Vegas' buffet waste needs a solution

Oct 24, 2017 3:11 AM

A new study conducted by a team of researchers from Ideo, a prominent global design firm credited with creating Apple’s first mouse and Ikea’s kitchen of the future, recently took a look at buffets, trying to find innovations that might cut waste.

They found, according to the New York Times, that only 10 to 15 percent of the leftover food could be repurposed or donated because of food safety regulations. In the solutions department, the study seemed to fall short in determining how to eliminate waste without shortchanging guests. As pointed out previously in this space, the Las Vegas-style, all-you-can-eat buffet has become a prominent selling point for nearly all Nevada casino/resorts.

These buffets, viewed as an attraction, are not going to change, because even though most are “loss leaders,” they generate foot traffic and that generates profits. The old axiom remains that the hardest part of generating business is getting the customer through the door. Once that takes place at a well-run operation, the rest will take care of itself.

Las Vegas’ spectacular all-you-can-eat buffets move customers through the doors.

According to Ideo, focusing on buffets other than those here in Nevada, guests ate just about half of the food that was served. The report was taking a look more at buffet spreads for conferences and parties rather than the Las Vegas-style buffets, but it seems at least a portion of the findings can be extrapolated to include Nevada, too. The report noted that in 2016, just in the U.S., 63 million tons of food went to waste at a cost of $218 billion. About 40 percent of the waste was attributed to businesses such as restaurants and hotels.

In this era of conservation, it’s hard to balance an establishment’s desire to please the customers with a wide variety of food offerings against the desire to eliminate wasted food. No buffet manager in his or her right mind wants to run out of food, so there’s always more than might be really needed. Many customers have an aversion to taking the last portion of any offering, so, again, there’s usually more than what may actually be needed.

As Hailey Brewer, a director with Ideo in New York, told the New York Times, “Each customer is a little over insured.”

Among the proposed solutions to food waste is having servers prepare small plates of meats and cheeses for customers. By telling the server what you want, you might be less likely to grab something you don’t want. Another idea is to have a server bring bread and rolls, less and less popular these days due to dietary concerns, to each table. A guest is more likely to take a roll at the buffet line rather than at the table with a full plate of food in front of them.

Ideo is also suggesting buffets should be more data driven. If too much of an item goes uneaten, it needs to be quickly replaced on the buffet menu. Ideo says, analyze the food desires of the consumer more carefully to reduce waste.

These ideas seem workable. The problem here is making a buffet too labor-intensive by having more servers makes them an even greater money loser than they already are. Las Vegas buffet operators re-purpose some food to employee dining and try to give what they can away to non-profits, but the waste is still significant.

Locally, the food waste issue has been attacked; at least it was at the MGM Grand where food that had been thrown out was picked over and trucked to the now-defunct pig farm in North Las Vegas. Andrew Zimmern, on his “Bizarre Foods” show a few years ago, delightfully examined this process.

Perhaps, a better way to attack food waste is to get people to eat the food before it becomes waste. The all-day buffet prices many casino/resorts now offer is one way to drive business, but it really doesn’t attack the waste issue. How about slashing the price for the last hour or so of service? Customers would be advised as they enter that all items might not be available.

Maybe moving the food into a different smaller venue, sort of a mini-buffet would be a solution. Even giving the food away rather than throwing it away could be an answer to the food waste problem. Casino hosts could be encouraged to give away more comps to anyone who asks in the last hour of a buffet’s operation. What about Strip casino/resorts giving a “last hour” buffet pass to anyone who pays to park?

The difficulty with any of these concepts is that conservation usually costs money. Attacking the food waste issue and most other conservation questions comes down to its cost effectiveness. Unfortunately, it will probably be less costly to continue to just throw the food away.