Why Did It Take a Pandemic to Make Us Realize Buffets Are Disgusting?

A modest proposal for an infinity ban on hot plates, mass-market buffets, and other gross Petri dishes of communal eating

Photo illustration. Image sources: Fotograzia/Getty Images, Vudhikul Ocharoen/EyeEm/Getty Images

FFor a fleeting moment, the manager of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., held onto hope that people would still be excited to chow down at an overpriced hotel Easter buffet: “Get ready for a HUGE celebration in a few weeks,” Mickael Damelincourt tweeted in earnest on March 24, making a reference to a $130-a-head brunch buffet the hotel hosts every Easter Sunday. His message was roundly mocked and then deleted. When I called the hotel to ask if buffet tickets were still available, the woman who answered the phone shared the unfortunate news that the event had been canceled.

The decision to even offer the buffet during this time might seem like typical Trumpian behavior: A buffet? With the coronavirus outbreak in full swing? But Trump-connected properties weren’t the only establishments that seemed to think customers wouldn’t have any problem gathering together to dine from an elegant trough of food in the middle of a global pandemic.

On March 10, when some local health officials began to warn that Covid-19 wasn’t an abstract threat but imminent, Caesars Entertainment said it would keep the buffets at its Las Vegas casinos open for the time being, breaking with competitor MGM Resorts, which decided that same week to suspend buffet service. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman sided with Caesars: “For MGM to buy in and have the fear — that’s not the right direction,” she told a local newspaper. On St. Patrick’s Day, Nevada’s governor eventually stepped in and ordered all restaurants, casinos, and bars on the Strip to shut down for 30 days.

“People will literally pick off the hot bar and salad bar with their hands to sample things.”

Over the weekend of March 13, Whole Foods shoppers across the country were also surprised to find that the hot food and salad bars were still open. “I think they’re just slow adjusting to the new normal,” a shopper at Whole Foods’ Columbus Circle location in Manhattan told me. Most shoppers kept a respectful distance from one another, she said, but there was one notable exception. That day, the shopper wrote, she witnessed someone use serving tongs to put a piece of food from the salad bar directly in their bare hand. The grazer then snuck the food under their face mask to eat it.

The incident is a stark reminder of mankind’s vulnerability to infectious diseases — and to buffets. Our inability to control ourselves around self-serve food has been the subject of countless holiday weight-loss advice columns and published research. “There may be special cells in the brain that take over when you encounter a buffet,” as one medical site explains. That’s a nice, scientific way of saying we eat more than is healthy when confronted by an all-you-can-eat platter.

But it doesn’t take peer-reviewed research to understand that buffets do not bring out the best in humanity. “People are so gross in general,” a Whole Foods employee at a store in Oregon wrote to me over Twitter on March 16. “People will literally pick off the hot bar and salad bar with their hands to sample things.”

The safety of buffets is especially dependent on people behaving courteously — and sanitarily — around limitless supplies of ready-to-eat food, an unlikely scenario. Adapting to the rapidly changing news cycle, Whole Foods and Central Market, an upscale Texas-based grocery store chain, both announced they would shut down their salad and hot food buffets by March 18. In place of the buffets, the stores said they would offer prepackaged salads and other goods.

Of course, foodborne illnesses or infectious viruses can happen at any type of dining establishment or in any grocery aisle. The Whole Foods worker added that people are also behaving poorly around the packaged baked goods, telling me that throughout the pandemic, it’s been “crazy seeing how many people will go around touching all the loaves of bread — not taking them out, just touching all the bags.”

While the Swedes are credited with inventing the buffet, it was an American businessman on the Las Vegas Strip who reportedly brought buffets to a new level of gluttony with the “all you can eat” concept in the 1940s. Thankfully, the buffet industry is now in decline. The company that owns Hometown Buffet, Old Country Buffet, and Ryan’s has declared bankruptcy three times; some experts say buffet chains owe their demise to Yelp, whose users love to report every gross thing they see. Golden Corral, however, has managed to stay profitable, weathering a norovirus outbreak that infected more than 150 diners in Wyoming in 2012 and allegations from a Florida worker the restaurants had serious health code violations.

People who eat at the Whole Foods buffet — like the New York Post photo editor who recently claimed his $17 chicken dinner was ruined by the sight of a homeless man helping himself to samples — tend to consider themselves a classier bunch than diners at a Golden Corral or a Hometown Buffet. After all, at Whole Foods’ hot food and salad bars, the presentation is usually pristine, the food is organic and relatively healthy, and the cost is exorbitant if you aren’t paying attention.

It’s been “crazy seeing how many people will go around touching all the loaves of bread — not taking them out, just touching all the bags.”

But the grocery store’s beloved self-serve area has had its own share of controversies. In 2015, a person infected with hepatitis A dined at the prepared-food section at a Whole Foods in Detroit, leading to a scare in which all other people who ate from the salad bar during that time had to get tested for the fatal disease; a worker in the same section was also found to have hepatitis A, though it wasn’t clear how either person contracted the illness. In 2016, the FBI arrested a man on the accusation that he put rat poison on the salad fixings at a Whole Foods in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The very existence of signs at some Whole Foods’ hot bars requesting “No hands, please” indicates that Whole Foods’ paying customers are no better around buffets than the homeless man the Post tried to shame.

The major cruise lines, which Trump suggested the government should bail out even though they don’t pay taxes here, are prime examples of how easily diseases spread when people are eating in unsanitary conditions. Before the novel coronavirus, cruises were routinely ruined by the gastrointestinal infection called norovirus. This was largely due to the confinement of thousands of people on a boat, but the all-you-can-eat buffets certainly didn’t help. As one disgusted worker revealed to a tabloid several years ago, he hates when passengers “don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet or [are] grabbing food directly from the buffet with their hands.”

Should any buffets remain open post-pandemic? Maybe those at smaller, more intimate restaurants, where owners have an easier time keeping surfaces clean and customers know they are being closely watched. Paul Dawson, a nutrition professor at Clemson University in South Carolina who led his students on a study of E. coli transfer on salad tongs several years ago, told me that he regularly eats at a salad bar for lunch and considers it no more dangerous than any other kind of restaurant. However, he theorizes that people may behave worse around the buffets at grocery stores, where they can graze in relative anonymity. Barring any legal issues, he suggests that someone do a research project where they secretly film people around the grocery store buffets: “That would be good, to do a secret Candid Camera–type thing.”

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