Opening a buffet style restaurant can be a tremendous undertaking. Buffets are relatively high volume operations, and on top of the extra equipment needed in the kitchen to keep up with the demand for food, there is also an additional need for front-of-the-house equipment as well. In this Buyer’s Guide, we will take an in depth look at the variety of necessary equipment a business like this requires, as well as some optional equipment that may fit in some operations.
The heart and soul of every commercial food service operation is its kitchen. Buffet style restaurants traditionally go through large volumes of food because of the “self-serve” nature of their business model. In order to keep up with demand, there are some absolute necessities in the BOH of every buffet style operation.
- Cooking Equipment – For obvious reasons, cooking equipment must be present, however the equipment needed will vary depending on what is served at the buffet. Items such as fryers, convection ovens, ranges, steamers and griddles will be some of the standard pieces found in a buffet kitchen. Charbroilers are found less frequently in buffets (except for steakhouse buffets) as charbroiled foods like steaks or hamburgers rarely find their way onto buffet lines. Some not as common pieces of equipment like cook and hold ovens, smokers, combi ovens, tilting kettles, and stock pot / wok ranges will also find themselves in these high volume operations. The menu, as always, will have a tremendous influence on what will be required in the buffet kitchen.
- Food Preparation Equipment – Food prep equipment is a must in a commercial buffet kitchen. There is always a tremendous amount of prep work to be done in high volume operations, and in instances where prep work has to be done on the fly, it can be an overwhelming task to prep even one ingredient for a crowded buffet. Choppers, cutters, slicers, & graters are a must to spare cooks time on nominal tasks. Additionally, any standard prep items found in commercial kitchens like mixers, food processors, lettuce spinners, or commercial blenders will also be needed.
- Smallwares – First and foremost, buffet kitchens need a large supply of sheet pans and hotel pans. Often times, buffet kitchens will both cook and serve in hotel pans, making them absolutely indispensable to the operation, and sheet pans will be necessary for most other items going into an oven. A full selection of cookware is necessary, including larger pieces like heavy stock pots, woks, and braising pans, as well as the standard smallwares found in commercial kitchens (such as utensils, cutlery, cutting boards, measuring cups, mixing bowls etc.) in models that are meant to handle the high volume of food being cooked.
- Storage – High volume buffet operations can require significantly larger amounts of storage than other restaurants. Because of the excess amounts of not only dry food product, but utensils, flatware, cookware, hotel pans, cleaning products, or even kitchen rags & linens, buffet kitchens need excessive amounts of storage. Shelving (both mobile and stationary), security cages, along with dunnage racks for heavy items and utensil racks are absolutely necessary in a buffet operation. Additionally, since there tends to be extra refrigerated storage, there needs to be storage racks to accommodate the walk-ins as well.
- Refrigeration – Buffet style restaurants require large amounts of refrigerated storage for food products, and most have rather large walk-in coolers and freezers. In addition to walk-ins, reach-in coolers and freezers are also common to keep food on hand. Refrigerated prep tables aren’t as much an issue since cooks aren’t necessarily cooking on a line; however, blast chillers are often necessary to bring full hotel pans or sheet pans down to proper temperatures in adequate time. Depending on the size of the operation, and how much food is prepped at a time, different size blast chillers will be needed, though it is traditionally best to have a little extra room opposed to not enough.
- Dish Pit – The dish pit of a buffet kitchen needs to able to handle high volumes of dishes, from not only the dining room, but also the food prep area. Cooking large amounts of food will inevitably require large quantities of cookware, bakeware, hotel pans, utensils, etc. It is essential to not only have a dishwasher that can handle the high volumes of dirty dishes, but also the heavy duty cleaning necessary for pots and pans. Most commercial cookware is not intended to be run through a dish machine, and if there are constant stacks of dirty cookware, a pot washer is a good investment in your dish pit. Additionally, many buffet style restaurants will add a waste disposer to their dish area as they usually have large quantities of waste food product that would otherwise need to be placed into the dumpster (which costs money each time it needs to be emptied).
- Tables, Stands, & Sinks – Buffet kitchens traditionally don’t stick to the “line” template that standard restaurants do, so it gives restaurateurs a bit more freedom as to how they structure there kitchens. These kitchens need all the conventional tables, stands, and sinks of a commercial restaurant, but have the freedom to design the layout of their kitchen as they see fit.
- Heating & Warming – Larger cook and hold ovens, heating / proofing cabinets and heated drawers are frequent features in the BOH of a buffet style operation. Their presence gives cooks a way to keep food hot before it goes to the FOH service line, and allows them to more easily pace their work. It also gives businesses a hot storage area for the foods they do the largest volumes of. Additionally, it is often a good idea for buffets to have a rethermalizer to save cooks time when heating soups before and / or sauces.
Front-of-the-house operations in a buffet style operation run significantly different than traditional full service restaurants. Since customers serve and plate food themselves, it changes the FOH needs significantly.
- Heating & Warming – Since food is being presented and served in the front of a buffet style restaurant, the FOH will require significant heating and warming equipment. Food must maintain a steady temperature of 140° F to be served, so buffet lines must simultaneously be food warmers as well. Most buffet service lines will heat from both the top and the bottom; hotel pans will rest in steam wells on the buffet (usually built-in steam wells, so restaurateurs can customize the look they want), and heat lamps (or sometimes strips) will rest above the service line. Steam wells are a must in a buffet restaurant, as it is not prudent to continually burn sternos under a chafer all day, nor necessary that the wells be broken down at the end of a shift. Additionally, these service lines will usually have soup kettles (built-in soup warmers are fairly standard), heated shelves for items that may not rest in a hotel pan (such as pizza), and many will feature a carving station which will require additional bulb warmers for sliced meats. There are some carving station warmers that are attached to a removable cutting board.
- Cold Service / Refrigeration – There are a number of foods that need to be remain cold while resting in a service line. Salad and seafood / raw bars must remain chilled while resting for customers, and frost tops, refrigerated or iced wells are the best way to do that. Refrigerated and iced wells are designed to hold hotel pans; refrigerated wells are just that, where ice wells are not refrigerated, but have a pan that rest underneath hotel pans to hold ice. Refrigerated wells can be easier to maintain (since they don’t have to be constantly filled with ice), but require a power source. Desserts, sundae toppings, and other sweets can also end up in cold wells for preservation on a service line. Frost tops are similar to cold wells, however they are large and flat. Frost tops are traditionally designed to hold sheet pans, and are ideal for use with raw or sushi bars. Some buffet restaurants have begun utilizing glass door merchandising coolers for desserts (rotating bakery coolers) or for a la carte beverages. Most buffet restaurants, however, stick with a traditional fountain beverage station and ice dispenser / machine set up.
- Flatware – Tableware is taken by customers at their leisure in a buffet style operation, and for this reason, buffets tend to have relatively standardized plates. Often times there will be only around two varieties of plates for customers to choose from, and the same goes for bowls. It is more important to have adequate quantities of plates rather than variety of plating, since most people will use several plates when eating from a buffet. These plates must be stored on the service lines, so there should be someplace to stack clean plates, whether on the surface of the service line or a built-in poker chip style dispenser. It is commonplace to only receive a fork and knife in silverware rolls when first being seated at buffet restaurants. Spoons for soup or desserts will be used less frequently, and are often found only on the buffet line. Additional bus bins are often a must for buffets to help bussers keep up with the large quantities of used dishes and cups that buffet service yields. There tends to be no need for to-go containers (most buffets don’t allow food to be taken out), though straws and paper napkins are still needed and usually kept at the server / hostess station.
- Furniture – Flow is incredibly important in a buffet restaurant. It is important to centrally place the service lines for the buffet first (which usually entails building a custom enclosure for the steam wells), and then building the dining area. Booths, tables, chairs are all a must, but so is a soda fountain station, a bussing station with kitchen access, a cashier / hostess stand, and depending on what is served, a carving station or perhaps an ice cream machine (for sundae bars).