Buffets can bring in big business when done right

buffetWhen CiCi’s Pizza Buffet opened its doors 27 years ago, the concept of an array of pizzas offered all at once and not custom-built seemed novel and a bit risky. “It was not something that was normally done,” says CiCi’s President Craig Moore.

Now, however, pizza buffets have become commonplace across the country and while they may not be entirely without problems, pizza businesses are learning that buffets can be profitable and a good way to build a customer base. David Childers at Chicago’s Pizza in French Lick, Indiana, for example, began offering a lunch buffet many years ago. “I was getting more lunch traffic and traffic in general,” he says, so he looked for a way to make sales more efficient. A pizza buffet seemed to be the answer. “A buffet streamlines your labor costs,” says Childers. “You only need four or five people to run a buffet.” Servers can be largely eliminated, and so can a line of cooks in the kitchen turning out custom orders.

The buffet concept is also likely to bring at least three new groups to your business, or increase these groups if you already serve them. They are the lunchtime crowd, families and youth groups.

“Today’s workers have maybe half an hour for lunch,” says Wanda Fink, who owns Palasta Pizza Buffet in York, Pennsylvania. The buffet allows them to come in, make a choice, eat and leave all within a short time. She adds she’s not surprised when she sees some of these workers return with their families for dinner. “Kids love pizza buffets,” she says, and in today’s shaky economy, pizza is an economical way to feed a family. CiCi’s Moore also mentions the appeal to families. “Everyone isn’t going to be stuck with dad’s choice,” he says.

And in Annandale, Virginia, Mike Magill, owner of Magill’s Famous Pizza & Buffet, actively works to attract Little League teams, school and youth groups to his buffet. “We decided to specialize in student groups,” says Magill. And it’s paying off. “We’re more a destination place now, and we do a lot of teen parties.”

Of course, there are disadvantages as well. “There can be higher food costs and waste involved with a buffet,” says Childers. Fink explains why: “Because it’s a buffet, some people don’t think twice about taking a bite of pizza and leaving the rest on their plate while they go for another slice,” says Fink. “If they were paying for a whole pizza, they wouldn’t leave that much waste.”

As for the increased food costs, Magill explains it like this: “The buffet customer wants to eat a lot. They want to feel stuffed, so you have to have plenty of food for them to eat.”

But Johnny DeAngelo, owner of Johnny DeAngelo’s New York Pizza Company in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says there are ways around both problems. To reduce waste, “Know your market,” says DeAngelo, and plan your menu accordingly. Adults may not be as impressed with a mac-and-cheese pizza as kids, and kids are unlikely to touch a shrimp pesto pizza, so understand who your customers are and the toppings they prefer. “It takes a lot of trial and error to get it right,” says CiCi’s Moore. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Fink says she also reduced waste by switching from 14-inch to 7-inch pizzas, and during slow times, she combines three toppings on each pizza. As for the professional buffet eater, you can switch to smaller plates to slow down consumption, or provide more “filler” types of food, like pasta, bread and a creative salad bar, says De Angelo. “I also do the serving myself,” he says, which helps reduce waste and discourage multiple trips for meat-only entreés. But in the end, most buffets balance out between light and heavy eaters. “We don’t set limits,” says Fink. Nor do any of the experts interviewed here. “We love all our customers,” says Moore.

If you’re interested in a pizza buffet for your business, keep these tips in mind:

• Be willing to commit the space and invest in equipment. You don’t need a lot of space for the buffet, and equipment needs are minimal beyond your regular set-up, maybe $3,000 to $4,000, says Childers. You’ll need a countertop, pizza warmers, heat lamps and Plexiglas shields — but you also need to be able to seat at least 60 to 80 people to make a profit, says DeAngelo, adding: “Volume is the name of the game.”
• Pay attention to appearance and quality. “The fi rst thing a customer will do is look at your buffet to see what you offer,” says DeAngelo. “Make sure it looks as appealing at the end of service as it does at the beginning.” And don’t skimp on quality –– it keeps customers coming through the door.
• Rotate offerings. Offer at least six or seven pizzas at a time and rotate them frequently, says Childers. CiCi’s has a 25-minute rule; others wait 30-minutes before switching out pizzas. Fink offers seasonal pizza rotations on her menu as well.
• Offer variety. Every pizza buffet needs a salad bar but Magill suggests offering other items as well –– for those who don’t care for pizza. Pasta is typical, but Magill also offers chicken nuggets and a taco bar; DeAngelo supplies his buffet with stuffed peppers and eggplant parmigiana. “We’ve done $1,000 lunches,” says DeAngelo, so buffets can be profi table. It takes careful planning, though, he says, and a commitment to do it right.

Karen Edwards is a Columbus, Ohio freelance writer specializing in food and business.

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