The Economists Who Studied All-You-Can-Eat Buffets

The Atlantic:

For every big, hungry guy or gal who can really eat his or her weight in crab legs, buffets count on a few who won’t. It helps that buffets appeal to groups: A big family might have one super-eater, but Grandma or your toddler brother will probably under-eat.

The other key metric in buffet economics is managing waste. Ovation Brands—previously Buffets, Inc.—owns more than 330 buffet restaurants in thirty-five states; it’s the parent company of Old Country Buffet and HomeTown Buffet. Each year its restaurants serve 47 million pounds of chicken, 6 million pounds of steak, and 85 million dinner rolls to 100 million customers. Though the company has suffered some setbacks (Buffets, Inc. filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and 2012), it is currently reporting its strongest sales numbers in seven years. And it got there by really getting to know its waste numbers.

Michelle Gessner, senior vice president of administration for Ovation, emphasizes the importance of portioning as a means of minimizing waste. “Every item will have anywhere from 5 to 25 percent waste, even with the small pans. Whenever you’re doing more than one serving, you’re going to have waste.” Once upon a time, her company made one large pan of chicken potpie. Nowadays it makes single-serving pies in place of the big one.

Ovation Brands collects data weekly on waste in its restaurants. From there, the numbers are plugged into a computer for modeling based on time of year. Projections are made for the number of customers expected, along with what they’ll likely eat.