The future of the buffet industry in Toronto post COVID-19

For decades, self-serve salad bars and buffets have been an integral part of the Canadian dining experience. But, even as restaurants begin to reopen doors in Toronto and the GTA, outlets that offered buffet services as part of their operations have been required to remove the facility and forced to adapt to changing times. So, to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has had widespread effects on the food industry, would be but a blatant understatement.

Last month, the province allowed restaurants to open at 50 per cent capacity but buffets and other self-serve food services continued to remain prohibited under current health guidelines. They have been, however, authorized to provide take-out, delivery and regular dine-in services but moving away from a model that their businesses were strictly based on, might only spell tougher times ahead for the owners.

For instance, the Mandarin – a Chinese restaurant with a history of over 40 years – has always been immensely popular in Canada, hosting nearly 20,000 customers per day. Now, their only dine-in service is at the Brampton location, offering what they call the ‘Mandarin Small Eats’ as a new alternative to the buffet.

“We will bring back the buffet once guidelines are set by the Ontario government and local public health authorities, and when we feel it is safe for our customers and employees.  At this time, we are excited to introduce the Mandarin Small Eats at our dine-in Brampton location,” said a representative of the authentic Chinese chain.

“It is a selection of about 70 freshly prepared, pay-per-eat Mandarin classics plated small – good for sampling as well as sharing. The prices range between $1.99 – $4.99,” he added, hopeful that the chain would be able to reopen more locations with the new Mandarin Small Eats dine-in facility over the next few weeks.

Another popular buffet restaurant, Dragon Pearl, too has had to make its own share of adjustments. “We do not know when we would be able to reopen our buffet service. It all depends on the government,” said Alan, manager of the North York favourite. “We are happy to be open for dine-in services now. We have launched the all-you-can-eat lunch and dinner menus as a substitute, which can be served table-side or packed for takeaway. We hope people would enjoy this new set of choices as much as they loved our buffet,” he shared.

Ever since Covid-19 hit the world, anxiety surrounding dining out has proved to be a significant challenge – one that all food businesses are struggling to overcome – more so for buffet restaurants since they tend to allow larger amounts of people within premises. Not to mention the crowding around self-serve areas – that alone is enough to make even the most loyal of customers wary.

When (and if) restaurants with buffets get the government’s nod to reopen to the public, we can only hope that they will work diligently to reclaim customer confidence.

Article exclusive to TRNTO