© Jennifer Lett/South Florida Sun Sentinel/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS Golden Corral buffet reopens with restrictions in Boynton Beach on Friday May 22, 2020.
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Will coronavirus kill the buffet? Already a number of South Florida staples, like Sweet Tomatoes and the Farmer’s Pick Buffet at the Isle Casino in Pompano Beach, seem to have thrown in the towel. Then there’s Blue Moon Fish Co., bringing back its noted Sunday Brunch for the first time this weekend, proceeding with caution and hoping loyal customers return.© Jennifer Lett/Sun Sentinel/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS Golden Corral buffet reopens with restrictions in Boynton Beach on Friday May 22, 2020.
Buffets pose their own unique danger for virus transmission because of so many hands that have been so many places touching shared utensils in row upon row of communal dishes. Medical professionals and organizations like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have recommended discontinuing self-serve stations, salad bars and buffets.
Diners who enjoy the experience have good reason to proceed with caution. If you do venture out to buffets, expect changes.
Markings on the floor will keep you socially distanced on line. Plastic gloves and napkins will be provided for you before you put food on your plate. In some cases, staff will do the serving for you as you stand behind enhanced sneeze guards and point.
For some restaurant owners, the cost of new sanitary measures after weeks of lost business is a deal-breaker.
Sweet Tomatoes, the all-you-can-eat buffet style restaurant chain with eight locations in South Florida, closed in March.
At the Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park, the Farmer’s Pick Buffet, known for deals like endless crab legs for under $50, is also unlikely to return. Tom Reeg, CEO of Eldorado Resorts, which owns the Pompano casino, said in a recent earnings call that buffets are costly — especially given the fact that customers likely to be skeptical of them for some time. “You lose a lot of money,” he said. “Simply not having buffets open in your properties is going to dramatically offset any increase in cleaning costs.”
Other establishments, like Golden Corral, who have invested nearly 50 years in buffet style eating, are pushing forward.
Marc Verderame, owner of four Golden Corrals in Florida, including two in Palm Beach County, said his restaurants were particularly hurt because they could not do much delivery or takeout. “Our model isn’t geared toward that.”
During the shutdown, he furloughed all of his hourly employees. Since reopening in the last two weeks, he has hired about 25 percent of them back. “As business keeps increasing, we will bring more and more back.”
Changes he’s implemented include scattering plastic gloves and napkins near the trays for patrons to use when serving themselves. The serving utensils they grab are changed every 20 minutes. If customers prefer, a server can handle the food. Servers also bring them all plates, drinks and condiments.
'We are just trying to eliminate as many touch points,” Verderame said.
Spiros Lorentapos, owner of Carving Station Buffet in West Palm Beach, has similar plans for his buffet, which has made a name for its $11 lunch and $12 dinner buffets. When he reopens in June, customers will be required to wear gloves while scooping food onto their plates.
Although some restaurants owners worry about demand for buffets right now, Lorentapos is optimistic. He hopes quality meats and affordable prices will continue to draw his staple of elderly diners. Waiting, he said, is not an option. “If I don’t open soon, I might not be able to make it at all.”
Verderame said that since opening his Golden Corrals, business has been slow. He didn’t attribute the slowdown to buffets, but rather to a general caution among all diners as they transition back from takeout and delivery.
“Not everyone is ready to dine out yet,' he said. “But our guests are loyal and I believe they will come back.”
Blue Moon Fish Co., overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, is banking on the same thing as the restaurant brings back its lavish Sunday Brunch for the first time this weekend.
'Brunch has always been one our busiest periods,” said Izabella Carvajal, a hostess at the restaurant, which for more than 20 years has been a popular choice for Mother’s Day and other special occasions.
This Sunday, the buffet will work differently. Rather than allowing patrons to go up and get their fill, they will be served by staff or tell a server what they want from the buffet and have it brought to them. Carvajal said the staff is hopeful customers like the new normal enough to keep coming back and called it a “make-or-break situation” for the restaurant.
“We’re crossing our fingers extra tight.”
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Jim Falkowski, of Cooper City, said he doesn’t go to buffets as often as he’d like to anymore, “can’t eat as much as I used to,” but Blue Moon’s buffet has been a favorite of his for years and he plans to return soon.
Falkowski said he isn’t looking for any particular changes before going back to the restaurant. “I’m comfortable with them the way they’ve always been,' he said. 'They are clean and the food is great.”
He said he’s read about calls online from other diners and medical professionals to close down buffets due to safety precautions, but believes they have the right to operate just like any other restaurant. “And we should have the choice whether to patronize them or not.”
Andrew Boryga, [email protected], 954-356-4533 or Twitter: @borywrites
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