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Buffets in Las Vegas casinos might have had their day

Updated May 20, 2020 - 9:41 am

Casino companies have been characteristically cagey about when — and if, and in what form — they might reopen buffets in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown, but it appears most will hold off, at least for a while.

In a Tuesday earnings call, Frank Fertitta III, CEO of Red Rock Resorts, parent company of Station Casinos, said buffets won’t be among the amenities included in the early stages of the resorts’ reopenings.

“For one, you know, we will be opening none of our buffets,” Fertitta said. “Buffets generate traffic, but they were definitely loss leaders. Those will not be operating in Phase One, as well as some other specialty restaurants. So we’re going to narrow it down to basically the restaurants that were the most popular.”

‘You lose a lot of money’

Station isn’t alone. Representatives of Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts International and Penn National Gaming have made similar statements.

A recent letter from Penn National Gaming CEO Jay Snowden to the company’s staff and guests stated that “buffets will remain closed at most of our properties during the opening phases.” Penn had no details, however, on how that policy would apply to the company’s local properties, the Tropicana Las Vegas and the M Resort in Henderson.

A spokeswoman for The Strat said that its buffet will not be included in the first phase of that resort’s reopening. And while Wynn Resorts’ 28-page report on its Health and Disinfection Program makes no specific mention of The Buffet at Wynn, it does call for eliminating buffet service in its meeting and convention space, at its baccarat tables and in its catering and banquet service.

In an earnings call this month, Tom Reeg, CEO of Eldorado Resorts, which is in the process of acquiring Caesars Entertainment Corp. (a deal that’s expected to close by the end of June), seemed to cast doubt on whether buffets would survive at all.

“If you think about the way places will open and the pieces of business that are likely to open very slowly if at all — and I’m thinking about buffets — I think it’s going to be a long time before customers are willing to eat at buffets, where they’re grabbing food from pans that other people have been grabbing food from,” Reeg said. “From our standpoint, we’ve been vocal in the past that buffets are an inefficient way to market to customers. They’re very costly; you lose a lot of money there. Simply not having buffets open in your properties is going to dramatically offset any increase in cleaning costs.” Reeg declined a request for further comment.

‘It’s not 1995’

Robert Lang, director of UNLV’s Brookings Mountain West research institute, indicated in an interview last week that Las Vegas may have outgrown its buffets.

“I’m guessing they’re not doing buffets for a while,” Lang said. “We were losing those anyway; those aren’t a staple anymore. Las Vegas went upmarket. It’s not 1995.”

But what can’t be overlooked is how popular buffets are with tourists, and how deeply ingrained they are in the city’s identity.

Amanda Belarmino, assistant professor for strategic management at UNLV, said she’s working with three students who are writing papers on different aspects of buffets. One is a Ph.D. student writing his dissertation on the motivations behind online reviews and ratings, using buffets as an example.

“I think what we see when we look at the online review data is that clearly buffets are a huge attraction,” Belarmino said Tuesday. “It’s still an iconic form of dining in Las Vegas. The modern buffet actually can be traced back to the Flamingo and Las Vegas; all modern buffets come from Las Vegas. It’s hard to take that away from the identity of the city.”

The problem is that buffets are microcosms of COVID-19 risks, with their shared food service and crowded dining rooms. That’s what reportedly led to the demise of Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes and has prompted Golden Corral locations to shift to cafeteria- or family-style formats.

“I think the perception is that no matter what they would do, buffets would be unsafe,” Belarmino said. “It was one of the first things that closed on the Strip. They closed the buffets; they closed the nightclubs.”

‘There’s baby steps now’

In the interview last week, Lang said things had changed since the days when Las Vegas was a “value proposition.”

“Gaming itself was covering the bottom line, but Las Vegas has since diversified its core economy to include food, shopping, entertainment and sports,” he said. “What happened is some of that value proposition shifted. Vegas has become a kind of fancy place, where the restaurants are now nationally known upscale eateries.”

And now, it seems, there might be a slight shift back.

“There’s baby steps now,” Lang said Tuesday. “You are probably going to go back to a temporary older Vegas model, until you see what the demand is. You see they’re already doing free parking.”

“It’s not cost-effective to think about managing the buffets right now,” Belarmino said. “They’d have to reduce the capacity, so how are they going to be able to do that and have them be profitable?”

But she predicts that, naysayers notwithstanding, Las Vegas buffets are here to stay.

“When you look at the Strip buffets, there’s a high level of people willing to pay for the experience,” she said. “It’s not just the food itself, but the aura of being at one of the best buffets. That’s what we see when we look at things like Caesars Palace.”

She recounted an anecdote from a manager at Caesars’ Bacchanal Buffet, who said people sometimes waited two hours to get in.

“There’s a demand there,” Belarmino said. “They can price it as such and find ways to operate. If you’re willing to do that, you can find a way to make it profitable.”

Review-Journal Business Editor Nicole Raz contributed to this story.

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter. Contact Al Mancini at amancini@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter and Instagram.

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