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Las Vegas buffet will survive the COVID pandemic, experts say

Updated September 8, 2020 - 9:13 am

Las Vegas’ buffets may be down these days, but experts say they’re not out.

As resorts began to gradually reopen after the COVID-19 shutdown, buffets remained shuttered, the health risks inherent and obvious. The Buffet at Wynn Las Vegas was the first to return, with a modified format, on June 18, followed by Wicked Spoon at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and the Garden Buffet at the South Point.

And then Wynn announced last week that its buffet would close indefinitely at the end of service Monday.

So was that it, the death knell for the buffet?

“Absolutely not,” said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter and website, who’s been following the city’s buffets for decades. “It’s part of the firmament of what makes Las Vegas Las Vegas.”

Christine Bergman, a professor of food science and nutrition at UNLV, agrees.

“I don’t think it’s going to go away,” Bergman said.

Curtis said Wynn’s version just wasn’t what Wynn’s guests wanted.

“They gave it a shot,” he said. “I commend them for that. It sounds to me that it wasn’t the right experience.”

Under the Wynn model, guests ordered from a server who brought the food to the table. But Curtis said the appeal of a buffet is “the experience of getting your own.”

“You can’t make it perfect unless you do it yourself,” he said. “If you want to get two slices of tomato, you get two slices of tomato. If you just want a teaspoon of peas, you get a teaspoon of peas. You can’t tell a server you want a teaspoon of peas.”

Curtis said he thinks buffets at The Cosmopolitan and the South Point will continue to succeed in their current formats because they deliver what their particular guests are seeking, something that’s echoed by the two resorts’ executives.

“We wanted to make sure we were still offering the Cosmopolitan experience,” executive chef Bryan Fyler said.

Patrick Nichols, general manager and chief strategy officer, noted that from the time Wicked Spoon opened with The Cosmopolitan in 2010, nearly all foods on the buffet were individually plated, as opposed to being scooped out of large pans by guests.

“That made the transition to our new approach pretty simple,” Nichols said.

And they ensured that the approach wasn’t changed too radically.

“We thought it was very important with our approach that our guests have the experience of going up to the buffet,” he said. “To see what’s available, get the lay of the land.”

The only real change is that instead of guests grabbing the dish, a server at each station hands it to them. The additional servers also can explain dishes to guests, and they and roaming personnel ensure that social distancing is enforced and masks are worn. An employee at the entrance explains how the buffet has changed and reminds people about safety protocols.

Wicked Spoon currently serves only brunch, Thursdays through Sundays, because that’s the highest demand from guests and because virtually all of the resort’s restaurants are open at other times. Brunch is $39 for adults, $20 for children 4-10.

Similarly, the South Point reopened its buffet to respond to guest demand. Michael Kennedy, director of food operations, said owner Michael Gaughan told his staff that the buffet was the No. 1 request among the resort’s slot players.

Kennedy said that before the shutdown, the Garden Buffet had already been converted to a staff-served model, so it was easy to carry on with that upon reopening.

“We put extra cooks behind the line to serve the guests, so the guests never touch any utensils,” Kennedy said.

Guests are frequently reminded of COVID-19 protocols, he added.

“We have signage that tells you to wear your mask unless you’re actively eating,” he said. “If, by chance, you get up and you don’t have your mask, we have masks at each of our food lines, and the cooks will not serve you any food if you don’t have a mask.”

Kennedy said the Garden Buffet is serving its full menu on a full schedule of breakfast and lunch on weekdays, brunch on weekends and dinner nightly.

“Our guests love prime rib,” he said. “We do it every night and twice on the weekends.”

Curtis said he thinks a big draw for the Garden Buffet is value; the Las Vegas Advisor recently labeled it the No. 2 overall value in Las Vegas.

Prices range from $12.95 for breakfast to $32.95 for the Friday night seafood and prime rib buffet, which includes two glasses of wine or beer. Children 4-8 are charged half price, and all prices are lower for rewards club members.

He said he doesn’t see demand for the buffet diminishing.

“They’re all waiting anxiously for their return,” Curtis said of his readers. “When people schedule a vacation, they’re thinking about what buffets they’re going to go to. Buffets will start to creep back.”

Bergman piggybacked on those comments.

“The creative folks on the Strip are going to come up with more ways to manage it,” Bergman said. “Just this kind of tapas version, that’s not what customers go to a buffet for. It’s an indulgence, hedonistic, ‘I’m going to have a good time and eat what I want with no judgment.’

“I think it’s going to be reimagined again. If you think about it, that’s what’s been happening all along, with the quality of the food changing, prices changing. The history is that this product changes. And in light of COVID, I think it’s going to continue.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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