Get in Line to Dine

Buffet central

If a recent story stemming from Orlando is any indication, Americans love buffets now more than ever. Two weeks ago, during a Sunday buffet brunch at the 4th Fighter Group restaurant, a three-alarm fire broke out. But despite the smoke like steamed milk from a cappuccino machine pouring into the dining room and the flames tonguing the roof, the patrons were determined to get their money's worth. One man reportedly filled his plate from the buffet while the rest of the customers were being evacuated, so that he could finish his meal in the parking lot. Another customer asked a waitress if the restaurant would re-open later in the day so she could return for her dessert. Several left without paying, though it goes without saying that when a credit card machine is melting, it's doubtful that the ol' American Express would get instant approval. And a few truly lowdown clients took advantage of the chaos and stole tips off the tables.

Yes, we scarf down Sunday brunch buffets, and it's not hard to see why. For a one-time fee, you get a tremendous variety of dishes, an advantage to families with picky children or those on a budget. Patrons with big appetites delight in all-you-can-eat situations, rather than making do in à la carte restaurants where single servings might not be satisfactory. And then there's the what-you-see-is-what-you-get factor: You can choose what looks good to your eye, and you'll encounter few surprises where the dish is different from the menu's description.

Indeed our adoration for Sunday brunch buffets has translated into economic history for restaurant concepts. Across the nation chains serving buffet-only menus have not only proliferated but profited. According to the company's most recent financial statement, Buffets, Inc., has experienced a 41 percent growth in profits over the last two years, and annual revenues topped one billion bucks in 2000. Proprietors of Fresh Choice, a salad-buffet restaurant, announced ambitious plans for expanding its 46-unit chain. And owners of Valentino's, an Italian chain, decided to start scrapping its à la carte menus in favor of an all-buffet concept.

Nor, as evidenced by Valentino's, are buffets limited to all-American favorites like meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Pancho's Mexican Buffet, Inc., based in Texas, is a chain that caters to its home state's cultural heritage. The O-Nami Restaurant Corp. from Baltimore recently launched an Asian seafood buffet in five locations.

South Florida, seemingly the chain capital of the world, has few of these operations. Other than a couple of Sweet Tomatoes (salad and soup buffet) in Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale and a Hometown Buffet in Davie, we are virtually chain-buffet free. Instead we are in the unusual position of being host to a number of independent buffet operators, including the forerunner of the Chinese-American buffet trend, Emerald Coast.

When partners David Williams, Richard Chin, and Ray Huang opened Emerald Coast in Sunrise a decade ago and a sister eatery in North Miami Beach four years ago, the concept was novel. Four separate dining rooms open on to a central buffet, where 100-plus items, ranging from chilled snow crab legs and New Zealand mussels to hot-and-sour soup and sweet-and-sour chicken, are spread over seven stations. Hot fare is nestled in steam tables, cold stuff presented in bowls over ice (or, as in the case of the eight flavors of ice cream, in freezer cases). The dishes are garnished prettily and prepared in small portions according to demand, though the steam table still manages to take its toll on more than a few of them. (Every buffet item can be ordered à la carte, however, and doctored to special needs such as low-sodium or low-cholesterol diets.) And the buffet is constantly attended to by the waitstaff -- they wipe up spills and replace items as needed. I'd rarely seen a more efficiently run restaurant, especially when so much potential chaos is at hand.

Now competition is at hand. Two of the more serious contenders include Golden Canton in Plantation, where you can dine on 100 all-you-can-eat items for a mere $6.99. At Royal King in Deerfield Beach, you have your choice of 200 dishes for a set fee of $8.99 for dinner ($11.99 on weekends, when extra seafood items are offered).

On a smaller and slightly more authentic scale, King Buffet in North Miami Beach puts out 55 Hunan, Szechuan, and Cantonese items daily for $8.95 (weeknight dinner) and $10.99 (weekend dinner). The restaurant on Northeast 167th Street is several years old but has done well enough to warrant renovation on the premises.

The trend isn't limited to Asian flavors. Cuban joints like Salsa on Southwest 137th Avenue are starting to get in on the act, putting out three separate buffets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Restaurant Don Carlos, an Argentine Grill in North Miami only several months old, recently changed its sign to "Cantina Don Carlos" and now serves a 35-dish buffet comprising traditional hot and cold items, including tongue in vinaigrette and grilled sausages.

Why the sudden shift? Restaurants & Institutions notes that, for all that they please the masses, Sunday brunch buffets "rarely bring a profit since they are both food and labor intensive." The magazine also warns that "operators must be aware of cross-contamination, food temperatures, and holding time-limits for buffet dishes." Obviously serving buffets on a daily basis must be generating some kind of greenbacks, but the latter concerns remain very real: Last summer at least 40 people became seriously ill and one three-year-old girl died after eating at a Sizzler restaurant in Milwaukee where the watermelon had been cross-contaminated with E. coli.

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