Bygone buffets? Las Vegas casinos consider changing the menu

LAS VEGAS — In business, a loss leader is something sold below cost to bring in customers, who, hopefully, then buy additional goods or services.

For a grocery store, it could be a deal on a 12-pack of soda pop. For a casino, it might be a low-price or discounted buffet.

The famous Las Vegas buffet, however, has become a victim of the coronavirus, which shut down casinos statewide for nearly three months.

While casinos reopened June 4, Gov. Steve Sisolak has not yet given the green light for self-serve restaurants, the Las Vegas Sun reported .

At Red Rock Resort, a Station Casinos property, several restaurants reopened ahead of the rest of the property, but there was no timeline for reopening the popular Feast Buffet. Station Casinos is opening its properties in phases.

“Buffets did generate traffic, but they were definitely loss leaders,” company chief executive Frank Fertitta III said during a recent quarterly earnings call.

“Those will not be operating in Phase 1, as well as some other specialty restaurants,” he said. “We’re going to narrow it down to basically the restaurants that were the most popular and had the most throughput.

With the highly contagious virus still circulating — it is usually transmitted by airborne respiratory droplets — the communal dining concept is facing serious challenges.

Earlier this month, San Diego-based Garden Fresh Restaurants, owner of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes with several Las Vegas-area buffet restaurants, announced the closure of all 97 locations nationwide.

Golden Corral, with locations in Las Vegas and Henderson, reopened earlier this month by serving customers cafeteria-style.

But Donald Contursi, founder of Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, said it would be a mistake to assume the Las Vegas buffet is gone forever.

“Health and safety is at the forefront now, but I believe that, if Las Vegas has been reinventing itself over and over all these years, it will find a way to reinvent the buffet to ensure its guests are safe,” Contursi said.

Larry Rogers, manager of the Southern Nevada Health District’s food operations division, said there is a higher risk of contracting the virus at a buffet than a traditional, sit-down restaurant.

“There’s just a higher volume of people handing food and handling utensils,” Rogers said. “Even before (COVID-19), we already had in our regulations — like not using the same plate twice, requiring a sneeze guard, and requiring every buffet station to have someone observing for potential contamination.”

Rogers said a shift to cafeteria-style service or having a server take buffet orders at the table will likely become common for the foreseeable future.

“I would assume that, once this threat passes, we will see a return to normalcy, buffets being no different,” Rogers said.

Dominique Bertolone, a food and beverage executive at MGM Resorts International, said his company’s plan to serve a variety of foods in one eatery would remain the same. It would just have a different look and feel.

“We might still call them buffets but we will be serving you,” he said. “You’ll have the chef behind the line and if you want a slice of prime rib and mashed potatoes, he’ll do that and hand you the plate.”

Contursi said it’s possible Las Vegas could take the buffet to the “next level,” putting a new spin on an old favorite.

We could see buffets 2.0, where there’s a chef-interactive station,” Contursi said. “You could be talking about more of a dinner-and-a-show experience. It could be an elevated experience where you’re not grouped in a long line next to other buffet patrons.”

In any case, food will remain an integral part of the Las Vegas experience, Contursi said.

“This is a destination where a very high percentage of meals are eaten out,” Contursi said. “When people travel, part of that experience is eating food that that destination is known for. When you go to Philadelphia, you get a Philly cheesesteak. In Chicago, you might get a hot dog. In Las Vegas, people know about the buffets.”