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Serve It Up - November 2016

Five ways FECs can deliver on the buffet experience

by Mike Bederka

“All you can eat” doesn’t need to be an impossible feat. Family entertainment centers (FECs) can opt for a buffet to feed the masses; they just need the right ingredients for success. A trio of experts details five ways to make guests come back for second (and third) helpings.

1. Guests Expect Diversity and Quality

When America’s Incredible Pizza Company opened 12 years ago, it should be no surprise its namesake item represented approximately 60 to 70 percent of the food consumed. Now, though, that number has dipped by about half.

The reason? Today’s guests have more varied tastes, says Don Potvin, executive vice president of the Springfield, Missouri-based company with nine locations in the United States and Mexico. To address this trend, Incredible Pizza expanded its menu to include Mexican and Chinese food.

In addition to desiring more variety, customers have higher expectations of the buffet experience, he says: “The competition is setting the bar higher and higher. Casinos do mega buffets with smoked crab and prime rib and charge $55. We charge $9.99, and it includes a drink. They don’t expect a $55 buffet from us, but they expect close to it.”

2. Avoid Waste

The constant battle against food waste (and lost revenue) likely deters many facilities from taking a closer look at buffets. However, FECs can try several measures to make this much less of a concern.

iT’Z, with four locations in the United States, will make anything custom upon request, a trick that comes in handy during slower periods, says Brian Cohen, vice president of operations for iT’Z’s parent company, Entertainment Properties Group Inc., in Dallas, Texas.

So at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, iT’Z won’t have 10 pizzas sitting out. Instead, when a few hungry customers roll in, an employee in the front will ask what they want and radio the order to the back for prep, Cohen says. The guests then get that fresh half-pepperoni, half-mushroom pie in seven minutes flat.

Along with preparing food to order, Amazing Jake’s in Plano, Texas, will pare down its offerings on slower non-summer weekdays, says General Manager J. Wes Fain. For example, he closes one salad bar, only places out two pasta choices, fills just six of the 10 pizza stations, and lowers the number of desserts to six.

3. Healthy Choices or Not?

Guests have decidedly mixed feelings on digging into healthier choices at buffets. iT’Z experimented with whole-wheat pizza, but eventually removed it from the menu.

“The reality is those are feel-good items, but they never get ordered,” Cohen says. “We give people what they want.”

To the rave reviews of the health community, Incredible Pizza features a 60-plus-item salad bar and gluten-free pizza, Potvin says. Yet, people often skip them in favor of the more fat- and calorie-laden choices.

“We promote healthier items heavily on our website, but in our stores, they’re just an option,” he explains. “We don’t force you to have gluten-free crust or only eat vegetables. We still have the ice cream, cinnamon rolls, cookies, and cakes.”

4. Added Revenue

With buffets generally a fixed price, FECs employ several methods to drive the per person check average and other incremental revenue.

Incredible Pizza has had great success with package deals, which it just started to offer two years ago, Potvin says. With the $24.99 deal (at a $35 value), guests get the buffet, a $10 game card, and four attractions; the $34.99 package on the weekends comes with the buffet, six attractions, two hours of video games, and a $10 card for redemption. Two years ago, the check average stood at $16 per person; it’s currently $21.50, he says: “That’s about a 35 percent increase. Nobody gets that unless you actually increase the prices.”

Cohen’s iT’Z, which still features a variety of desserts on its standard menu, introduced a separate ice cream bar for a nominal $2 per person charge. And Amazing Jake’s creates ways to generate additional buys from the guest with premium alternatives. For $1, people can buy a collector’s cup with a lid; this gives them a 32-ounce drink instead of the standard 16 ounces, and allows them to take their beverages into the gaming area upstairs since, Fain says (the facility doesn’t allow uncovered drinks there). The FEC also has vending-machine bottles for $2 or $3, such as water, Starbucks, and Gatorade.

5. Control Costs

Fain works to maximize revenue by staying informed of the ups and downs in the food market. “When an ingredient or buffet item spikes in price from the manufacturer or distributor, we adjust our menu mix to minimize use of that high-cost item,” he says, adding he maintains a relationship with more than one food-service distributor. “Doing this keeps them honest with pricing, and many times different distributors will have greater buying power in a different markets than their competitors, which equals greater savings.”

He also recommends exploring a local produce supplier, who may have fresher and cheaper produce than a big distributor. “Longer shelf life equals less waste,” Fain says. 

More Food for Thought: Four Additional Buffet Tips

  • Ask for feedback. iT’Z created a new position to help fine-tune its menu, says Brian Cohen. Describing its buffet ambassador as “similar but more sophisticated” to a Walmart greeter, this staffer engages guests on the line, asking questions to see if they would like any other items for the future.
  • Lend a helping hand. Buffets can become messy quickly, especially during peak times. Young children, notorious for dropping gooey slices on the floor or dumping green Jell-O into the pasta, don’t make it any easier. At iT’Z, when staff members see kids coming up to a food station, they’ll grab the tongs or serving spoon and provide assistance.
  • Target seniors and groups. At Incredible Pizza’s location in San Antonio, Texas, a group of seniors come in three times during the week for Pinochle and Hearts card games, says Don Potvin. Without the casual buffet atmosphere, the FEC likely wouldn’t attract this demographic. Plus, they don’t consume that much food, even though they stay for most of the day. Large groups often don’t eat a lot, either, and a facility shouldn’t need too much additional labor to accommodate them. “The profitability for group business is very high, even if they get a discount,” he says.
  • Look for multipurpose items. Ingredients not used in more than one recipe tend to expire and increase the amount of waste generated, says J. Wes Fain, of Amazing Jake’s. He suggests finding a product mix of items that merge well together. For instance, his FEC uses bacon as a topping for pizza, salad, and baked potatoes.