There’s a particular pleasure to the travel ritual of waking up in crisp hotel sheets, meandering downstairs, and finding a fully stocked breakfast buffet splayed out before you.
Then there’s the exploratory lap to inspect the offerings: everything from chafing dishes of scrambled eggs and pancakes to, depending where you are in the world, soup, porridge, sushi, farm cheese, flatbread, noodles, and always, always miniature boxes of Kellogg’s cereal. Grab the tongs and fill your plate with a scone, a sliver of cantaloupe, and a curl of mortadella; pile a bowl with a mess of something hot and grainy, and top it with a sprinkle of sweet, salty, fishy, or all of the above. Your travel day has just started, and yet here it is, already made.
But now the breakfast buffet is, with all certainty, a thing of the past. In the early days of COVID-19’s spread, a number of the larger hotel chains like MGM Resorts, Hilton, Marriott, Four Seasons, and InterContinental temporarily stopped food service — including breakfast — altogether. Now, as the lodging industry strives to find more long-term COVID-conscious solutions, the buffet seems to be first on the chopping block.
Because though a bountiful platter of muffins or an artfully arranged display of cold-cuts are alluring, such communal food presentations are also the perfect setting for spreading viruses. A team of scientists in Japan recently put one buffet under an ultraviolet light to illustrate how easily a virus can spread across tongs, drink pitchers, food tray lids, silverware, and glasses. Basically, all of it.
And if hotels did bring back the breakfast buffet, would today’s guests — equipped with a new heightened awareness of hygiene — still even want them?
According to John Nicholls, a pathology professor at the University of Hong Kong, the problem is less about the buffet itself and — per usual — more about us, and our less-than-stellar hand-washing which can spread the virus across touch surfaces. “Buffets are potentially where lots of people crowd together with the sharing of utensils, potential transmission of fomites,” Nicholls says. “Hotels have liked buffets for economic reasons, but I can see why you might want to propose that the buffet has had its day.”
“The breakfast buffet will be a thing of the past,” agrees Claudio Scarpa, director of the hotel association for Venice, Italy. The group recently put together a 10-page document of regulations for area hotels, which include recommendations for everything from disinfecting, social distancing, and meals. Instead of a lavish morning buffet spread, “guests now receive a breakfast bag,” says Scarpa.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association has also jumped onboard with its own set of new regulations, as part of their industry-wide Safe Stay, enhancing health and safety protocols for reopening the economy. Dr. Richard Ghiselli, head of the School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Purdue University, is part of the newly created Global Cleanliness Council with Marriott Hotels.
“Restaurant operators are advised to discontinue self-serve buffets and salad bars,” said Ghiselli, who notes that the buffet could possibly survive in a slightly altered form — with new guidelines. “Where they are permitted, they must have sneeze guards in place, and staff are advised to change, wash, and sanitize utensils frequently, and place barriers in open areas,” he said. And so much for lining up for those hash browns or hovering over a fellow guest as you wait for a toaster slot to open up. “Hotels also must place floor markings and signs to encourage social distancing,” he says.
The problem extends beyond hotels — earlier this month, buffet restaurant chains Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes both announced they’re closing all 97 locations for good. But the lodging industry is in a particular bind; ceasing food operations altogether isn’t really an option when hungry guests continue to check in. So how to safely keep them fed? Chains like Choice Hotels are replacing brunch with pre-packaged breakfast. Omni Hotel’s Safe and Clean initiative offers pre-plated meals only served with single-use cutlery, while Best Western’s We Care Clean plan offers a collection of so-called “Grab & Go” pre-plated food.
But these various riffs on the sack lunch won’t fly at more luxury resorts. The Hotel Monte-Carlo Bay in Monaco, then, has concocted a slightly more high-touch solution. “We have changed our way of serving our famous brunch, which will be served by our waiters, instead of going to the buffet,” said Frederic Darnet, the hotel’s general manager. He calls the new approach “Table Brunch” — how novel — where staff deliver dishes directly to guests tableside. And for those who want to avoid the restaurant altogether, they offer a Floating Breakfast package, an elaborate spin on the traditional French breakfast, served on a floating tray in the lagoon (for roughly $140). “I’m happy that we can adapt,” he adds.
The Four Seasons also hopes to phase out breakfast buffets with a slew of experiential concepts, including one most associated with sushi: the conveyor belt. “We are exploring many concepts, with a big focus on individualization,” says John Johnson, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel New York. “That includes individual miniature dishes, instead of traditional buffets, and movable feasts in small personal vessels that move along a touchless conveyor belt.”
Of course, there’s also the tried-and-true way of doing socially distanced hotel breakfast: room service. Many hotels will be beefing up their in-room menus and making them all available online. And instead of a server knocking on your door, rolling in a cart, and arranging the tiny jams and silverware, more and more hotels are turning to contactless drop offs and disposable materials. “We are working with Think Package, a custom package design company, on boxes that can fold out into placemats, include personal notes from the chef, include elastic banded slots for cutlery, and inset coasters for beverages,” says Albert Rothman, the vice president of food and beverage at EOS Hospitality, which owns and manages 16 independent hotels along the east coast. “We use eco-friendly packaging wherever possible.”
So while we collectively mourn the loss of many aspects of the breakfast buffet — the illicit glee of sneaking an extra muffin in your bag; the free-for-all power of plunking spaghetti next to raw fish next to pineapple next to Edam cheese next to waffles on your plate — there’s one travel standby in which we can still reliably find solace: the mini bar. Those, luckily, aren’t going anywhere.