Representing a substantial financial investment, buffets play an integral part in hotel and restaurant food service, allowing for creative meal presentations alongside the feeding of lots of people very quickly. What do manufacturers and end-users see as key to the modern buffet’s success, asks Dan Creffield

You know what they say – you can keep all of the people happy some of the time, some of the people happy all of the time, but you can’t keep all of the people happy all of the time. Whoever coined this neat little aphorism clearly didn’t have potential buffet equipment purchasers in mind, however. This particular group seems to want it all, whether it’s mechanical quality, food safety or simple good looks.

Chef Eric Tin, executive chef of The Grand Buffet in Hong Kong, operated by Lisboa Food and Wines, and part of the Robuchon Group, has a straightforward approach to selecting buffet equipment and chafing dishes. He says that it’s quality first, and key to this is specifically the opening mechanism or hinge of a chafing dish, as it will see much heavy duty and is the potential weak point. “They have to open and close very often, so the quality must be good,” he insists. “This is the first priority for a serving dish.”

The next issue, he believes, is design, and while he thinks stainless steel is better in terms of its durability and ease of maintenance, he acknowledges that copper-coated buffetware looks great. The restaurant is currently using a range of equipment from Hyperlux. “Copper is more difficult to maintain but looks the part in an upmarket buffet situation like ours.”

Customer service including maintenance is very important, and with chafing dishes, companies will typically provide two or three-year warranties. “After service is very important, and price will reflect this. Also, as it is tabletop equipment it must be attractive.”

Is country of origin an issue? “We get samples first, and to be honest I don’t consider where they are made. To me it’s all about the quality. Most European brands are probably actually made in China anyway!”

Safety first

For Raymond Tam, director at Athena Tableware HK, functionality is the priority, specifically with a focus on food safety. “A buffet is made up of different food areas: hot food, cold food, desserts, beverages and more. Temperatures must be correct or food safety could be an issue. Incorrect utensil size can also makes operation costly and more difficult. While other factors such as appearance, colour and durability do count, functionality always comes first.”

To this end, Athena uses food safe materials such as laminated slate, wood, porcelain and glass. Not only do these match with stainless steel, they also “bring out the food story,” Tam says. “For example, our Casper range wooden boxes are a module concept so customers can stack them up for different food presentation purposes.”

Athena’s biggest sellers are chafing dishes and cast iron pots used for buffets. For all-day dining, chafing dishes with a slim, modern design and those with panoramic glass lids are particularly popular, says Tam. Meanwhile banquet customers require models for fast set-up, and for this stackable roll-top chafing dishes are the first choice. “Cast iron pots and pans are also a popular choice, as they are the perfect choice for both cooking performance and food presentation. Inside they are fired with black enamel while the outside is fired with two-toned colour which adds visual appeal. They come in an array of shapes and sizes thus fulfilling all requirements for hot food. Hotels providing two to three buffet meals daily and those with function rooms are big customers for these products.”

Covering the bases

Andy Mannhart’s Daniel Sutter says the buffet tools and dishes their hotel and restaurant clients most value are those with a combination of design and functionality. “In terms of design, we are currently seeing a ‘back to basics’ trend – a kind of homey look matching individual design elements of today’s interiors. In terms of functionality, we apply the latest technologies with sophisticated materials and alloys to guarantee high energy efficiency for both cooling and warming.”

Andy Mannhart’s Rainbow Collection, which consists of coloured bowls for keeping food passively cool and coloured pots to keep food actively hot is currently the company’s best-selling item. “With the Rainbow Collection we can help the operator be creative. As a core element of the buffet operation it is both an Cast iron pots and pans are also a popular choice from Athena’s range eye-catching and high-tech product where modern environmental as well as hygiene standards are met.”

Valerie Stumpf, marketing and sales manager at Gastros, say the company’s biggest selling buffet items are its food warming equipment, such as live cooking stations, food cooling devices and Gastronorm dishes, which it primarily markets to high-end hotels. “They value their quality, innovative design, ease of use, high energy efficiency, intuitive and immediate operation, all- round safety and accompanying guarantee. We have also developed food warming devices, which can go up to 95°C and can be controlled on four different temperature levels. They are available in many sizes giving the customer a flexible range of options.“

Gastros’ new InductWarm 130 device can be mounted underneath different counter surfaces such as glass, stone or even wood. Food is kept warm through the induction technology which is not visible. The customer can use their existing counter or table and just mount the warming device underneath it. “We also developed and patented chinaware/porcelain for induction buffet systems which is induction compatible,” adds Stumpf. “It has a metal coating on the underside of the bowls. Meanwhile, our InductWarm porcelain meets accepted gastro norm standards, is shatterproof, dishwasher safe and retains heat extremely well.”