Travel and food lovers among us may consider hotel buffets among some of life's great pleasures: endless Nutella, cooked-to-order eggs, and enough variety to satisfy just about every craving. But are all buffets really as glamorous as they seem?
Well, no, of course not. For an insider take, we spoke with two former employees of hotels that serve these kinds of buffets, both of whom would like to remain anonymous. We also got feedback from Johanna Read, a writer and the voice behind TravelEater.net, who also did a stint at the executive level with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Here's some of the inside scoop they told us about hotel buffets.
1. You must get a new plate every time.
On the surface, getting a new plate for each round of buffet serving doesn't seem like the eco-friendly thing to do, but this is a public-safety issue. When you bring a plate you've already used back to the buffet to refill, that means you're touching the serving spoon to places on your plate that your fork or spoon has already hit multiple times after first being in your mouth. Not only are you spreading your germs to the serving spoon this way, but everyone else who is reusing their plates is doing the same thing. Sure, you can't see germs, but they are most certainly there.
2. Contamination happens.
Contamination from fellow diners is a huge issue with all-you-can-eat buffets. According to Read, "It is generally not the restaurant staff that are the problem at buffets, but the other diners." This can impact the customer from several angles. For those with food allergies, there's no way to guarantee that an allergen hasn't contaminated food that appears to be allergen-free. Contamination like this can happen when a diner touches an allergen on their plate with the serving utensil or when food is accidentally dropped into the wrong area. When talking germs, contamination is an issue for everyone, not just those with food allergies. While these buffets normally have a shield meant to protect the food from the faces and hair of customers, their hands, arms, and shirt sleeves are definitely in the mix. Read takes food from the back of the dish for this reason, but she also notes that it's important to take some foods — especially those containing animal products — from as close to the heat source as possible.
3. Some foods are shady.
Not all foods at these buffets are created equally. Take a meat-filled pastry, for example. Read pointed out that a meat-filled pastry is a dangerous choice at an all-you-can-eat buffet because it's difficult to keep the inside hot enough and keeping it warm but not hot means that bacteria can grow. Read also advises that customers avoid veggies like raw sprouts that are nearly impossible to clean thoroughly. When you add in the other potential contaminants of an all-you-can-eat buffet, it seems unnecessary to opt for the already-risky items.
4. You get what you pay for.
An all-you-can-eat buffet at a hotel is always touted as a feature, but the offerings are scaleable to the price-point of the hotel. One of our anonymous sources said she tried once to convince her manager to use real eggs instead of carton eggs, but it was deemed financially impractical. She mentioned that just about everything came straight from the freezer — muffins, danishes, and breads included. At a different hotel where this anonymous source worked, food deliveries were only made twice a week, so the food at the buffet was often already a couple of days old.
5. They're actually bad for specialized diets.
You might think you can pick out the gluten-free, vegan, FODMAPs, no-nightshade, allergy-safe foods at an all-you-can-eat buffet, but unless you're going to speak with the manager or chef yourself about every single dish, it's difficult to be sure — and even then, see No. 2. Meat-based broths are often mistaken for vegetable broths, gluten can be found in some pretty innocuous items (soy sauce, for one!), and the major eight allergens are frequently used in food items that don't appear to contain the specific allergen. A good rule of thumb: Don't risk it if your life depends on it and think carefully before proceeding if it doesn't.
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