Buffet restaurants will change forever after Covid-19, say F&B design experts

A panel heard the importance of good service will be heightened

Buffets are one aspect of hotel and restaurant life that the designers can see changing forever following Covid-19, according to a panel of experts at Index held at Dubai World Trade Centre.

It means a shift in how the traditional all-day-dining restaurant will be viewed and used, said Justin Wells, CEO of Wells International, Pooja Shah-Mulani, design director at LW Design and Sneha Divias, architect and founder of Divias Atelier.

Shah-Mulani said diners are now thinking about things they hadn’t considered pre-Covid. “People are a lot more aware of things now,” she explained. “The last year has trained our brains into thinking about sneeze guards at buffets, how many people have touched spoons, is the cutlery clean and so on. How is the food being served? Are people getting to close to you? I wonder if it’s all positive or if there are some negative aspects.”

Wells said he believed the current way of doing things – buffet food is now served to guests by staff – won’t last for ever. He added: “We’re habitual so we’re dealing with what we’ve dealt with for the past year, but as vaccines come in and we move on there will be change in behaviours.”

Divias and Shah-Mulani both thought the traditional buffet set-up in restaurants wouldn’t feature in any new projects. But Wells didn’t necessarily agree. He added: “Buffets are an interesting one. It’s always been a visually appealing thing, enticing to guests’ eyes and a centrepiece for restaurants.”

Shah-Mulani added: “Even before the pandemic I think you could see the move away from the buffet. Designs were going towards making sure à la carte offerings were available, even for breakfast. I hope we get back to that, as it helps with all kinds of things, food waste being one.”

Divias said:  “It helps with the flow of a restaurant as well, think of how much space buffets take up.”

A re-positioning of the those all-day concepts is also in the offing, the panel agreed, with the term ‘three-meal restaurant’ now preferable to operators who want to heighten the experience for guests.

The standard of service was brought into the conversation at this point, with the whole panel saying that attention to detail is imperative when a restaurant is trying to improve guest experience, and that it can’t all be done with the design and food available.

Wells said: “We’re in a unique place here in Dubai. The minimum wage for wait staff in Australia is high, so the abundance of service is lower there. Here, the region affords a high number of service staff. When places have fewer service staff, those people have a chance to make a real connection, rather than people feeling like they’re surrounded by a wash of staff.”

Shah-Mulani said more and more operators were asking their designers to be involved in every aspect of the business. She explained: “We go all the way – staff uniforms, menu design and so on. How does all of that feed into the design and the idea of the venue. It’s becoming a more holistic project.

“This is the level of difference people are looking for now. The level of competition with food is high, so how are people going to stand out?”

Wells added: “All of these experiences are what makes for successful F&B. It requires interacting with people. It all comes back to something human. Choice is also important. One time I might sit on a higher level, but the next time I want a booth, and so on. Personal experiences, that’s where the industry is going. Different spaces to sit, it gives people a chance to try different things and that’s possible through design.”

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