him to work for a visit and, of course, Indian buffet. We took in some baking for the owner. The baby was on my lap and grabbed at the potatoes, got his fingers into his mouth, and got this look on his face like HERE IS THE REAL STUFF and ate a whack of them. He was my second son so I was ok with this disruption of the Planned Introduction of Solids. The owner and I laughed so hard.

I’m not in that area a lot these days but when we’re up for Indian buffet, we drive the 45 minutes even though I live in the middle of food heaven.

That’s what a buffet restaurant is to me.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:17 PM on January 27 [47 favorites]


there was a short story called all you can eat by harvey and audrey bilker that was about an alien from a starving world coming to an earth ayce restaurant with some sort of dimensional portal? energy converter? in his belly and proceeding to just bankrupt the poor restaurant owner. i don't recall if/how it resolved, i don't have a copy.

https://www.librarything.com/work/470189
posted by Clowder of bats at 5:47 PM on January 27


RolandOfEld's experience at the top of this thread with their local buffet feels like the exception to me

I mean, I've described the island where I live as 'Mayberry with a beach' for good reason. Honestly, sushi and one Asian Fusion and one tapas restaurant aside, it's the only ethnic food this side of the next major town that's an hour drive away. I give them my money gladly.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:40 PM on January 27


About 1990 my college sweetheart and I would go to a place called Duke of Perth in Chicago. Fish and chips and peas all day, but not chip wagon style, their food was very tasty and the peas were always so sweet. We might have a second plate and call it a night. For two college kids it felt liberating to be able to go out and know that we wouldn’t need to choose between broke and satisfied. We were grateful.
posted by drowsy at 7:18 PM on January 27 [4 favorites]


About a decade ago, there used to be a popular and slightly upscale Szechuan restaurant here in Montreal called "Hot & Spicy", that offered a modified kind of AYCE menu that my partner at the time and I *really* enjoyed much more than the standard-type buffet restaurants.

For a set price ($24.95 Can) for the evening meal, you could choose from the list of 85 items on their special "Taster's Choice" menu, and they would prepare an appropriately sized dish of it for your table. (For example, if you ordered spring rolls and there were two of you, there would be 4 of them, and so on for larger sized groups.)

What was fantastic about it was that it was a great way to experiment and try out new dishes, without the guilt of wasting much food if it was something you didn't particularly care for. However, if you came across something you really enjoyed, you could always order another dish of it.

And best of all, each dish was individually prepared, so it was hot, fresh, and in some cases, even sizzling when it was brought to your table! No more tired old food sitting under heat lamps, and being man-handled by other diners.

It was not particularly inexpensive as AYCE/buffets go, but as I mentioned, it *was* freshly prepared and it did also include a pot of high-quality Jasmine tea, as well as a choice of two desserts. (Like others, we used to restrain our food intake earlier in the day, to maximize our appetite for our dining adventure.)

Over the years, we introduced SO many friends to that place and all of them loved it -- even the picky eaters! This eventually culminated in a group dinner that I organized of almost 40 friends/guests to celebrate the Chinese New Year (the last Year of the Rat, actually) -- wherein we racked up a bill of around $1400, (some had alcohol, plus taxes & tip). It was a resounding success and the restaurant loved us as well...

I must admit that we and our friends were all legit seriously upset when "Hot & Spicy" eventually closed.
posted by Jade Dragon at 3:58 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]


I have heard the story of an all-you-can-eat buffet where a group of homeless people would pool their coins and around midnight send one of them in to eat. They took turns doing this as this was only a once a week buffet. The buffet closed at two AM and by then the people there were mainly only drinking, no eating so that homeless customer pretty much had the buffet all to themself. They made their money from the liquor sales. The homeless person would have several plastic bags inside their coat, and as well as eating as much as they could possibly stuff in would surreptitiously empty plates of food into the bags to sneak out again for the rest of the people who had contributed to their entry fee.

However the owners of the restaurant, observing this, first brought back extra bean sprouts and rice to put on the buffet table at a time when they would ordinarily have been preparing to clear it, and then started discretely passing over ready-packaged bags of left overs to the designated Friday night eater. Every Friday he or she would leave there with generous quantities of food for around eight people, all for the $12.99, and it would be divided up in the alley.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:47 AM on January 28 [10 favorites]


definitely on my bucket list

Phrasing?
posted by flabdablet at 5:20 AM on January 28 [1 favorite]


we and our friends were all legit seriously upset when "Hot & Spicy" eventually closed

A lot of us felt that way about the closure of Thy Thy. It wasn't a set-price place but I would typically spend less than AU$20 there and walk away replete, and I am a big eater.
posted by flabdablet at 5:25 AM on January 28




Those Vegas buffets are pricy, but my favorite way to do them I have found is to go on a multi-day hiking/camping trip in the southern Utah national parks (Zion, Bryce, maybe Canyonlands/Arches that are farther away), leave in the morning and then have dinner at a Vegas buffet in the evening.

After multiple days of PB&J sandwiches or freeze-dried backpacker foods, the buffets feel extra luxurious, on top of your just being more hungry than normal. Highly recommended.
posted by andrewesque at 6:53 AM on January 28 [4 favorites]




That Caesar’s buffet IS really good but I never leave feeling...ok. I always want to die and I dunno, that ruins the point of a treat out for me. I went to the Sterling brunch at Bally’s once too, it was $$$ but yeah, champagne, lobster, venison...all stuff I don’t actually eat but everyone else seemed to be really into it...
posted by yodelingisfun at 10:23 AM on January 28


I donated blood a lot when I was 18-19 until I found out it was killing my iron levels. I was pretty skinny then but after donating I'd just be ravenous and eat enormous amounts of food. So I started arranging outings to AYCE sushi places after. Good times!
posted by noxperpetua at 10:44 AM on January 28


Wish I could have been there for the fateful night that prompted that warning in big bold letters.

It's Rhode Island. Nordic Lodge isn't all that far from the beaches. I can almost guarantee it wasn't a one-time thing, but a parade of impulsive tourists every summer until somebody in the Lodge management got fed up.

When I was in high school I had a few friends who worked in the kitchen there (not on the cooking side, but busboys/dishwashers). Judging by how well they paid compared to most jobs that hire high school kids, Nordic Lodge was not worried about losing money.

The all-you-can-eat buffet in Rhode Island that I've personally done the most economic damage to is the Newport Playhouse, but that's because my brother and my dad have both worked and performed there so I've gotten a lot of comp tickets over the years for "dinner and a show" and made the most of the dinner portion of that. (Although I am definitely a hedonist and not a maximizer, I was a teenager with a teenager's appetite for a decent chunk of that time.) They're not complete fools: when it's a lobster buffet, you can eat as much of everything else as you want but lobsters are limited to 1 per person. Still, I've always been a little amazed that the place could be a theater and an all-you-can-eat-buffet and somehow actually make money.
posted by mstokes650 at 3:23 PM on January 28




I went to Scanda House Smorgasbord once as a kid with my aunt and cousin for a church event (and I suspect our presence was discreetly subsidized by the one nice lady at our church). I headed straight for the steak because, no, we didn't have steak at home ever, so I had my first one at 12. I've never been much for sweets, so I loaded up as much as a 4 foot tall 12 year old could on steak, some Swedish meatballs (better than IKEA's by miles), mac and cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy, and rolls. I think I got some green beans to satisfy the veggie requirement. And I drank a lot of Coke, which we never got at home, either. I didn't leave a clean plate, alas.

As an adult, I've been to a place in New York City called Churrascaria Plataforma for a client dinner. The lady with the meat bar only had to come round to me once. It really doesn't take a lot to fill me up.

I can't do buffets like that. One plate of restaurant food is enough, they usually serve so much. And I'm not surprised that the steak and seafood are so expensive. I mean, it is for everybody!
posted by droplet at 7:28 AM on January 29


When I was in college long ago my two buddies and I would go to the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet at the Mr. Gatti's across from campus. We'd compete to see how many (small) slices we could each eat. I believe the record was 25.

Growing up the only thing my brother and I liked about Easter was the buffet lunch after service. We suffered the itchy '70s dress-up clothes and boring sermon because we could get plates full of shrimp after.

At family reunions we'd eat like one small chicken drumstick and a teaspoon of coleslaw, then load up on brownies and pies.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:44 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]


Thank you for the post and thank you all for the reminiscences. I can't remember the last time (other than the dorm in college) I went to an AYCE buffet, and now my spouse and I are figuring out when and where we want to go!
posted by brainwane at 3:49 PM on February 2


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