Love them or hate them, buffets are making a comeback

Dec 17, 2021

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I was recently thinking back on college and realized that one of the best parts was having a meal plan that let me into the cafeteria for a breakfast buffet every single morning of my freshman year. There, in Nashville, I’d load up daily on fluffy biscuits covered in rich cream gravy, piles of hot sausage links and scrambled eggs, warm coffee and the social high of starting a new day with friends.

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Hotel buffets aren’t that different, really. Depending on where you’re staying you can easily find biscuits and gravy, pancakes, healthier options (not for me!) and people from anywhere and everywhere milling about deciding what else they can fit on the plate. Don’t get me started on the joy of flipping the waffle maker!

In fact, hotel breakfasts and buffets are some of the most sought-after perks of hotel elite status, considering that some hotel buffets can easily run $25 or more per person, plus tax and tip. Add that up for a family of four and, phew, maybe you should’ve just made a McDonald’s run.

Related: 5 ways to get your hotel breakfast for free

But whether your coveted elite status gets you a fancy, free buffet or you’re a road warrior addicted to Holiday Inn’s breakfast spread, we all know that the COVID-19 pandemic ripped away our beloved buffets.

But what’s next?

(Photo by Andrea Rotondo/The Points Guy)

As it turns out, we weren’t the only folks wondering. As Adam Crocini, Hilton’s senior vice president and global head of Food & Beverage Brands, told me, ”One of the most popular questions [we] received at the beginning of the pandemic was: ‘What is the future of buffets?’”

Well, to all my bacon-loving, omelet-obsessed readers, I have great news: The future of the buffet seems bright.

To look forward, let’s first look back. While the buffet might have disappeared from many hotels, it didn’t necessarily mean that food was gone, especially at Hilton. At the height of the pandemic, according to Crocini, it was all about “rethinking and reimagining” the company’s approach. For Hilton, this lead to innovative solutions like “to-go cocktails, expanded grab-n-go markets and more.”

If you stayed at any hotel from any brand with breakfast during this time, you might have noticed that offerings were slightly inconsistent across brands and regions. The reason was mostly due to different local guidelines on what exactly could be offered, a challenge that Hilton and other brands faced head-on.

“We know our breakfast  offerings, including the complimentary hot breakfast at select brands, are important to our guests’ experience. That’s why we ensured our breakfast buffets never completely went away. Throughout the pandemic, our hotel teams adjusted their experience based on their market, space availability and local health guidance and regulations,” Crocini said.

Hotels around the world adjusted just as we travelers did. But now, nearly two years into the pandemic, with vaccines available and restaurants and bars open around the world, where do we stand?

The buffet interior at Wynn Las Vegas
The Buffet at Wynn Las Vegas. (Photo by Barbara Kraft)

One place to look is Las Vegas, where some (but not all) buffets are back in business. At The Mirage, an MGM property, I was sad to find the Cravings Buffet closed earlier this month. But across Las Vegas Boulevard, the Buffet at Wynn Las Vegas was open for guests.

But with buffets reopening, it also begs the question: Why were they unsafe during the early days of the pandemic in the first place? And more importantly, are they safe now?

According to Today Food, the riskiest part of being at a buffet during the pandemic wasn’t necessarily the food itself, but rather being so close to other guests waiting in line or at tables.

As Benjamin Chapman, Ph.D., professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, told Today Food, “Managing social distancing and line-ups is really the hardest part [of buffets]. Or in situations where staff will serve patrons from a buffet, the staff and patron interaction is the riskiest part.”

But if guests are vaccinated and wearing masks when not seated, like most buffets require, including in Las Vegas, it doesn’t feel too different from most restaurants that are open. If anything, as Chapman confirmed to Today Food, the bigger issue with buffets includes illnesses that can be spread by touch, like norovirus or salmonella.

(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

On the bigger hotel front, lots of brands have reinstated their breakfast offerings (as well as other buffets) and even used this time to further innovate their offerings to better serve travelers’ changing needs and wants.

In September, Marriott rolled out new complimentary breakfast offerings at around 3,000 hotels after a survey found that 75% of guests wanted a hot breakfast buffet over continental options. Rolling out throughout the winter, these new buffet offerings include build-your-own-breakfast bowls, cage-free eggs, customizable sandwiches and hot sauces like Sriracha and Cholula.

Back at Hilton, Crocini says that complimentary breakfast has rolled out at the “vast majority” of hotels that offer it, including Embassy Suites, Home2 Suites, Hampton by Hilton and more.

“In fact, this May, we not only reinstated the hot breakfast but also introduced refreshed breakfast programs for our All Suites and Focused Service brands,” said Crocini. “These new programs focus on serving high-quality, fresh ingredients and meeting the guest where they are with what they want – giving them a variety of options to start their day off on the right foot.”

Breakfast buffet at Chef Mickey's -- eggs, bacon, potatoes
Breakfast buffet at Chef Mickey’s at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Looking forward, most hotel brands are doubling down on their sustainability efforts and realizing that more and more travelers care about where their food comes from and the impact it has on the planet. And buffets, as we all know, can be tremendously wasteful.

“At Hilton,” Crocini said, “we have not only responded to this need through our food waste reduction program but have introduced more creative sustainable menu choices — in both our restaurants and our buffets — that support the local communities we operate in”

Whether you think buffets are God’s gift to bellies or are totally appalled by the idea of a food free-for-all, it’s clear that buffets are here for the long haul. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s likely you’ll find most buffets more sanitary, as these last two years have given us a new outlook on what it means to be clean. And as we all try to be more sustainable, that “free-for-all” might be a little more controlled.

However it all shakes out, look for me during your next buffet visit — I’ll be by the biscuits.

Featured photo of the El San Juan Hilton Hotel by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.

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