COVID-19: Restaurant, Supermarket Self-Serve Food Bars Face Uncertain Future

In a world where COVID-19 pandemic rules dictate norms, self-serve and buffet-style eateries are in a possibly contaminated pickle. 

Hands-on dining may be a thing of the past, at least for the foreseeable future.
Hands-on dining may be a thing of the past, at least for the foreseeable future. Photo Credit: Pixabay

While the Centers for Disease Control says there isn't concrete evidence that connects handling and consuming food with contracting the virus, the agency does maintain that the virus can spread on surfaces touched by the infected and via droplets spewed from a sick individual's mouth and nose. 

The Food and Drug Administration recommends the discontinuation of these types of establishments entirely until social distancing measures are lifted.  

In May, national franchise Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes announced it was permanently closing all of its nearly 100 locations due to the impact of the coronavirus.

The state of Connecticut suggests against buffet-style food presentation, and the state's Office of the Arts discouraged the practice strongly in a guide for event-hosting venues. 

New York's restaurant reopening guidelines mandate employees to limit, wash hands before using or only use gloves to touch "shared surfaces" -- an already difficult shift for employees could be even harder when applied to buffet customers. 

Sneeze guards above buffet food offerings, even when buffet patrons are masked and careful, may not cut it for most Americans, who have been made hypervigilant by the global spread of COVID-19. But where does this leave the eateries that have subscribed to this model before our reality shifted? 

The solution: prevent customers from touching serving utensils directly. 

Kingston's Mid Hudson Buffet opened for in-house dining in June after a Covid-induced hiatus. In an attempt to protect customers, the restaurant provides disposable gloves, wax paper and hand sanitizer to its customers. 

According to its Facebook page, servers scooped food offerings onto patrons' plates cafeteria-style and "continually" sanitized buffet bar surfaces around June 5, but shifted back to the self-serve model by June 23. 

This model is in line with the FDA's suggestions, should buffet-style restaurants remain open. 

"We recommend frequent washing and sanitizing of all food contact surfaces and utensils," the FDA said.

"Food-service workers also must practice frequent hand washing and glove changes before and after preparing food," reads the FDA's response to the question 'How do I handle self-service food buffets such as salad bars in a retail setting related to COVID-19?' on its official Q&A page. 

"Include frequent cleaning and sanitizing of counters and condiment containers. Consumers should wash their hands after using serving utensils"

National chain Golden Corral has taken on a similar model. According to its website, three to four more Golden Corral establishments open per day. Currently, there are open Golden Corrals in 30 states. 

Like Mid Hudson Buffet, some Golden Corral locations give customers disposable gloves to use whenever they touch shared serving utensils, a method that the company has simply called the "No Touch Buffet." 

Other locations have employees serve up buffet offerings, which customers can still walk past and choose from. 

The location takes temperature checks of employees, who must wear masks when interacting with customers--throughout New York, this measure is mandated for reopening restaurants. 

Only time will tell whether these measures will work in the long term, or whether patrons will be comfortable with hands-on dining once the threat of COVID has passed. 

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