Some people thought that COVID-19 would mean the demise of the all-you-can-eat buffet. That was a reasonable prediction, because pandemics and social distancing aren’t really compatible with a business concept that puts strangers in close proximity, shuffling through buffet lines and using the same implements to dig into common platters of food. And, in fact, some buffet chains went out of business in response to COVID restrictions.
But now, apparently, buffets are back, and in a big way. The three largest buffet chains–Golden Corral, Cicis, and Pizza Ranch–are reporting growth that is leaving other kinds of restaurants at the end of the line. The sales at those three chains in March were up 125 percent from January 2021, and Golden Corral’s sales last year had increased 14 percent from pre-pandemic levels. The demand for all-you-can-eat buffets is so strong that Golden Corral has plans to eventually add another 250 locations in the U.S.
Why are people flocking to restaurants where they will be dealing with sneeze guards and warming tables groaning with food? The economy is a big part of the reason. All-you-can-eat buffets are seen as an inexpensive way to have a big meal out–with chocolate pudding for dessert, too!–and the chains cater to customers whose income is below the national average. With inflation and rising food costs causing people to feel economic strains and search for value, a trip to an all-you-can eat buffet restaurant helps to stretch the family food dollar. That notion resonates with me, because I remember going with friends to the Swedish Buffet in Columbus when I was a cash-strapped college student and the buffet allowed for maximum food consumption at a minimum price.
The surging popularity of buffets is another sign that Americans are over the pandemic–or at least are willing to accept the risk of infection in search of a bargain and a full stomach.