Buffets a staple of Vegas casinos

Oct 17, 2017 3:00 AM

Las Vegas-style all-you-can-eat buffets in other regions of the country are coming under attack as massive wasters of food, but don’t look for any changes in Southern Nevada as casino/resorts continue to improve upon what has become a part of the region’s world-renowned gastronomic landscape.

Food, glorious food as presented in our local buffets is not going to change anytime soon. That’s for certain. Las Vegas buffets remain as much of an attraction as a Strip headliner, a loose slot machine or a boisterous pool party.

Southern Nevada buffets have had a long and storied history of their own. In Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” heyday at the conclusion  of the 1950’s and the early 1960’s, late night food, often in the form of a buffet, was brought out for players and the “minnows: as well as the “whales” were able to partake of the feast.

Casinos pit bosses and shift managers were well aware that a full stomach could lead to more gambling, so food for guests was plentiful and oftentimes free. Players with a satisfied appetite wagered more than those who were hungry, so inexpensive or free food was simply regarded as the cost of doing business. The idea was to get a happy player back to the tables as soon as possible. Buffets were a loss leader then and in most cases that is still true.

However, the loss continues to be worth it because a sumptuous meal at a nice buffet with a comp or at a cost perceived to be a bargain stimulates gambling. That’s a fact.

During a live broadcast of the “Ed Sullivan Show,” Circus Circus was opened on October 18, 1968. Built by Jay Sarno and Stanley Mallin, it became the flagship casino for Circus Circus Enterprises. The property quickly offered numerous $.25 food specials and a few years later launched a low-cost buffet that became world famous. The Circus Circus buffet spread was not known for its great food but rather for its inexpensive pricing. It became a huge draw. In the early years, at the Plate of Plenty Buffet, breakfast was $1.49, brunch was $2.49, and dinner was $3.49.

Today, under the MGM Resorts International banner, the quality of the food is excellent but the pricing runs the gamut from $15.99 to $19.99, depending on the meal and the day.

Buffets have long been regarded as a must-have amenity in Las Vegas. The region has been marketed as a “land of plenty” and glutinous excess. Nothing represents excess more than a Las Vegas-style all-you-can-eat buffet. As new casino/resorts were built in the past 30 years, an exciting buffet had to be part of the resort package. If a casino/resort opened without one, and some tried it, they soon were forced to build one. Having a quality buffet became as important as a having a beautiful swimming pool area. As new venues were built, the casino/resorts soon engaged in a battle of “oneupsmanship.”

Each new casino/resort, on The Strip or off of it, unveiled a massive, new buffet bigger and better than the one that opened right before it. Special food nights including the unbiquitous seafood buffets on ­Friday nights were added. The Sands, before its metamorphosis into the Venetian, even had an all-you-can-eat lobster buffet. The lobsters were culls, meaning they only had one claw, but the price was around $20 and because you could have as many as you liked, who cared that one claw was missing? It was of no interest that the lobster might not be able to win a fight with a crab if the one claw left was a tasty morsel.

Those were the days.

A practical look at today’s buffet scene reveals they remain necessary because as the resorts added more rooms becoming bigger and bigger, the guests had to have somewhere to eat. Sit down restaurants cannot handle the crowds. As the Las Vegas Strip grew upward with new high-rise buildings instead of outward as motels, as it had previously, buffets increased in importance.

Buffets became so popular with guests that lines to get in them became exceedingly long. Then, the great thinkers of the local hospitality industry added more cashiers, multiple entrances and the innovation of food stations. By segregating the food offerings, usually by ethnic origin, long lines inside the buffets were defused into many smaller ones, significantly improving the buffet experience.

Now, a new study conducted by a team of prominent researchers is examining buffets looking for innovations that might cut waste. Their findings showed only 10 to 15 percent of the leftover food could be repurposed or donated because of food safety regulations. The difficulty remains in determining what can be done to eliminate waste without shortchanging guests?

Answers to that question and more on buffets in this space next week and on gamingtoday.com.