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Can buffets make a comeback this holiday season?

A large sign posted on a building reads “Pier 88 Coming soon.”
Lucretia Cunningham
KUNR Public Radio
Pier 88 Boiling Seafood & Bar is developing inside what was once a Sweet Tomatoes buffet on Dec. 9, 2021, in Las Vegas, Nevada. The restaurant announced its permanent closure in May 2020 as a result of the pandemic.

Some would say the food that defines Nevada is the casino buffet. A heightened perception of contagion risks and other pandemic-linked obstacles have led to the permanent closure of some buffet restaurants. However, KUNR’s Lucretia Cunningham spoke to UNLV Assistant Professor Amanda Belarmino who says the buffet made a major comeback over Thanksgiving and is eager to see how the industry will fare this holiday season.

Cunningham: How did Las Vegas become known for its buffets and how did they become part of the city’s identity, and really the whole state’s identity?

Belarmino: The buffet was originally a concept to get a lot of people through dining areas, especially in casinos where you have such large capacities for people, so we see in both the histories of Las Vegas and Reno that you wanted to have buffets to be able to provide inexpensive varieties of food, but as things have changed over the last 20 years in both markets, you’ve really seen this desire for a more luxurious type of food experience.

People in the United States, just in general, eat out more than they ever have in the past, so what we’ve seen is that desire for quality of food has really increased. The National Restaurant Association actually calls it “American Foodie 2.0.” Everyone’s an expert in food. So, that desire to create something that’s really unique and special has really been embraced by casino operators in both markets. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how it evolves post-pandemic in both cities.

Cunningham: We know from the Nevada Restaurant Association, over 30% of restaurants, including buffets, have closed since the onset of the pandemic. How do you think that will affect tourism and culture in Las Vegas? 

Belarmino: I think if we closed all the buffets, it’d have an impact. I think closing some of the lesser-known buffets, I don’t know that that it’s going to have an impact. I don’t think it’s going to hurt the city [Las Vegas] overall - certainly hasn’t hurt it so far, but I think it may hurt individual properties and I would not be surprised if in the next two to three years, some of these that we’ve seen close may reopen. But the buffet is just going to have to hold its own in terms of profitability.

Cunningham: How did some buffet restaurants adapt in order to reopen during the pandemic?

Belarmino: The buffet at the Wynn reopened with butler service where they would bring you all you could eat. You just tell them what you wanted and they bring it to you. The Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan reopened with small, kind of a cafeteria-style where they would give it to you but everything was presorted. And then reservations for the buffet. That’s something that hasn’t stayed completely but is still in some places as a way of controlling and preventing crowding.

Cunningham: Why do you think some of the buffets inside gaming hotels have stayed closed since the city’s reopening?

Belarmino: It’s been a challenge for all the operators to determine what they need to do going forward. One of the reasons I know some of the buffets have not reopened, and may not reopen, is because of the cost of them. I think from the outside, you expect when you look at any type of hospitality operation that every part of it is profitable - that’s just not the case. Traditional lodging options, even those that are non-casino, a lot of times, some of their restaurants aren’t profitable. They’re there as an amenity for the guests. They’re there to help promote the room revenue. And for years, that’s what the buffet was. The buffet was an amenity to help promote the casino revenue. For some properties that have been able to see strong gaming numbers without a buffet, I could understand why they would want to open that.

Cunningham: How do you think buffet closures will affect the upcoming Christmas “buffet” season?

Belarmino: We saw the Thanksgiving buffet season was amazing! People came to Las Vegas in numbers that I don’t think we’ve ever seen for Thanksgiving. I think it’s because people have this pent-up desire to travel, people want to see each other, but I don’t think we want to cook. I think that’s why we saw a good increase at Thanksgiving and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a stronger than normal Christmas. And, perhaps the holiday buffets– are a good data collection opportunity for the operators to determine the future of some of these casino buffets.

Cunningham: And what about you, personally? Are you looking forward to any buffet offerings over the holidays?

Belarmino: So, yeah. My husband and I, we did buffet for Thanksgiving and it was great. We're not going to do buffet on Christmas Day, but we are thinking about going during the break to some of the buffet offerings out here.

Lucretia Cunningham is a former contributing reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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