When people were wiping down their groceries and hoarding hand sanitizer in the early days of COVID-19, it was hard to imagine that food buffets would ever return. The thought of strangers hovering close together over communal trays and shoveling food onto their plates using shared utensils was, well, kind of sickening.
Many states, including Massachusetts, enacted safety restrictions that temporarily prohibited restaurants and grocery stores from operating buffets and salad bars. A few buffet-centric restaurant chains filed for bankruptcy protection, and some places, including Encore Boston Harbor, got out of the buffet-style food business entirely.
More than two years later, however, buffets are no longer considered so unpalatable. Self-serve options have been available at grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Stop & Shop for months, Golden Corral is stocking its “Endless Buffets” in Springfield again, and other restaurants across the state are slowly bringing back all-you-can-eat options, with “sneeze guards” and all.
Fritz Eilenberg, 61, said that not so long ago he “wouldn’t have even thought of going to a buffet.” But now that he’s vaccinated, the Uber and Lyft driver said he has no qualms about swinging by the Whole Foods next to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to grab a bite between rides.
On Thursday, he was among the crowd congregating around the supermarket’s self-serve stations during lunchtime. There were small boxes of disposable medical gloves for customers, but at that moment only one could be seen wearing a glove. There was a small sign on a sneeze guard above the parmesan cheese that read, “No hands, please.”
Eilenberg said he likes having a variety of options and trusts that Whole Foods takes COVID-19 safety measures seriously.
“I feel like I can do more, go out more,” he said over a container of lemon herb pollock and vegetables.
But some restaurant owners say they are still gauging whether enough customers feel comfortable sidling up to a buffet.
At Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge, chef Peter Davis said he likely won’t resume the restaurant’s once-popular Sunday brunch buffet until at least September. The buffet was labor intensive, he said, and it only makes business sense if a couple hundred people show up. Between labor shortages and ongoing uncertainty about the pandemic, he plans to play it conservatively.
“I just want to make sure we are through this thing until we gear all of this up,” Davis said. “I don’t get the feeling that the public is ready quite yet.”
That doesn’t mean some regulars aren’t salivating for Henrietta’s Sunday bounty, which featured an elaborate variety of foods, from a ribeye carving station to oysters.
“I get questions every week about when we are going to start the buffet again,” Davis said.
Rokeya Chowdhury, co-owner of Shanti restaurants in Dorchester, Roslindale, and Kendall Square, said a return to offering buffet service might be jarring for customers who grew accustomed to strict health protocols put in place when the pandemic took hold in 2020, such as plastic partitions, mask requirements, and enhanced cleaning measures.
“We went through this phase of sterilizing everything, not being close to people, not even touching the same pen as someone else,” she said.
There isn’t yet enough demand to bring back daily lunch buffets at Shanti’s Roslindale location, Chowdhury said, and the buffet in Dorchester only made up a small portion of weekly sales. But because office and lab workers are back in town, Chowdhury is preparing to reopen her restaurant in Kendall Square later in May for the first time since it shut down more than two years ago.
Sales at the Cambridge location have historically depended on biotech workers who flocked to Shanti’s $15 lunch buffet, a smorgasbord of appetizers, curries, rice, naan, and dessert. Still, Chowdhury is unsure whether workers are ready for a traditional buffet service, so she plans to test a lunch concept, popular in India, called tiffin service. Tiffins are stacked boxes filled with a variety of Indian foods. Customers will be able to order refills from a server, she said, so it will essentially be a mini-buffet for each table.
“The allure of buffets is that you get unlimited food,” Chowdhury said. “We want to come up with a creative solution where people can still enjoy a similar service, just not exactly the same way they did before the pandemic.”
Potential health risks associated with buffets pre-date the pandemic. Businesses have long had to protect food displays with sneeze guards, and there was always the possibility that someone in line didn’t wash their hands.
Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, said the dangers have “always been more of your classic food-borne illnesses.” Buffets don’t present a risk specific to COVID-19, Doron pointed out, since transmission mostly happens via close person-to-person contact, no matter where that might be.
“The [COVID] risk is when people are crowded in a line together to get to the buffet, and to a much lesser extent, the tongs or serving utensils,” she said.
According to data from Yelp, interest in buffets so far this year is flat in Boston, compared with the first four months of 2021. In nearby Worcester and Providence, though, the yearning for unlimited portions at cheap prices is higher than the national average.
So far, grocery chains say customers don’t appear to be steering clear of their hot food bars. Caroline Medeiros, a Stop & Shop spokesperson, said demand is steady and has not been affected by any lingering pandemic concerns. A spokesperson for Wegmans said the majority of its stores have reintroduced self-serve food options, including a wing bar, Asian food bar, and soup stations.
But neither chain has brought back its salad bars. That might say more about the stress of the last two years leading people to seek out comfort foods, and less about people being wary of communal serving utensils and standing elbow-to-elbow over a tub of mac and cheese.
For some, the absence of buffets seems to have made the heart grow fonder, or the stomach more insistent.
“I do it more and more now,” Eilenberg said of frequenting the Whole Foods hot bar. “It’s quick, convenient, and not that expensive if I don’t feel like cooking.”