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Buffets on Steroids.
By Michael Whiteman
Monday, 18th December 2006
 
Remember how revolutionary it was when a guy in chef's whites - behind a hotel's buffet line - tossed pre-cooked noodles into garlicky sauce over a propane burner?

Let us now introduce you to a buffet with a hand-pulled noodle kitchen.  And a station with 20 different kinds of skewered food that can be dipped, by customers, into 15 different sauces.  And a display of churrascaria-type meats.  And, beloved of caterers everywhere, the now-obligatory chocolate fountain.

That's what you'll find at Café Biz in Singapore's Traders Hotel. It is one of a new wave of hotel mega-buffets spreading around the world – from Dubai to Bangkok to Las Vegas and, of course, Singapore, where you'll also find these food circuses at the Grand Hyatt, the Oriental, and the Shangri-La.

At the Mirage in Las Vegas, there's a 22,000 sq. ft. buffet-on-steroids called Cravings.  It seats 600 and reportedly feeds upwards of 3,500 a day.  At nearby Treasure Island, there's another buffet operation called Dishes, seating 425 mammoth-mouthed guests in 11,000 sq. ft.. 

What all these places have in common?  Big-time show business.

(Photo: Cafe Kool, Kowloon Shangri-La Hong Kong)

Picture, if you will, a shopping center food court.  Now spread the stations around so they no longer look like a continuous slot in a long wall. If there's room, mix the seating in and around these stations so you don't have a sea of tables and chairs.   Then put chefs on display, cooking adventurous food in small batches – so you can get rid of big chafing dishes and steamtables with piles of soggy food. 

That, in a nutshell, is the formula behind these newfangled

merchandising vehicles.  They make old-fashioned linear buffets look like mass-market feeding troughs.

The formula, however, varies from hotel to hotel.  Some buffets let you order from an a la carte menu (almost no one does).  Most have ethnic or specialty stations and you meander from one to another to assemble a meal.  Others, like Cravings at the Mirage, provide complete meals – first courses, main courses, salads and desserts – at each station.  At least one isn't a price-fixed all-you-can-eat affair but instead gives customers credit cards that are totaled at meal's end.

And in Dubai, where everything is larger than life, Spectrum on One, The Fairmont's eight-kitchen extravaganza, could be a buffet, but opts instead for waiter service – except on Fridays when, at brunch, you help yourself to goodies from the raw bar, tandoori specialties, Arabian grilled meats, sushi, fiery Szechaun cuisine and free-flowing Moet & Chandon.

In all cases, the interior architecture and display kitchens' designs have been revved up to destination-quality standards.  Adam Tihany, who's designed three of these dining hooplas, says the objective is to provide a "democracy of design.  High style is no longer just for high rollers."

Except for local cuisine in Singapore's Straits Kitchen, food offerings range around the globe.  Most are open from breakfast until late evening. And unlike shopping center food courts, these places have bars where you can fetch your own drink or be served by roving waiters.

Pricing, as they say in Vegas, is a bit of a crap-shoot.  Lunch usually is cheaper than dinner, weekdays usually are cheaper than weekends, and the spread and ambition of what's available rises with the price.  The Mirage offers "Swanky Dishes" on Friday and Saturday, including lobster ravioli, crab legs, and shell-on shrimp – which may tell you something about the rest of the week.  On those same nights, Singapore's CafeBiz, designed by IMA Interiors, offers an assortment of fresh seafood, spare ribs, suckling pig, tandoori seafood and churrascaria-type meats.

These mega-buffets have some industry insiders scratching their heads about costs.  For one thing, open kitchens with multiple hoods and front-of-the-house finishes surely cost more than a standard buffet construction.  Some have high-priced exhaust systems in which the ceiling itself becomes the hood, so there's no visual clutter dropping from above to knock the toques off chefs.

A confidential source pegs the cost of building these in Las Vegas at about $700 per square foot.  So in building for the low end of the market, we're talking real money here – maybe $7 million for Cravings (designed by Jeffrey Beers), perhaps $14 million for Dishes (designed by Tihany)Our Deep Throat in Singapore says you can spend as much as $400 per square foot there for something appropriately snazzy. 

And then there are operating costs – such as staffing these stations with cooks instead of servers, related training costs, uniform bills and the like.  This may not matter in parts of Asia where manpower is cheap – but in places with labor regulations and unions, payroll can be a big issue.

On the upside, there's a big reduction in back-of-house labor since most, if not all, the cooking is done out front.  Hyatt International's Claudio Salgado reports that in Singapore's Straits Kitchen, at the Grand Hyatt, "space used for a back-of-the house kitchen is significantly reduced, which increases the ratio of front-of-the-house revenue-generating space.  Actually, the only reason for still keeping a small kitchen in the back is for room service orders in the afternoon or midnight," he adds.

Furthermore, says Ugur Lee Kanbur, former food-and-beverage director of the Four Points Sheraton in Shenzen, China, "you don't have wastage with chafing dishes full of food left after each meal period.  You cook as you go and it's all ‘on-line in real-time,' as they say in the IT business."  At the end of the day, ideally, there's nothing to throw away. "It definitely pays for itself," says Kanbur, who now heads up f&b at the Westin in Kuala Lumpur.

Because food is cooked in small batches, lots of these food circuses make liberal use of induction ranges or heated stone surfaces to keep food warm – sometimes supplemented by heat lamps.  And display wares, often custom made and laboriously sourced, assume crucial importance.

Quite possibly, the impetus for all this began in 1976 with The Big Kitchen, the first single-operator food court opened by Joe Baum at the New York World Trade Center.  It begat Movenpick Marche, a sprawling multi-kitchen self-service concept where you carried a paper check from station to station and at meal's end you paid a cashier for each item consumed.  That begat Richard Melman's 600-seat Foodlife in Chicago where customers got credit cards.  Or perhaps the inspiration was Mezza9, a groundbreaking restaurant that opened five years ago at Singapore's Grand Hyatt.

Sprawling  Mezza9, which seats 450, is a service restaurant with a multi-ethnic menu being produced in seven specialty display kitchens scattered around the room, most with eating counters.  It also has a sexy martini bar and retail shop.  With its dining floor raised a few steps above the kitchens, cooking became theater.   And that's how things have evolved.

  • Using the same designers, the Japanese firm named Superpotato, Hyatt has opened Straits Kitchen in the same hotel – an 8,800 sq. ft., 260-seat replacement for its old coffee shop.  Straits Kitchen serves street food traditionally sold around town in mom-and-pop "hawkers markets" that are themselves grand tourist destinations.  Chinese, Indian and Malay show-kitchens continuously produce local favorites such as char kway teow (a dish of fried noodles in dark soy sauce to which an infinity of items can be added), laksa,  tandoori chicken and grilled stingray from 6:30 a.m. until midnight.  Its average check is at least 20% higher than the coffee shop it replaced.
  • Cravings, at the Mirage in Las Vegas, rings its 675 seats with the following stations: pasta, pizza and Italian; rotisserie; Latino; grill; fish; noodles; a bar; sushi; Asian; deli; salad; and pastry.
  • The Stage, opened in 2002 at the Westin in Shanghai, has proved popular enough so that Starwood is incorporating these buffets into many of its new Asia-pacific hotels.  Shangri-La, which also operates the Traders brand, is doing likewise.
  • The Line, at The Shangri-La in Singapore, measures 12,000 sq. ft., seats 410 with pre-planned room to grow, and has 16 places to pick up food and a takeaway shop for retail goods.
These "market-style buffets" are great attractions because guests see the raw ingredients, says Hyatt's Salgado, "and perceive them to be of a higher value for money, offering fresher food prepared in different ways."

Excitement aside, there's still head-scratching.  Some hotel people wonder whether this is just another case of costly "amenity creep," which is characterized by (for example) a hotel distinctively folding its toilet paper, then moving to free cookies on the pillow and then free shoeshines, and so on as each feature gets copied by competitors and loses its meaning. 

According to that line of thinking, when enough hotels install them, these mega-buffets, too, will lose their competitive edges – just as giant atriums have lost their grandeur even though hotels are now forced to build them – and all that will be left is the cost.

Ettore Pallazzi, F&B director of the Sheraton in Singapore, has a slightly different take, wondering if, when all the razzmatazz is over, hotels will "just have moved people around." And he's not alone in this matter.  In addition, he says, "one cannot eat from these buffets too often unless we're to become a country of obese people.

His colleague, Ugur Lee Kanbur in Kuala Lumpur, believes these mega-buffets have become – like it or not -- competitive necessities.  He points also to the burden of training.  "Asians are shy by nature – getting them ‘on stage' can be challenging; engaging the guest is a continuous training exercise," he says.  Thierry Douin, gm of Singapore's Shangri-La, reports that "when we converted our coffee shop to The Line, a fair number of  employees resigned because being on-stage was too daunting.  We have to keep reminding our staff that they're no longer just cooks or servers – that they're now in the business of show business."

As for the notion of just "moving customers around," he disagrees.  About 70% of his customers come from outside the hotel, and "no one attempts to eat from every station on every visit, so variety of choice is the incentive for repeat businesses."  He's banking the strong designs of people like Tihany and astounding assortment of goodies to keep customers coming. 

The Line's round-the-world stations include Japanese, Cantonese, Hainanese, Malay, Indonesian, Indian, Thai, French, German, Swiss, Jamaican, Mexican, Brazilian, English and Italian – plus a made-to-order salad area, a crustacean selection, and a dessert department.  At various times, you might find someone kneading and tossing crisp roti prata, which are Indian-Singaporean flaky crepes served with various fillings or dips; a circular grill topped with what resembles a pyramidal Argentine barbecue pit that turns out whole fish and skewered meats; a dim sum kitchen with heaps of steamer baskets; a wok station churning out small batches of mee goring, a Malay dish of noodles and potatoes fragrant with shrimp paste, garlic and chilis; tandoori-spiced meats; sushi more-or-less to order; and an ice cream "teppanyaki" – think Cold Stone Creamery here.

Richard Cooke, Shangri-La's corporate f&b director, takes the Darwinian position that although other hotels may be opening them left and right,  "lots of copycats may not understand the fundamentals of what makes these places work," and they'll get out of this business.  He also thinks "the concept has now been pushed as far as it can go"

But not necessarily where it can go.  Many individual stations in these mega-buffets readily could become models for new fast-casual chains.  Some major universities are examining the concept.  A theme park could contain one of these.  And how about transplanting the entire concept to a cruise ship?

Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Co. creates high-profile restaurants around the world, including the late Windows on the World and the magical Rainbow Room, and for hotels, restaurant companies, major museums and other consumer destinations.

Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Co.
International Restaurant Consultants
912 President Street     Brooklyn NY 11215
baumwhiteconsult@mindspring.com

www.baumwhiteman.com
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