Are All-U-Can-Eat Buffet Chains the Root of all Evil?
No, but nothing weaponizes American Gluttony Freedom quite like the AYCE buffet
Buffet is a French word. But...I cannot possibly imagine pulling into an establishment anywhere in France and waddling up to dozens of heaping full hotel trays under heat lamps and plexiglass "sneeze guards", open to the environment with a giant set of community tongs stuck in the middle. Of course, I'd love to hear if I am wrong.
On the other hand, here in the Land of the Food and Home of the Buffet, and quite contrary to the assertions of some of the 'elite coastal media', buffet business is very good, thank you. Almost always the terms are all-you-can-eat, or AYCE for short. Some smaller individual places, usually event spaces like golf clubhouses, have stricter rules: one pass only, or charge-by-weight, or charge-by-pass. La-ti-da, pish posh.
In our household, except for two very specific exceptions where we actually know the proprietors and can vouch for their character, we avoid AYCE. (One of them, our local 'China House', is above) My objections are quality-based: it is impossible to make a bunch of items well and keep them freshly stocked with the limited amount of staff allowable under the small price one pays to eat there. Why would I go to a place where the spare ribs are coated in neon orange-colored bottled sauce, sitting under a heat lamp when I can drive 500 feet further to an actual smokehouse? My wife's objections are all temperature related. She would turn her nose at the finest filet known to man if it sat out five minutes too long, but would chew on an old shoe if it were piping hot.
But, we're snobs. Most of our friends and neighbors are not. So this is why these types of chains survive and thrive in the American restaurant environment:
The Granddaddy of AYCE: The Smorgasbord
Not sure what they're trying to be, here
Scandanavians assemble a variety of foods for celebrations, rather than everyday meals. The first smorgasbord in America was at the 1939 World's Fair in NYC, in the Swedish Pavilion. Americans enjoyed it and figured we should eat like this every day, In the 50 years that followed, a smattering of resulting AYCE smorgasboards for one price formed throughout the country. Probably due to low-level xenophobia, most Americans were even scared off of AYCE paradise because it was called 'smorgasbord'. Thus this intimidating term has been replaced by some sort of Americana adjective followed by 'buffet'. Country buffet. Hometown buffet. Big Texan buffet.
But, yet. Do you remember....your first...time? When you lost your AYCE virginity?
Mine was the long-defunct Heritage House Smorgasbord of St. Louis, MO. It was the first AYCE I had ever visited, and to my 12-year-old eyes, it was heaven, Valhalla, nirvana & the Garden of Eatin' there before me. Bowls were provided for salad. I filled two bowls with fried shrimp and cocktail sauce. On the first pass. Fried chicken and spaghetti and mashed potatoes and dressing and gravy over everything and mac-and-cheese and....well, Dignity took the night off. They closed sometime after that, no doubt reeling from the grave loss they took that night in 1977.
The Steakhouse-themed AYCE
but where's the steak? Yup.
Probably the most popular form of entertainment in America, from its original formation to the 1970's, was the cowboys-and-indians Western. Probably the most popular TV show of the late 1960's was "Bonanza", a wild-west drama set on the Ponderosa, a sprawling fictional ranch. (Come to think of it, I guess you could call it something of a precursor to "Dallas" and its ilk). Capitalizing on the trend, several chains of fast-casual steakhouses with names like 'Bonanza', 'Ponderosa', 'Sizzler', 'Maverick' and others took hold and peaked in popularity in the 1970's and 1980's.
There, you encounter a cafeteria-style counter with trays for all and choose from a variety of cuts of beef. This is where most of America first learned how to specify doneness of a steak. You pay for your meal, drop your tray at your table, and then proceed to the large salad bar while your steak is being prepared.
Originally, the steaks weren't bad, the salad was fresh, and you'd be part way through your first course before your steak and potato choice was brought to the table. Of course, good things never last, and as costs increased it occurred to them to re-prioritize the salad bar at the expense of the meat, because salad was cheaper. They moved the potato sides to the bar, as well as several other cheaply made offerings such as noodle salads and hot vegetables that absolutely came from a can. They also lowered the size and quality of the actual steak.
At first, this worked well. In the nineties, for example, the Sizzler was the place you would go to get your feed on. Changing tastes as well as horrific service led to the almost complete extinction of the AYCE steakhouse. They couldn't keep up with what I'm going to call the Big 3.
That there is a Texan Taco pizza.
Old-time chains Pizza Hut and Shakey's are still holding serve throughout rural America. Newer chains such as CiCi's, and Pizza Ranch are growing in numbers in the suburbs. Typically offering 6 to 10 different pizza varieties or more at once, customers have the opportunity to stick with their faves or branch out. Deep dish! Thin crust! Veggie! (nah..) You may even get to try a 'dessert' pizza topped with pie filling and/or chocolate chips and icing. Or enjoy a 'taco' pizza with lettuce, salsa and tortilla chip toppings! The mind reels.
When I had small kids it was super convenient to walk in, sit down, order drinks and just let the little b@stards loose on the pizzas sitting there at the counter. No waiting, no fighting about toppings, and at least with my family, not much waste. So it would be real hypocritical for me to bust on pizza buffets. But damn, I'm glad those days are over.
The Asian Buffet
The freshest seafood in all of Peoria, IL
50 years ago, there were no small town Chinese places, let alone buffets. Nobody was going to eat anything they couldn't pronounce. But as their kids left the nest for the 'big city', experienced great Asian dishes and told everyone back home, small town folks wanted to seem sophisticated, too. Places opened up, but often went unvisited as customers couldn't bridge the communications gap with the typically immigrant servers.
Some genius figured out that if you laid it out buffet style, not only would folks not have to go through the hassle of actually ordering off of the menu, but they'd get to see what it looked like before they actually chose to eat it. And, oh yeah, its AYCE! Now, pretty much any small town in the USA has an 'Asian' buffet featuring such 'authentic' delicacies as 'sweet-and-sour chicken', 'General Tso's chicken', egg rolls, pepper steak, and tons of noodles and rice!
Some even go as far as offering seafood. You see a lot of shrimp as well as 'imitation crab' which is pollock that has been processed to resemble crab meat. Some higher-end buffets charge more in order to provide actual crab legs, shellfish, roast beef, mongolian stir-fry, and God help me, sushi. Call me a Debbie Downer, but how in the name of Santa Claus does a buffet in Lenaxa, Kansas transport delicate, highly perishable seafood from its supposed source, cook it up and pile it in pans so customers can eat as much as they want, and still charge $12.95 a plate?
The Golden Corral, the King of AYCE
How do you keep all the sneeze guards clean, let alone keeping all the food fresh?
With the aging of the Baby Boomer cohort, many AYCE buffets have thrived the past 20 years in America featuring a theme of old-time Americana and comfort. Old Country Buffet. Hometown Buffet. Lately, though, even these have fallen by the wayside to be replaced or acquired by the King of the AYCE extravaganza - Golden Corral!
With advertising saturation narrated by the Voice of America, Sam Elliott, this juggernaut has managed to incorporate everything described above. They bring people in on their promises of substantial grilled meats, seafood, and ultimate variety to suit every taste bud in your family. A trip to the GC is its own article, podcast, series even.
True story: a Nepalese co-worker who was rotating back home had one wish of me before he left: a trip to the Golden Corral to have AYCE ribs! I tried reasoning with him; I can get him at least 30 better meals between where we were sitting and the nearest GC. He explained it was the spectacle he was after. Neither of us were disappointed in the end.
It isn't the ridiculous piles of food lined up under several rows of food stations. It isn't the taste which, as you might imagine, is grimly average to be all things to everyone. No, it's the other customers. There is a 'People of Wal-Mart' page with hundreds of snapshots of filthy, half-naked, sloppily obese customers in Wal-Marts across America, seemingly displaying the worst humankind has to offer.
Well, all them people gotta eat after picking up the Bud Light, baby formula and 72-packs of one-ply toilet paper. They scoot across the parking lot to the GC, hitch up their thong underwear, and get down to the grind. Spaghetti and meatballs, fried fish, carved turkey, potatoes augratin, fried cheese sticks with ranch dressing, jello with marshmellows, and a triple-tier banana split sundae. As the first course!!
The Freedom of Choice; the Bounty of Plenty, all for less than 15 bucks with drink. God is good. Buffets are not the root of evil. It is possible to pass them by. However, most folks don't.