I operate an All-You-Can-Eat buffet restaurant. Ask me absolutely anything.
I closed a bit early today as it was a Thursday, and thought people might be interested. I'm an owner operator for a large independent all you can eat concept in the US. Ask me anything, from how the business works, stories that may or may not be true, "How the hell you you guys make so much food?", and "Why does every Chinese buffet (or restaurant for that matter) look the same?". Leave no territory unmarked.
That's what they are. They all come from the same factory in one of the major cities for Chinese immigrants in the US. The ingredients used are not half bad, but they lack preservatives to help it taste fresh. Some customers do say they get hard after some time on the trays. But I doubt these factories hire any food scientist to prevent them from turning into cardboard.
If people constantly get multiple plates of the most expensive foods, do you lose money?
Fortunately that does not happen often, but when it does, we lost at most the price of the buffet. They will not cover the cost of labor, rent, and utilities, but I'm pretty sure no one will pack several pounds of heavy-protein food, so it's less than the buffet price. They also bring their friends along, so if there is one glutton in the group, they convince the rest of them to go to our place, while we make money on the glutton's friends.
Yes, but only a small amount. You see, not many people can eat 1 1/2 day's worth of protein or seafood in one sitting.
What is one item you would advise people to stay away from at an all you can eat buffet?
Crab legs. I'm being serious. I have seen Chinese buffets at the fish market going and buying bottom of the barrel seafood including crab legs past their prime. And then they don't steam them properly either to save on volume.
The sushi on the other hand, a common misconception, is relatively safe to eat IN A BUSY PLACE, as the health code standards in the region of raw food is very strict, and you cannot skimp out on prices of salmon and tuna fillet.
Isn't getting the crab legs past their prime dangerous? Wouldn't it make people sick?
It does, unfortunately. Very often. But it is very hard to sue with the little amount of evidence people have. We do not even risk giving cheap crab legs for that reason
As a fan of American-Chinese food, I have to ask, Hot and Sour Soup. My absolute favorite but it is never the same place to place. Some it is ok, some it is amazing, never had one I hated, what is the story on it?
Egg composition. Hot and sour soup contains a lot of egg, and some places put less in the soup base when egg prices swing too high. It is made in a wok on high heat, so a high egg content makes it thicker.
What is the largest amount of food you have seen/heard about someone eating at one sitting?
Personally I had seen one man pile 9 plates of Chinese food (mostly cheap noodles and chicken). When they eat by themselves, I think they eat a lot more. When they are with friends, the social pressure keeps them from gorging too much. My waiters had said a larger number, but they might be overestimating. No one can really eat more than 2 pounds.
Why are you always running out of chicken wings?
Chicken wings are hard to make in a busy kitchen. Each wing has to be spun and dipped by hand in sauce, which increases time. Chicken wings also come in smaller cases from restaurant wholesalers now for some reason, and the price increased.
What measure do you have in place to prevent 'water drinkers' from drinking the soda?
Our waiters serve the soda, so that is not a problem.
What is the exact number of shrimp that you would cut someone off at ?
Depends, what size. I have the ability to buy shrimps from 200 to a pound size to jumbo 4 ounce shrimps.
But really, we just would change out the type of shrimp for another type of shrimp with a different sauce/cooking method. The customer won't come again, but if they are losing us money, we cannot let them take advantage of us. They are already getting their meal at a fraction of a la carte price, but the abuse cannot happen, as it is unsustainable. Before you know it we have to raise prices because of a group of people who become too greedy and just want to make us lose the most.
Is your restaurant menu fairly standard, or do you try new menu items regularly to mix things up?
How do you feel about patrons who dine-in and then ask to take a box home?
I would say about half of them are rotated regularly, but on a fixed schedule. Some things we just try because the ingredients are cheap. Right now tomatoes are at $57/cs while they were $11/cs 4 months ago. However the price of cabbage and potatoes dropped, as well as bass. That influences the new dishes we make.
For the customers who want to take their food home, it's usually a small amount left on their plate and they just want to limit wastage. In most cases they ask to pay for the box themselves, but we let it go if it's a small quantity, as it will be wasted anyway.
How much is prepared by your kitchen vs how much is prepared outside of your kitchen? Are things like sesame chicken already breaded or do you do that?
I just noticed over the years that buffet food is fairly consistent across restaurants and made me think it's mostly prepackaged.
The meat dishes are made from scratch, but the base for the sauces are from the supplier. Most of these dishes are made with ingredients common to each other, such as General Tso's Chicken, Sesame Chicken, and other American Chinese dishes. Some things like the pizza, fries, sesame balls, desserts, are all from the supplier and come frozen. The microwave is not used that frequently, but the fryers are.
There's a buffet near me that charges people for any food left on their plate. What do you think about that kind of policy? Do you think it's sensible, or risks driving customers away? Is wasted food a serious enough problem to necessitate such strict measures?
I would imagine if we implemented that policy we would lose some of our new customers. In practice, it is sensible, as running this place is very low margin, and any food wasted lowers that. But driving customers away ultimately results in fewer customers, which is more devastating than a bit more wastage.
Over here where I live all buffets have a wastage charge but it is rarely enforced, it's mostly there to prevent those very few who leave whole plates stacked and untouched.
If it was more often, you will lose customers. The scare tactic is enough.
Do you ever have to ban someone from returning because they ate too much or wasted too much food?
How profitable are buffets in general?
How long does it take to prep and cook everything before the store opens?
With so much food, are roaches and rodents a problem? How do you keep it under control?
Are sushi made from a factory? Or made in-house? The're usually pretty bland.
- Wasted: No. If they are kids their parents control them.
- Very low margins, but good if high volume. Low labor cost. Food cost is slightly higher.
- 2-3 hours before we open is how long it takes, with a complete team. Most prep work is done the night before, so it isn't that unreasonable.
- We never had roaches or rodents in our place, so I cannot vouch for that. Probably because of a newer building. A decent pest control should always prevent the problem from occurring in the first place. Food is sorted and rotated frequently, and never on floors. From a business perceptive, keeping this standard is great as it lowers wastage.
- Sushi are not made from a factory. They are made in house, but not from the finest fisheries or filling. They are made with pretty safe treated fish, but we have to tone down the flavor since it's a wide crowd we are appealing to.
Is that a yes for #1 if they eat too much?
Regulars do not eat too much, as they are there just because we provide a comfort to them. Most are very picky eaters who love the idea of getting anything whenever they want. Fortunately we make a lot of money on these people. The heavy eaters do not come very often. I still don't know why that is the case.
We have never banned anyone because they ate too much food.
Some children however, I would love to ban, throwing food all over the place, and wasting whole plates of deserts they cannot finish, and their parents not giving a shit.
Can I come to your restaurant and eat for free?
In some cases we do let homeless people work for an hour in the back doing dishes for a filling meal and some to go. Free in the sense that you actually cannot afford to pay, which then we will be happy to help you in any circumstance.
Edit: Thanks for gold 2 kind strangers!
Have any of them ended up working for you on the books?
Honestly that's really upstanding to hear that you let people who really can't pay work for a meal. I assume since no money changes hands and it's just inventory the gifted food is marked as loss to prevent tax issues?
The law might change soon with many companies doing the same for their employees and free meals to be taxed.
Plenty of businesses hire homeless in my area, who are mostly due to the housing prices and general shortage of apartments (9-12 months wait is not uncommon). ServSafe certification is only required for the manager of boh and foh, not individuals working in the establishment. I allow some of them to come a few times a week, do dishes and cleaning, but use e verify on those and give them a paycheck and a meal.
assuming yours is a chinese buffet. i became close with a couple who waited for a buffet and they told me they were 'recruited' to come to the states and work in that restaurant, leaving their parents and son in china.
is this common practice? it seems to me that all of the wait staff i encounter (anywhere) have just been flown over with rudimentary english classes and put to work.
I am not chinese or east asian for that matter but I am very familiar with the culture and speak the language. They do recruit from Fuzhou provinces, but where I am in the us doesn't require much effort to get employees.
What do you do with the food which is left after end of service? Serve it up again the next day? Have always wanted to know about how such places do with the large quantities of food left after a days end.
Half of the stuff at the end of the day is reprocessed much like other restaurants, even MCD and Panera Bread. You can turn so much stuff into soup, and will still taste fresh. We mark all our food to make sure that the day old soup, while it would normally last 2 days with fresh ingredients, we would only put out for a day. In almost all cases, the food is eaten and turned over within the next 12 hours by the morning. Stuff like fried food however and mushrooms, have to be thrown away.
I hated my short time working in the food industry. So many people were demanding, wanted everything for free, and overall just nasty and gross. I always thought the buffett crowd would be extra bad. What is the buffett crowd really like to deal with? Extra points if you throw in your worst and best customer experience in the reply :)
Some customers will bitch at you and purposely spoil the food in order to get their food for free. Some customers leave out their food at their table for 10 minutes and say it is cold, AFTER THEIR MEAL, and demanding it should be free.
The worst experience was when a customer wanted a take out box from the buffet, which was by weight. He got two huge boxes, and the bill turned out to be higher than the price of the buffet. He argued and started yelling in the whole restaurant that it was a rip off that he took 5 pounds of food (verified on the scale) and should pay more than the buffet price. He said that he could eat more than the amount in the boxes, but it was 5 POUNDS of food! After arguing and initially lowering the price a bit, he threw a fit and wanted the whole 5 pounds of food for free. Regardless, we have a price policy in place, but some just don't want to pay it. If you are going to take your food home, we cannot charge you the buffet price. This was well known before even walking in. Not to throw a fit and bother other customers.
What type of discounts do your employees get?
We let them have free food to eat there and a box to take home. 25% off for their family as well.
If an dish runs out are customers able to request a refill? I've noticed with my local some of the more popular dishes are cleaned out within the first couple hours and then the kitchen never replenishes the dish.
Also maybe your restaurant us different, but I notice the quality of the food during lunch service is higher (and cheaper) than the dinner service why might that be?
Yeah, there is no problem with refills. The only time I don't refill is when it is closing time and it would just make food to give to the table, to reduce wastage. Here is customer satisfaction based on time of day from my sale data.
For real though how do you read this graph, is the x axis actually the rating? Very strange way to look at this type of data
I'm not a data scientist, but this is tips collected over 10 minute intervals. So this is about 12 hours of data a day over 3 months. The bottom axis is time, and vertical axis is tip percentage. Since service is the same averaged over all time periods, food quality is the independent var here.
Hey! I run a restaurant too, is this data collected by your pos? How do you control for cash tips on credit card payments (looks like 0 tip to my system)?
I've always wanted to collect tons of obscure data from my pos - like plotting steak temp vs # of send backs (spoiler - medium well gets the most send backs by far) and use this data to improve service.
Lots of data processing. PM me if you want some info on how to do it.
Satisfaction rating peaks at 30 o’clock.
4:45 pm - When we put fresh dinner dishes out
I had eaten at some bad buffets before where they don’t provide non carbonated drinks. I think it is so people eat lesser food. What the hell. What do you think of this?
I would assume carbonated drinks take up more space? I think that is why customers feel they are getting ripped off when they get flat soda.
What food in your restaurant would you say is the best?
Also, how often do you eat at your own restaurant?
4-5 dinners/wk is what I manage. Other nights I'm working on other things (mostly weekdays) and eat somewhere else, including competition
Such a savvy move. Do you think the competition comes and eats at yours? Do you ever recognize each other?
Honestly competition looks like the average person. It is only when you go to their place you recognize them
How do I make/buy egg drop soup that tastes like the egg drop soup in the buffet?
Use a wok and shop at an asian market for traditional chinese vegetables.
The oysters always sketched me out. You say the crab legs you should avoid and the sushi is fine. But what about the oysters?
Oysters are also to be avoided as they source them, especially in the midwest, from groceries and fisheries past their prime. Sometimes on the coasts they are imported from China and South America, but are decent quality while they are fresh.
I have had weight loss surgery, which made my stomach quite small, and I only eat 4-6 ounces of food per meal. They gave me a nice little card that explains this. If I came to your restaurant with my family and showed me this card, would you be able to give me a discount, knowing that I would not be able to eat much at all?
(Note: I wouldn't be upset if I had to pay full price, I'm just curious if I should even bother to ask if and when we go to buffets.)
Of course. We let the elderly and disabled have a steep discount as it is good will for more customers and there is a piece of mind someone who is not able to eat is gorging themselves to get their money's worth. It is not right and sets a bad example.
I'll ask the hard hitting question here:
The chocolate-vanilla swirl machine. You got one? If so, how often is it out of order? Why is it out of order so god damn much?
The problem with most places run by immigrants is their lack of skills to fix stuff. I can replace a burnt motor easy from yt videos or even call a contractor for severe problems. Some places don't even speak english. My requirement for all staff is that they must have english skills just for the sake of efficiency
I don't know if this AMA is still active, but here goes.
Would you say on an average, is the cheese clams safe to eat, or would it fall under the same place as the crab (diarrhea in a shell) in buffets?
We don't serve clams for this same reason. If it is seafood covered in cheese, they are covering its expiration
Did a client ever abused a lot of the system?
Unfortunately, quite often. Food cost is not that low, and plenty of people stack their plates and end up wasting it all. Fortunately, most of the time, the food wasted is of low value. The people who take the expensive stuff like seafood and meat actually eat most of it. Big eyes, but small stomach.
I'm always interested to know how these all-you-can-eat for $15.00 joints manage to turn a profit. After paying salaries and operating expenses, how do you manage to stay in the green?
You only eat $6 worth of food in a $15 buffet. If my labor at $14 an hour including taxes can cook for 7 people, thats only $8 total. Add the drinks margin and you are profitable. A la carte restaurants are a rip off in this scenario, where you might only get $3 cost of food for $15.
Do you have to deal with lower tip percentages based on being a buffet? Ive heard people over the years complain about tipping at buffets because they get up and get their own meal.
Our waiters deal with that, but it turns out to be okay most of the time, as $1pp is on the low end. 1 can handle 10+ tables easy
what's the best sauce you've found over your life that would make most things taste a lot better?
I enjoy buffets immensely. Long ago, I would eat too much and not feel good afterwards. Nowadays, I just like the concept that I can eat until I'm satisfied for one flat fee. Frankly, the price is somewhat immaterial. However, the concept of a buffet somewhat equates to low rent establishment. No offense intended. I'm making a generalization and I'm probably not familiar with your place. However, I tend to judge a restaurant by the cleanliness and smell. How much emphasis do you place on your employees to clean your restaurant and bathrooms?
Pretty spotless to me. Bathrooms aren't that hard to clean. I do know how Chinese buffets work and how shady and dirty they may be, but that's just the standards of their culture. They are not a dirty people. I am not Chinese or East Asian but I do know how to speak the language, and I can confirm, cleanliness is a major concern. If the bathroom is not clean, do not eat there. That goes for any place.
I'm hungry. Do you do deliveries?
Too busy most of the time. My kitchen is not laid out for a la carte and takeaway orders as a additional factor.
What's your profit margin like on sodas? It seems like wait staff always top the glass off with ice and then fill it in with soda to minimize the amount of actual soda you get. Do you guys train them to do this because the margins are so thin?
12 cents cost/fill to 1.59 sale price. Good markup assuming they dont get 14 fills.
So, I had gastric bypass surgery back in 2001 and back then, the surgeon gave us cards to be laminated that can be used to prove that we had the surgery, in order to get a discount at buffets or to be "allowed" to order from the kid's menu. I, personally, have only been to maybe 3 all you can eat buffets in the past 16 years because there's no way in hell I'm going to pay $21.99+ for the single plate I consume. So, my question, do you offer discounts, or the child rate, to adults who have had gastric bypass surgery?
I have customers with GI problems who eat at my place all the time and I give them a discount.
Have you ever caught someone eating a bunch of food, but go to the bathroom right after and force themselves to throw it up and then go back for more? (Anorexic people) What is your policy in that situation?
There was a very thin old eastern european lady who would eat tons of rice and then purge it out week after week in the bathroom, and then go for a smoke.
Why do the deserts always look so delicious but taste like stale cardboard covered in colored sugar?
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