After 17 gruelling months of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that kept buffet lines cold, the plentiful, self-serve feasts are back on the menu.
"You come out on the other side and you’re bruised and beaten, but you’re ready for the better days," said Sachit Mehra, owner and manager of East India Company restaurant in downtown Winnipeg. "That’s where we’re at right now."
As part of its latest pandemic reopening Aug. 7, the Manitoba government lifted public health orders that prohibited buffets from operating and once again allowed customers to fill their own plates.
Since the start of the pandemic in Manitoba, buffets have either been ordered to close or to operate cafeteria style, with staff serving food to patrons, in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 through droplets on shared utensils and crowding of people.
Mehra said he didn’t hesitate to reopen the buffet at the East India Company on Saturday — describing it as the gem of the business — with sanitation stations, crowd control and regular utensil changes in place.
So far, customers have been keen to dig into the smorgasbord of South Asian cuisine, he said.
"We’re known for our buffets at all our locations, and that’s what people want," Mehra said. "We’re very happy with the response. It’s been excellent."
The return of indoor dining, and the subsequent return of buffets, has meant the restaurant can operate as intended, Mehra said, after relying heavily on expensive delivery services.
"For us, by grace of a really strong customer base... and our reserves, that’s what carried us on to the other side," he said, adding the restaurant has lost money every month over the past year-and-a-half.
The return of small group events — celebrations of birthdays, weddings, receptions, engagements and other occasions as Manitobans make up for lost time — is cause for optimism, he added.
"I’ve seen that over the last week: people have come back to it and that’s exciting for me and exciting for us as a family at all our locations," Mehra said.
"To be able to do what you love, go back to work that way, is awesome."
Robert McLellan, general manager at Royal Fork Buffet in Kildonan Crossing, said he anticipates a slow recovery for buffets, as customers once again become accustomed to the dining experience.
"We’ve slowly been starting to get people inquiring about groups, so we’re starting to pick some of those up, which is definitely beneficial," McLellan said in a phone interview following lunch service Thursday.
"People are still very leery — it doesn’t matter what kind of restaurant — about going out. That’s definitely still a challenge."
McLellan said the restaurant on Regent Avenue has struggled significantly under the pandemic orders, with sales at one to five per cent of normal.
He was also forced to layoff most of his staff during the closure, keeping just one other employee on to assist in limited take-out service. However, he remains confident the business will bounce back to pre-pandemic levels.
McLellan said it was a significant day for him and his staff when the buffet was able to reopen, adding 30 out of 32 employees who were laid off came back to the restaurant, many of whom have worked with him for a decade or more.
"I tried to always build a family atmosphere with my staff for sure, because I couldn’t operate without them," he said. "I’m thrilled that we could reopen."
Moving forward, one of the biggest challenges is the rapidly increasing cost of goods, a concern held by other restaurant operators, McLellan said.
"The profit margins on restaurants are so low as it is," he said. "We’re just trying to build it back up."
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.