Love them or hate them, buffets are hugely popular in the restaurant world.
The idea of the buffet has its roots in the Swedish smorgasbord, which was originally a spread of appetizers offered before the main course.
Today, buffets are all over, and it's hard to imagine how they could possibly be profitable.
Curious as to how it all works, or want to get the most out of your trip to the buffet?
Here's what you should know for your next trip to a modern-day smorgasbord.
For a lot of people, the allure of the all-you-can-eat buffet is the idea that you're getting more than what you pay for.
This is why the business side of buffets is the key.
Buffets usually don't have the same number of staff other restaurants would need, as customers are typically serving themselves.
No one's sending their food back to the kitchen with complaints, either.
You just push it to the side and get something else.
While that might mean food waste, it also cuts back on kitchen workload.
And menus are built around what's most efficient to make and cheapest to buy, including things like cheap sacks of vegetables and cheaper cuts of meat.
And not everyone is eating a lot.
Since most people hit the buffet in groups, for every person eating more food than they actually pay for, there are several who don't overeat.
Fill 'er up!
Because buffets can lose money if you keep eating, they want to fill you up as soon as possible.
And there's a little bit of a trick here.
Specifically, low-cost, high-carb foods.
A massive scoop of one of these on your plate goes a long way to filling you up without costing the restaurant a whole lot.
Some places even give you bigger spoons for foods like this.
There's also a reason you see these carb-heavy foods like mashed potatoes, french fries, and white rice first on the buffet line.
According to a study by researchers from the Cornell Food & Brand Lab, around two-thirds of what ends up on your plate comes from the first few items you get to.
For the experiment, two groups of diners were presented with buffets set up in reverse order.
When they kept track of who took what, they found that more than 75 percent of the diners in their experiment took the very first item, no matter what it was, with only around a quarter to half of diners taking what was last in line.
Combating food waste.
You may think of buffets as wasting a ton of food, but in some areas, buffets are being put to incredibly good use combating food waste.
In major cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and San Diego, a new app called BuffetGO that allows users to purchase end-of-the-day food from major restaurants is starting to catch on.
On your end, you browse the app, select the restaurant, pick up your to-go box, fill it up, and head out the door.
You pay a fraction of the price for the same food people have been eating all day.
The buffet makes some of its money back, and the food isn't wasted.
Worth the risk?
Eating out anywhere is putting a lot of trust in a stranger, and buffets ask you to trust employees and other customers.
Fortunately, there are some things you can keep an eye out for to help protect yourself and other diners.
When it comes to dangerous foods, you might want to consider skipping the seafood.
There's a huge potential for illness there, especially when those foods aren't kept at the proper temperature.
The other big danger is cross-contamination.
With all customers serving themselves, there's a huge chance for the transfer of germs on serving utensils.
Long sleeves making contact with the food or serving line is bad, and that's not even mentioning people who might pick up a dinner roll, change their mind, then put it back.
So, to keep yourself safe, look for telltale danger signs like spoon handles touching food, other customers returning with dirty plates, and dishes that don't have their own individual serving spoon or set of tongs.
The price you pay.
When it comes to buffets, consumers seem to enjoy the food less if they pay less for it.
The Cornell Food & Brand Lab suggests that buffets that want to keep customers happy and coming back need to find something of a sweet spot between price and quality.
Researchers offered customers the same lunch buffet, consisting of pizza, pasta, breadsticks, salad, and soup.
Some were charged four dollar, while others were charged eight dollar.
When they were done, they were asked to rate the entire experience.
Across the board, diners who were charged four dollars reported that they enjoyed it less than the group that had paid eight dollars.
The study's authors suggested that it was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If we don't pay much for something, we don't expect much from the experience.
If we're charged a bit more, we feel like we're going to enjoy it more because it must be better food.
The cost of the meal might also affect how you physically feel.
Cornell's Food & Brand Lab also asked the customers how they felt after eating.
Even if they ate the same amount, the four dollar crowd reported feeling like they had overindulged and were less happy with the quality of the food than the eight dollar crowd.
They also said they felt guilty regarding what they had eaten and the price they had paid for it.
If you're trying to eat healthy, visiting the expensive temptation of a buffet might seem like a daunting challenge.
But there are some ways to avoid some of the biggest buffet pitfalls.
Take advantage of the smaller plates.
They'll minimize food waste and encourage you to take less food, which might be exactly what you want.
When you go to your table, make sure you're as far away from the buffet as you can get.
Don't take a tray, either.
The added convenience has been shown to increase what we pile on.
The experts also suggest that you take a look around first.
If you know ahead of time that your favorite roast chicken is halfway down the buffet, you're less likely to pile the carbs on your plate before you even get there.
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