Wakeup call: Is this the end of the breakfast buffet? 

While it may be a staple feature in hotels, the breakfast buffet has come under fire for its potential to spread Covid-19. Consequently, as hotels re-open these all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets will likely be missing. But will this absence be temporary, or does this signal a permanent change in seemingly untouchable hotel traditions? Alex Love reports.

The breakfast buffet has been an integral part of the stay in hotels for decades. Yet the days of piling up mountains of scrambled egg, sausages and croissants on various plates could already be a thing of the past due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

From cooked items to cereals, fruit and yoghurts, guests could help themselves to as little or as much as they wanted, or even discretely stash food away for consumption later on. Breakfast buffets offered guests flexibility in terms of quantity, as well as what time they wanted to eat and how they long wanted to spend doing so.

“You could help yourself as much as you wanted. If you wanted to eat like a pig, you could eat like a pig. If you just wanted a continental roll and jam, and tea and coffee, you could do that as well,” says chairman of hotel advisory firm HVS London Russell Kett.

“Business travellers don't really want to hang around, particularly at the beginning of the day. It was very suitable for them, because they could get into a breakfast room and out again quite quickly. And it meant the ones that had a bit more time could linger over it.”

Breakfast spread

Against the backdrop of the coronavirus, having dozens of guests – some of whom may have travelled from various parts of the world – using the same space and touching the same surfaces before eating poses serious health issues.

Pre-coronavirus breakfast buffets presented numerous opportunities for germs to pass from one person to the next. These include container lids on hot food, tongs, serving spoons, tea and coffee facilities, as well as open containers that were fully exposed to airborne pathogens that may be carried by passersby.

Even with the most stringent of cleaning protocols, all it takes is the questionable hygiene habits of one guest using the buffet to risk the infection of multiple others.

All it takes is the questionable hygiene habits of one guest using the buffet to risk the infection of multiple others.

In May, Japanese public broadcaster NHK and medical researchers conducted an experiment with black light to demonstrate just how easily and quickly it is for germs to spread at communal eating environments such as buffets. One person from the group of ten participants had invisible fluorescent paint applied to their palms; the group then helped themselves to food from the buffet.

At the end of the 30 minute meal, the lights were turned out, the black light was turned on, and the substance was evident on each participant, with three from the group even having traces of the paint on their faces. A follow-up experiment that paid greater attention to hand hygiene revealed no cross-contamination.

Valeries, one of Birch’s two restaurants, will offer guests all-day casual dining.

Valeries, one of Birch’s two restaurants, will offer guests all-day casual dining.

Alternative breakfast options 

With so many people potentially in close proximity while serving and eating breakfast, it is little surprise that the majority of hotels across England have kept their communal areas closed as they start to reopen.

“What has happened since Covid-19 is people are very much more alert about health and hygiene and also not wanting to cross-contaminate,” adds Russell Kett.

“It was just too big a problem for some hotels to resolve, so, they're having to change the way that they deliver breakfast. And some of them are going back to the old-fashioned style of having a paper menu, you choose what you want, and they bring it to you.

“Or it's delivered to a point in the restaurant, and you go and collect it from there. That's the way that hotels are having to maintain social distancing, and to retain the hygienic conditions – they don't want to achieve cross-contamination between guests,” he adds.

For most hotel chains, there is currently an emphasis on ‘grab and go’ style breakfasts.

People are very much more alert about health and hygiene and also not wanting to cross-contaminate.

Marriott has issued extensive global guidelines on food safety for its hotels, with various countries operating varying levels of restrictions.

“As buffet style service can lead to congregations of guests and staff together, we are advising properties to evaluate whether to offer a buffet or instead consider an a la carte breakfast or ‘grab and go’ option. This decision will be guided by the size of the dining space, the volume of guests and volume of staff available on any given day,” a Marriott spokesperson stated.

IHG - which owns hotel brands that include Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, and Holiday Inn – has also altered its breakfast service. “For breakfast, buffets will make way for ‘grab and go’ options or contactless room service for the time being,” an IHG spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, UK budget chain Travelodge has scrapped its cooked food service entirely, instead providing a 'Breakfast to Go Box’ that contains cereal, a flapjack, juice, and a pain au chocolat for £5.25.

Birch will host events year-round, designed to offer guests an escape from everyday life.

Could the breakfast buffet return?  

What gives the breakfast buffet a chance of a comeback is its enduring popularity. Once the current coronavirus crisis has subsided and confidence starts to return to travellers, there may be growing calls from guests for the breakfast buffet to also return.

And there is an economic case for the breakfast buffet, as it provides hotels with the capacity to serve a large number of people in a matter of hours without using masses of staff.

Many of the new hygiene requirements introduced during Covid-19 may end up staying in place, to provide reassurance to guests as much as anything else. Although few could argue that improved food hygiene is a bad thing.

But if the demand is there and the risk has reduced sufficiently, hotels will need to figure out how the revised breakfast buffet will work.

German-based chain Motel One runs hotels throughout continental Europe, with five in the UK. It is currently exploring different options for what it describe as ‘new concepts for breakfast buffets’, although has not yet provided any further details on what exactly these concepts would involve.

Some hotels will find that their ‘new normal’ is better for their guests than it was before.

Marriott provides a hint of what future breakfast buffets could look like from its guidance for its hotels that may be offering this service in other countries. Guidance includes frequent handwashing for staff and wearing gloves when serving food; buffet utensils must be washed, rinsed and sanitised every half-hour; hand sanitiser stations need to be near the buffet area; and large groups of guests need to be broken into smaller ones, with social distancing applied for queues.

It is possible that some hotels will follow the example of restaurants that have already reopened and install Perspex screens between socially distanced tables. If space is not permitting, guests may have to book a specific time-slot for their breakfast in advance to ensure they are spaced apart sufficiently. Food could potentially be dished up by a member of staff, wearing PPE, behind a counter in a traditional canteen style. In any event, hotels will need to explore their options.

“I think some hotels will find that their ‘new normal’ is better for their guests than it was before. And they'll make the changes permanently. It really depends on the hotel, depends on the market that they're serving, and depends what you describe as a ‘new normal’,” says Kett.

“At some point, one hopes that either a virus vaccine will have been developed - in which case, the problem sort of goes away - or that people will have gotten used to the ‘new normal’ – as to what that then means, and are very happy and coping with it.”