BUSINESS + ECONOMY

Utah buffets reopen but will face an uncertain future 

Jul 28, 2020, 8:14 PM
Utah Buffets reopen...
(A bottle of hand sanitizer next to the serving area inside Golden China Buffet in Taylorsville. Credit: Paul Nelson)
(A bottle of hand sanitizer next to the serving area inside Golden China Buffet in Taylorsville. Credit: Paul Nelson)

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah restaurant owners and business analysts are praising the state for allowing buffets to reopen, as long as they follow certain guidelines.  But, with these restaurants being closed for so long, will they ever get back to “normal?”

Even through his mask, you can see a big smile on the face of Chuck-A-Rama President Rene Schuurman.  He tells KSL TV, keeping the doors closed for four months has been horrible, but they’re happy to be up and running, again.

Schuurman says, “Our customers have been missing us and we missed them.  We’re so happy to be back.”

Restaurant industry analysts say the shutdown hit buffet owners harder than it did other restauranteurs.  Buffets have to cook a lot more food than other places, so they have a smaller profit margin, to begin with.  Golden China Buffet Owner Jonathan Lin says they need a large number of patrons to walk in their doors just to stay afloat.

He says, “As the owner, I’m working 24/7, and I can’t even get my paycheck.”

Lin says he applied for payroll protection money, but that money has to go to employees, not to the owners. They tried to serve take-out options, but that wasn’t what his customers wanted.  On top of that, several of his workers decided not to come back to work when they reopened, opting for unemployment insurance, instead.

“So, you’re not going to get a lot of servers and people coming back to work.  It’s hard to meet those requirements, but we do the best we can,” Lin says.

Many restaurant owners are facing the same problem Lin is.

“[Need for] employees is at an all-time high for every industry,” according to Utah Restaurant Association President Melva Sine.

Technically, buffets could already open as long as they had employees serving the food instead of customers serving themselves.  However, Sine says that’s easier said than done for these kinds of restaurants.  She says owners would have to hire more employees, which they might not be able to afford. 

“It is time for these restaurants to be able to open and to be able to serve customers.  We need to assure the customers and patrons that things are being done safely,” she says.

Sine also says buffet owners have a much more uncertain future ahead of them.  Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them were able to gauge what they would need to make on a certain day.  For instance, they would know to make much more food for Saturday than they would for Tuesday.  However, Sine says buffet owners don’t really know what to prepare for, or if their customers will even come back.  This means they could accidentally waste a lot more money on food preparation. 

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Utah buffets reopen but will face an uncertain future