No, the Buffet Isn’t Dead

COVID-19 brought a much-needed reconsideration of the buffet. Here are four things to think about as you brainstorm how to keep your attendees engaged with food and beverages.

Long live the buffet!

In a world suddenly hyperaware of germs, many have questioned if buffets can still be used to feed the masses. But at its heart, the buffet needs to live in order for meeting planners to accomplish their goals.

“You gather, sure, for the food and beverage, but you gather because your meeting has a purpose,” Dana Pellicano, Marriott’s vice president of U.S. and Canada food and beverage, told meeting planners at Marriott’s The Exchange event in August 2021. “You want to have rich content. You want to have time for networking. If you spend all your time trying to feed 400, 500 people à la carte, it certainly can reduce the amount of time you can spend meaningfully doing other things. So the buffet has long been a solution for volume foods. I don’t think that changes.”

COVID-19 is neither foodborne nor primarily passed through surface contact, but hesitancy might persist for many meeting professionals and attendees. Not that the coronavirus is the only concern around buffets. “If ever an area of food and beverage and the meetings experience was rife for intervention, it was definitely the buffet,” Pellicano said on an episode of Eventful: The Podcast for Meeting Professionals.

The buffet that Pellicano refers to as the “Battleship buffet”—a massive space purpose-built for buffet service, limiting its versatility—may indeed be dead, partly because of hygiene concerns, partly because designers are creating more elegant solutions to dining spaces. So how can planners feed their attendees in this new environment?

The “such is the state” bit was meant to transition from the “the buffet is dead, long live the buffet” contradiction. Without it, we recommend just being more straightforward.

Planners have already been experimenting with solutions, including staggering mealtimes, designing spaces to encourage optimal foot traffic, and offering boxed and other prepackaged meals. Here are a few more principles to play with:

Offer creative stations. At its simplest, this can mean replacing one giant food station with four smaller ones spread throughout the space. At its more imaginative, this can mean converting a recreation space into a dining hall. One tantalizing example: At the Wailea Beach Resort–Marriott, private floating cabanas have been turned into dining spaces.

Keep the buffet, but optimize it. A staffed, one-sided buffet can come close to meeting the volume demands of a two-sided buffet while reducing crowd density. Staffing the buffet with servers has another benefit—reducing food waste (and cost), as portion sizes are more standardized.

Remind people that they’re away from home. Strict lockdown measures are long gone, but people have still been spending more time at home. That gives planners an opportunity to dazzle. “I think perhaps people are really looking to say, ‘Hey, if I go out, I want an experience,’” Pellicano said on Eventful. “‘I want the best, I want something different, I want you to really wow me, I want a product that maybe I don’t get in my local store, so really show me something new and show me something that’s high-end and unexpected.” That doesn’t have to be at odds with sanitary needs. Pellicano points to ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages, such as premixed cocktails, which have seen a rise in quality in the past few years.

Incorporate trends that grew in tandem with the pandemic. People’s relationship with food and health shifted along with attitudes toward public health, and your menus can reflect that. Consider adding items that keep pace with your attendees’ collective reckonings, such as plant-based meat alternatives and premium low- or no-alcohol beverages.

At its heart, the current rethinking of the buffet offers planners an opportunity. “I don’t see another way where we can meaningfully feed a whole bunch of people and get them on their way to their next really important general session without something in the buffet space,” Pellicano said at The Exchange. “But I sure hope we’re building better ones, smarter ones, more sustainable ones … and get folks through and where they need to go on time.”