Buffet lines have become more stylish and versatile. Here's what you need to know to buy the necessary equipment.
For a generation, we grew accustomed to salad bars in midpriced family restaurant chains. And though their popularity largely faded, the salad bar buffet is making a strong comeback. Recent new equipment offerings have allowed a number of high-end restaurants to feature attractive, profit-generating buffets. If you're in the market for buffet equipment, consider these suggestions.
First, calculate the size of buffet you'll need. The size or length of a buffet counter depends on the number of covers you plan to serve and the menu you will be offering. For example, the buffet will be larger for an operation that serves entrees and desserts than for one that will only offer salads. Beverages or an extensive menu will require even more buffet area.
After the size of the buffet is determined, consider the type and style of counters you want. The first impression guests have generally is from the woodwork, stone or other material counter top. It's usually wise to pay close attention to the design elements of these counters and spend some money where it will have some guest impact. Sometimes budgets dictate the look; sometimes the overall restaurant décor determines the style. The look is important, but the functional elements are essential for food safety and merchandising. Here are some things to consider for the functional elements.
The most common type of cold holding and serving equipment for a buffet is the cold pan or ice-pan unit. Its key function is to keep food at safe serving temperatures. Some pans use just an insulated bin for holding ice and others have mechanically refrigerated pans.
Several years ago, in response to concerns about food-borne illness, the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) made significant changes to requirements on cold-pan construction and permissible ways food can be held. These new guidelines require all open-top refrigerated units to hold all areas of the product at not more than 41°F. The required temperature includes even the top of the product, meaning cold air has to be introduced above and under the food. Manufacturers have devised several new ways to comply with the requirements. Some cold pans will have more refrigerant run around the pan to fully wrap the product and some are designed so product sits lower in the pan.
Many operations are finding the newer “cold air buffet” units give a more upscale and less institutional look while allowing you to display food out in the open without having to hide your food presentation inside a refrigerated well. These counter units introduce forced air that gently blows across the food to maintain temperature. The refrigerated air “blowers” are usually horizontal slots rising slightly above the counter at the rear of the unit. An air intake hidden near the counter front keeps the airflow rolling over food product in the depressed space between. These units can be designed to have very little stainless steel visible for a less institutional look.
The Frost Top
Another type of open cold-serving unit is the frost top. A frost top is, as its name implies, a counter top surface chilled from below so that it creates a frosty surface for platters, bowls or crocks of food. The frost surface is usually raised an inch or two above the counter and has a gully around the perimeter to catch condensate. It's important to note that in many locations the frost top is not permitted for holding perishable food for serving. The frost top is great for displays and foods that don't spoil, however.
One or two manufacturers of high-end hot and cold buffet counters have introduced real stone frost tops with impressive styling. What's impressive about these units is that the manufacturer builds the units using a single solid slab of granite. A portion of the slab can be designed for heat, while a portion is planned for cold food items. The units are very attractive and can fit into even a very upscale restaurant interior. The surface is cooled from the bottom without cold pans for a nice, clean look. Unlike traditional buffet counters, since there are no visible cooling units, the equipment can serve other functions when not used as a buffet. These units are able to solve the age-old challenge of what to do with a buffet counter when it's not in use as a buffet. Since there are no steam tables or ice pans, the counter tops can serve either a decorative or functional purpose. The manufacturer can also remote all controls to provide a sleek-looking functional top.
Chilled salad bars and buffet serving units are a terrific way to merchandise in many operations. You need to be aware, however, that food cost may well be higher when merchandising product in open pans rather than in traditional storage coolers. The holding conditions for food on display may not be as ideal as holding product back of house. Also, to merchandise effectively, you always need product in the units, even during slow operating periods. For example, your salad bar looks best when packed with a variety of fresh items. No one likes to get the last item on the counter. Don't overestimate the need for salad bar space or counter length because you will need to keep it full. A smaller full salad bar will look better than a sparse huge display.
Keep It Hot
On the hot food side, most operations have gotten away from the old steam table or typical hot-food well. Heated plates made of tiles, ceramic, stone or metal warm a variety of different serving vessels.
Induction is becoming a popular alternative to traditional heated surfaces. Generally, it involves 12- to 14-inch-square counter top or in-counter units. Heating is instantaneous and can be regulated by output control buttons. In addition to being superfast, induction units are also super efficient as nearly all of the electrical energy consumed is converted to heat in the pan.
Induction is widely used on buffet lines in restaurants. It's well-suited for an omelet station or a stir fry area and is far safer than open flames. Induction is also excellent as a chafing dish warmer. Induction units can be purchased separately as components or in counters of various styles, sizes and finishes, fully wired and ready for use. The units can also be built into a counter top for a flush, unobtrusive look. Some manufacturers even make units that can be mounted under a stone or synthetic top. These new units can provide a completely hidden heating surface.
If you want a warmer, be sure you purchase induction units that are for warming, not cooking, to avoid a possible requirement for an exhaust hood. Be aware that in many locations a hood is required over units capable of cooking. In some instances, you will need a hood over units intended to warm buffet items since technically you could cook, though it wouldn't make sense in most layouts. Use an induction warmer that limits the temperature at the maximum setting to just over 200°F.
No matter how much and what product you want to display on your buffet, there is almost certainly a product made to meet your needs. Determine the right functional unit for your needs, then work with a designer to find the right counter or cabinet look to match your décor.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International. Bendall can be reached at 301-926-8181.