In today's discriminating market, a good buffet has to deliver good food, merchandise it well and meet various guidelines for food safety. It's no longer enough to keep food hot and cold.
The cold side of the buffet is the most important to address. You will need to keep product chilled, appetizing and safe for your guests. The cold pan is the most common and basic chilled holding and serving item for a buffet. The pan's most important function is to keep food cold at safe serving temperatures. Some pans use just an insulated bin for holding ice, while others have mechanically refrigerated pans.
In response to concerns about foodborne illness, the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) made significant changes to requirements on permissible ways food can be held. These new guidelines require all open-top refrigerated units to hold food at no more than 41°F. The required temperature includes the top of the product, meaning cold air has to be introduced above as well as under the food.
Manufacturers have devised several new ways to comply with the requirements. Some buffets have refrigeration that runs around the pan to fully wrap the product, while other are designed to have the product sit lower in the pan. Look for the NSF 7 label on the item you buy to be sure it complies.
There are also other ways to address the cold side of the buffet. Many operations are finding that the newer cold-air buffet units look more upscale and less institutional. Cold-air buffet units allow you to display food out in the open without having to hide your food presentation inside a refrigerated well. These counter units push forced air gently 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 in the depressed space between.
Another type of open cold serving unit is the frost top. A frost top is, as its name implies, a countertop surface chilled from below so that it creates a frosty surface for platters, bowls or crocks of foods. 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. It is great for displays and foods that don't spoil, however.
One or two manufacturers have introduced real stone frost tops to the market. What is impressive about these units is that the unit is built beneath the countertop slab of granite or synthetic surface. The unit fits into even a very upscale restaurant interior. The surface is cooled from the bottom without cold pans for a nice clean look.
These units are able to solve the challenge of what to do with a buffet counter when not in use as a buffet. Since there are no steam tables or ice pans, the counter tops can serve any decorative or functional purpose. The manufacturer can also remote all controls to provide a sleek look.
On the hot food side, most operations have gotten away from the old steam table or typical hot-food well. There are heated plates made of tile, ceramic, stone or metal that allows the use of a variety of different serving vessels to be used and displayed attractively.
Induction is becoming a popular alternative to traditional heated surfaces. Induction units are generally 12-14 inch-square countertop 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 inside the pan.
Induction is well-suited for an omelet station or a stir fry area in a cafeteria or buffet outlet. It's also far safer than open flames in these close customer-contact areas. On the buffet line, induction is also excellent as a chafing dish warmer. These units can be purchased separately as components or in counters of various styles, sizes and finishes, fully wired and ready for use. They can also be built into a countertop for an unobtrusive flush look. If you want a warmer, be sure you purchase induction units that are warmers, not for cooking, and then you'll avoid a possible requirement for an exhaust hood. Be aware that in many locations a hood is required over units capable of cooking. Use an induction warmer that limits the temperature at the maximum setting to just over 200°F. Also, it's important to remember that any induction unit must be used with special chafers that have an iron base.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you plan your buffet:
Food cost will likely be higher when merchandising product because of additional waste from the buffet
Displaying old, dried out or damaged product will thwart sales efforts. Replenish food often.
The holding conditions for displayed food may not be as ideal as holding product back of house.
To merchandise effectively, you always need product on the buffet, even at slow operating periods.
Don't overestimate the need for display space or counter length because you'll need to keep it full.
A rule of thumb is not to plan more than 4-6 inches of buffet counter length per restaurant seat for a good-sized full buffet.
Be sure to allow enough circulation space for guests to comfortably move around the buffet zone. Allow for six feet of walking space in front of all counters where you can.
With the right equipment and the proper space allocated, you are ready to wow your guests.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.