The Psychology and Business of Buffets

I remember in my youth in the 1970’s and 1980’s when the competing Ponderosa and Bonanza restaurants first offered salad bars. These were innovative buffets of the time. They had the now recognizable sneeze guards and offered a semi-healthy splash of food even if it was just iceberg lettuce and Thousand Island dressing.

That was probably to distract us from the wafer-thin tough steaks and watery sour cream clotted baked potatoes that were those chains’ signature meals. I always wondered why two competing restaurants mined an old television show for both their names.

Over 20 years ago, I visited The Royal Fork in my hometown of Winnipeg. It was the first full-time, all-the-time buffet restaurant in town. It was if I had become Henry VIII or Caligula. I could fill my plate(s) with a mix of fried chicken, mounds of meatballs and mashed potatoes, pounds of pork chops and pasta, tons of turkey, and well, it goes on. Carbs and meat were preferred to anything feigning itself to be better for you.

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Buffets are now big businesses and have spread across North America if not the world. Las Vegas was the pioneer of this type of chow but no longer are they real or perceived bargains in the gambling mecca. In Vegas these are fancy productions with Kobe beef and king crab legs that can cost over $60 for a trip or three down the rows of mass prepared food.

Buffets effect three groups that include the restaurant, the patrons and society as a whole. Before we get into why buffets exist and who they may benefit, let’s look at the format. The word, “buffet”, comes from the French for “sideboard”. It is literally “a system of serving meals in which food is placed in a public area where the diners generally serve themselves.”

We now find buffets in various places including hotels, casinos, cruise ships, resorts, restaurants and social events. Buffet restaurants mostly offer all-you-can-eat (AYCE) food for a set price. The essential feature of a buffet is that the diners can directly view the food and immediately select which dishes they wish to consume. They can also envision the quantities they will take. The standard mixed fair of food has given rise to specialty Chinese, Mongolian, Italian, salad, and breakfast buffets.

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For restaurants, buffets are effective for serving large numbers of people at once. It eliminates some labor so saves on that expense. It is more efficient in terms of time at table so there is more turnover. Food costs can be better identified and bulk purchases take place. Décor and ambiance are not as a grand a consideration as lighting, layout and number of seats. In most cases, these places are a combination of assembly line and factory (or to be blunt, a feeding trough).

Patrons get what they want, when they want it, and in portions they want but do not need. Personally, I love a good Chinese food buffet (I even appreciate a bad one from time to time). I load up on won ton soup with chives. Even having three bowls in one visit. Then I go back and consume too much deep-fried goodness. Am I conscious of what I am eating? Kind of, but mostly I am just shoveling it back at the pace of fellow patrons who appear to be in a race against starvation.

No one talks to each other in a buffet. All you see are bowed-over heads and faces four inches above plate or bowl. Conversations are replaced by the rattle of cutlery and the replacement of plates. Henry Ford would recognize the process intimately. In fact, we might as well consume by conveyor belt with platters flowing past as we spear the next item until our stomachs groan.

New research shows that buffets are fooling with our irrational selves. It seems that paying more for a buffet might actually make the food taste better. Three researchers did an experiment to test whether the cost of an AYCE buffet affected how much diners enjoyed it.

The research took place at an Italian AYCE buffet in New York, and over the course of two weeks 139 participants were either offered a flier for $8 buffet or a $4 buffet. Both offered the same food quantity and quality. Those who paid $8 rated the pizza 11% tastier than those who paid $4. Surprisingly, the latter group suffered from greater diminishing returns because each additional slice of pizza tasted worse than that of the $8 group.

Eat as much as you like buffet at The Deep Pan Pizza Company, UK

“People set their expectation of taste partially based on the price—and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I didn’t pay much it can’t be that good. Moreover, each slice is worse than the last. People really ended up regretting choosing the buffet when it was cheap,” said David Just, professor at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and one of the study’s authors.

Buffets hope that people come in groups and big eaters are balanced with modest or even small eaters. Yet, regardless of how much is consumed, there is a lot of waste. Ovation Brands owns more than 330 buffet restaurants in thirty-five states. It is the parent company of Old Country Buffet and HomeTown Buffet. Each year its restaurants serve 47 million pounds of chicken, 6 million pounds of steak, and 85 million dinner rolls to 100 million customers. Michelle Gessner, senior vice president of administration for Ovation, says. “Every item will have anywhere from 5 to 25 percent waste.”

Buffets are now nearly synonymous with gluttony and waste (or waist) but what do they mean to society as a whole? At face value, they get us to eat more than we need while interacting less in a social setting. Patrons take more than what they need and leave lots on plates. Restaurants for all of their forecasting and planning often cook and provide more than what is consumed. And we are still yet to touch upon nutrition and other factors. Like so many things in life, we know what is inherently bad for us but do little to change it.

Buffets are flourishing while consumers are expanding and feeling really, really bad about themselves. Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has studied the eating habits of her fellow Americans. In terms of buffets, she has noted that, most people operate in buffets on autopilot as “Mindless eating can take over.”

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Brian Wansink is a professor of consumer behavior, marketing and nutrition at Cornell University. He is called “The Sherlock Holmes of Food” and has written a book called, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Instead of focusing on the macro-food environment as being the cause of the obesity problem, Wansink’s work focuses on the intermediate micro-environment that he contends people can control—their home and their daily habits.

His work has led to the small plate movement. That simple idea makes incredible sense. For some reason all of our kitchenware, including plates, has become larger in small-plates-2the last five decades. Basically, that reason is greed and gluttony. Food companies want us to eat more and we are happily obliging. Wansink has discovered that by moving from a 12-inch to a 10-inch dinner plate leads people to serve and eat 22% less. Other fascinating research tidbits from the professor include:

  • A person will eat an average of 92% of any food they serve themselves.
  • The average person makes an excess of 250 decisions about food each day.
  • Low-fat labels lead people to eat 16-23% more total calories.
  • The Nutritional Gatekeeper of a home influences an estimated 72% of all of the food their family eats.
  • Because of visual illusions, people (even professional bartenders) pour 28% more into short wide glasses than tall ones.

Let’s get back to the buffet. Wansink and colleague Mitsuru Shimizu led a team of 30 trained observers to watch more than 300 men and women in two dozen all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant buffets. They recorded six specific activities: how quickly the diners served themselves; choice of plate size; location of table; whether they faced the buffet; eating utensils used; and where they placed their napkin. There were two broad categories of people observed: obese and normal weight customers. This is what they discovered.

Where To Sit: Obese customers were more likely to sit at tables instead of booths. They were also more likely to sit facing the buffet. 41.7% of obese customers compared to 26.8% of normal weight customers faced the buffet while they ate.

Scoping the Food: While 71% of normal weight customers would browse the buffet before making their selections, the majority of obese customers would serve themselves immediately. Only 33.3% of obese customers took the time to browse beforehand. 98.6% of obese customers and 86.3% of normal weight customers opted for big plates over smaller ones.

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Chowing Down: Normal weight customers were nearly 3 times more likely to use chopsticks than obese customers. They were also more than 2 times more likely to put a napkin on their lap. Upon finishing their meal, 10.6% of normal weight customers had unfinished food on their plates while only 6% of obese customers had leftovers.

I love the clinical and detached reporting of these facts even when you can sense that Wansink and his crew are aghast with these diners’ behavior. The Sherlock Holmes of food suggests people should survey everything that is available and then decide on which foods you actually want to put on your plate. Do not sit with your face to the buffet table because you will fixate on the food. Eat on a smaller plate and try sitting at a booth instead of a table because it will make getting up for seconds or thirds less convenient.

Wansink says, “People eat more when you give them a bigger container. Period.” Buffets are, in a sense, a bigger container. They put us in a trance and we operate on autopilot as we eat mindlessly off big plates. In terms of economics, it is surprising that buffets turn a profit. Dr. Utpal Dholakia, writing in Psychology Today, believes, “Consumer behavior in AYCE buffets is another example where conventional wisdom is not quite right, and this is a big reason why buffet restaurants are able to make money.”

Buffets are here to stay as are $8 coffees. Our irrational behaviors make for good business. See you in the buffet line!

3 replies
  1. Lucy Gotsheil
    Lucy Gotsheil says:

    This proves it – abolish all buffets! Seriously, the overeating, waste and damaging psychological aspects warrant it.

    Reply
  2. N. Cap
    N. Cap says:

    Buffets are just so sad. Everything about them. The quality of food, the decor, the sad servers and even sadder patrons. Is anyone happy at a buffet? Maybe around the tenth forkful but not the thirty-fifth. Maybe someone should start a website like the People of Walmart. I am sure the People of Buffets would get many of us thinking twice.

    Reply

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