COVID-19 may have hurt the travel industry, but it hasn't killed off the public's appetite for the hotel buffet. For years, the buffet struck a happy medium for guests. For business travellers, it offered convenience; for holidaymakers, indulgence.
But a new focus on food safety due to COVID-19 saw many hotels close their buffets, with predictions the self-serve meal would not return. However, many hotels are now reinstating the all-you-can-eat institution, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
"From the moment we announced that we were reopening, the phones were just ringing off the hook," says Adam Duca, food and beverage services manager at Melba, the restaurant located inside Melbourne's Langham hotel.
A Melbourne institution, Melba is famous for its buffet and features an Indian tandoor, fresh sashimi and a chocolate fountain that operates through their breakfast, lunch and dinner service.
Of course, there are restrictions in place. Hand sanitiser is provided at the entry and exit points to the food area, and guests are required to wear masks when standing to collect food, to maintain an anti-clockwise flow, and to follow instructions from a COVID-19 marshall.
While many of Melba's favourite items are served fresh – such as the sashimi sliced to order and M&Ms baked in fresh naan bread – the restaurant has also allowed guests to serve themselves once again, with shared utensil "touchpoints" cleaned every 15 minutes.
"Of course, like any business, we've had to pivot and innovate with how we do things so there's a set of COVID-safe rules that go along with having the buffet," says Duca.
While Melba has a largely local clientele, with dinners and weekend sittings often booked out, for other luxury hotels the emphasis is on breakfast. The Hilton Sydney reopened in February after a $25 million refurbishment. Originally it opened with an a la carte breakfast set-up, but quickly switched to a buffet – a move driven largely by guest expectation.
"When we first reopened, we weren't running the buffet," says Jonathan Bowmaker, food and beverage manager at Hilton Sydney.
"The number of requests and people reaching out to us and actually sort of saying, 'Oh, when's the buffet starting up again?' was not what we were expecting."
Reopening, however, has its challenges.
"The tough balancing act that we went through when we were planning to reopen the buffet was meeting all government regulations, but also providing an environment that the guests felt comfortable in," says Bowmaker.
The Hilton's buffet strategy includes eliminating all shared utensils for guests, offering individual serves of cold items, and having all hot food served by chefs at stations.
While customers are returning to the buffet with confidence, some hotel brands continue to exercise caution. Sofitel Sydney at Darling Harbour still operates an a la carte breakfast model; their system involves continental items brought directly to the table to ensure guests in a hurry don't have to wait if they need to eat, and hot food made to order.
"We do want to go back to that restaurant set-up for the buffet, but obviously we want to make sure that it is safe to do so," says Mitchell Turner, director of luxury experience at Sofitel Sydney.
"The last thing we want to do is move into that space and stop it again."
Sydneysider Ian Forsyth, CEO of an international electrical engineering company, frequents the buffet on business trips, primarily for the model's convenience. While he acknowledges he is hyper-aware of shared touchpoints and takes a "calculated risk" when eating from a buffet in the COVID-19 era, he has confidence in the systems in place.
"I think the bigger the brand name, the higher the hotel star rating, I would probably trust it more to be safe ... which is probably a false trust, but the perception is that they would have better systems."
Food safety expert Dr Lydia Buchtmann, communications director for the Food Safety Information Council, advises consumers toprioritise personal hygiene when heading to the buffet.
"I would recommend hand-washing before eating or handling food," says Buchtmann, who says this is more effective than just using hand sanitiser. She also advises guests stay away if they're ill.
Despite the adjustments made to the buffet scene to meet safety requirements, it remains a quintessential part of the hotel experience for guests.
"From my experience, the hotel breakfast is often the highlight of a guest's stay," says Duca. "It's something that you just wouldn't miss out on if you were staying in the hotel".