This story is part of The Road Ahead, a series that examines the future of travel and how we’ll experience the world after the pandemic.
The paradox of choice that can make dining out daunting simply does not exist at a hotel buffet. All-you-can-eat—or, for legal purposes, all-you-care-to-eat—buffets thrust hungry munchers into a three-dimensional Netflix menu of eminently attainable food options, to binge simultaneously or stagger at your whim. In fact, the entire process is defined by your whim: from the order of courses to the sizes of portions, and the number of rounds at bat. It’s the why-don’t-we-have-both gif made legion, epic culinary wanderlust, an indulgent plunge into the eager id of the travel gods, and a euphoric celebration of saying yes to everything.
Considering that the all-you-can-eat buffet is an ode to abundance, though, it’s ironic that the options for enjoying one in the COVID-19 era have dwindled down to nearly nothing.
To be clear, buffets are not going away. In response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) clamping down on traditional buffet service, many hotels and cruises have turned their attention to the “traditional” part. The buffet as a concept remains—it’s merely adapting to our collective belated realization that routinely sharing tongs with strangers is perhaps not ideal, germ-wise. Hotels are now experimenting with full service options, bento boxes, conveyor belts, and more. Some of these initiatives sound promising, others less so. Either way, the sunsetting of buffets as we knew them before the pandemic means that an iconic part of travel may slide permanently off the brochure.
Adam Crocini, global head and VP, food and beverage brands, Hilton
Will they come back? I probably had that question a dozen times or more per day.”
If this self-care-as-a-pejorative tradition goes away for good, is it worth mourning? Well, that depends on whether you enjoy momentary bliss with your vacation. The all-you-can-eat buffet syncs up perfectly with the rhythm and ethos of travel. Just the sight of so much delicious food in so many forms is a primal serotonin hit that whispers to the portion of the brain concerned with scarcity, “you’ll never be hungry again.” Salvation by salivation. It’s a chance to abandon all edible encumbrances, from diets to dignity, and luxuriate in unabashed gluttony. You get all the deluxe endless sampling that comes with auditioning caterers for a wedding, with none of the pesky “getting married” that usually follows. Come hither, weary traveler, and let us descend into wholesome decadence—a drugless, adultery-free transgression fit for the whole family. Any worries about weight and sensibility can wait until Monday. For now, the 10:30 a.m. lobster and guacamole are on the table, along with all things imaginable.
Where it all began
Although the buffet feels like a uniquely modern extravagance, it has been around in one form or another since at least the 1500s. The idea of plopping all manner of foods on a heaving table was codified in 18th-century Sweden, though, as a way to quickly feed unannounced guests from out of town all at once. Ultimately, the culinary tradition of smörgåsbords first caught worldwide attention at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, before entrancing Americans at the 1939 World’s Fair. Only a few years later, an employee at El Rancho Vegas casino would go on to launch what was arguably America’s first all-you-can-eat dinner. The Buckaroo Buffet offered a lot of bang for one’s buck—the cost was literally $1—so it helped prevent visitors from leaving the gambling environment and thus possibly retaining some of their money. It was simply an offer that couldn’t be refused.
Because Las Vegas isn’t the only place that prides itself on being a naughty respite from reality, the all-you-can-eat buffet naturally migrated beyond its borders and seeped into the broader vacation industry. It has since become a beloved staple of cruises and hotels the world over.
Were they ever a good idea?
Of course, buffets have always had the drawback of being germ farms. As CNN reported last year, scientists in Japan recently used ultraviolet light to demonstrate how easily viruses can spread from tongs to pitchers, chafing-dish lids, cups, and cutlery. It wasn’t exactly a secret before, just something best not to think too hard about. After all, thinking too hard about any part of a how a professional kitchen is run is the fastest way to never dine out ever again. And besides—buffets had sneeze guards! What else could possibly be unsanitary at a buffet with sneeze guards?
Once COVID-19 hit, though, buffet lovers needed more protection than plexiglas alone could offer. Across the entire service industry, the concept of self-service dining became verboten overnight, even if demand remained as high as ever.
“Probably the most popular questions I got at the beginning of the pandemic were: ‘What is the future of buffets? Will they come back? And should we operate our buffet?'” says Adam Crocini, VP and global brand head of food and beverage at Hilton. “I probably had that question a dozen times or more per day.”
Part of the allure was being unobserved and unobstructed at each food decision point.”
By summer 2020, hotels and cruise ships started trying out ways to follow CDC guidelines while keeping the essential premise of all-you-can-eat buffets afloat. Some offered hybrid models, where guests could help themselves to individually portioned yogurts, parfaits, or pastries at a buffet, then sit down and order hot items à la carte from a server. However, the modified version that many cruise ships and hotels landed on involved a buffet where guests would point at items they want, with attendants plating it for them. The end result of either option is technically the same, with diners indulging to their heart’s content, but something is lost in translation.
Perhaps it’s partly because the lack of self-service feels a bit like losing one’s free will. The last thing the all-you-can-eat mechanism ever needed was a functionary in the middle. Part of the allure was being unobserved and unobstructed at each food decision point. Under the current regime, however, there is now an eye witness at the scene of the crime, another soul to project one’s own judgments onto, an external angel on your shoulder, just after you finally paid to have it surgically removed for a short while. Having to actually ask for 10:30 a.m. guacamole and lobster—or, God forbid, a second helping of each—means the mortifying ordeal of being known. The embarrassment of riches suddenly becomes an embarrassment of embarrassments.
But it might not necessarily shake out that way.
Last summer, as many areas in the Asia-Pacific initially surfaced from the pandemic depths, some hotel buffets in these areas began to resume self-service. As COVID-19 proved more difficult to vanquish than expected, however, these buffets were plagued with pockets of shutdowns. A total return may be in the cards one day, but it has apparently not yet arrived. As for the United States’ hotel buffets, perhaps the moment of truth is right around the corner.
“As we lean in towards the summer holiday travel season with a lot of pent-up need for travel and engagement on a social level, we are seeing the need for those buffets to return and guests looking for that experience,” Crocini says.
Over the past 15 weeks, Hilton has been testing out pilot breakfast concepts with various protocols, in order to understand what its guests desire most from them, and what the company can safely and comfortably deliver. One version involves an Aeroglove, a clear plastic glove that a machine blows directly onto guests’ hands like a cartoon before they serve themselves. According to Crocini, though—and also just common sense—the guests vastly prefer serving themselves without the glove.
Only time, and guidance from public-health officials, will determine whether hotels worldwide ever bring back the self-service all-you-can-eat buffets of yore. Unhygienic or not, they’re the gold standard—and they’re what travelers still expect to see when they enter a banquet hall or a cruise ship. Until the day they do return, though, when we again take the Aerogloves off our inhibitions and indulge accordingly, these culinary Kubla Khans will live on in our hearts, at the all-you-can-dream buffet.