A group of six walked into the dining room at Ivory Restaurant during what used to be the lunch rush, and they all asked manager Manoj Choudhary the same question: is the buffet open?
It’s a query Choudhary, 32, has had to reply to hundreds of times since the downtown North Indian restaurant opened its doors to limited capacity a few weeks ago, and the answer is one that doesn’t get easier to deliver as time passes.
Buffets aren’t permitted under the province’s current reopening strategy, and it’s not in the cards that any guests will be ladeling themselves Ivory’s channa masala in the near future, instead having to order off of the menu. Even as restaurants reopen, the new reality is very different from the one buffet-reliant restaurants enjoyed just a few months ago.
"I’ve had to explain to the customers that this isn’t a restaurant-specific decision," Choudhary said. "I get a lot of phone calls daily asking when the buffet will be back. Unfortunately, that’s the one thing I’m never able to answer."
At Ivory, Choudhary — whose father Parkash bought the business in 2014 and serves as its head chef — has begun offering a sort of compromise, delivering platters with a generous sampling of main dishes, rice, and naan to the table to modernize the buffet experience to the COVID-19 era, in addition to offering a full menu for ordering. They've also become adopters of third-party food delivery services, something the restaurant for years had resisted.
"But obviously, it isn’t quite the same as going up there yourself," he said.
During a time when restaurants are facing acute struggles they’ve never had to face in a notoriously unforgiving industry, the buffet is a potential casualty, at least until consumer confidence returns and public health officials give them the green light.
“In a busy buffet, you could have hundreds of people handling the same instrument to put food onto their plates.” – Jeff Farber
"In a busy buffet, you could have hundreds of people handling the same instrument to put food onto their plates," Jeff Farber, the director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety, told the Canadian Press last month. Buffets are built on cultural traditions of communal dining; for the time being, the concept is somewhat in limbo, especially as restaurants operate at reduced capacity.
For the 400-seat Ye’s Buffet, an Asian catch-all eatery on St. James Street, halved or three-quarter capacity is still considerable, but the crowds haven’t been showing up in droves just yet, says manager Ivan Tang. "It’s a very tough time, especially for buffets," he said.
The restaurant’s sales model is designed almost entirely around self-service, and in the span of four months, that’s all changed.
Sachit Mehra’s family has been running restaurants in Winnipeg since the 1960s, and in 1994 started East India Company, which has grown to become the biggest Indian buffet in central Canada, he says.
While the restaurant has always offered a full menu, the buffet concept played a major part in showing uninitiated diners the different options available. "Our business has always been about educating the public at a cultural level. Once we do that, they develop an appreciation, and after that, they assign a value," he said.
Customers liked what they tasted, and the restaurant’s buffet became a favourite. The kitchen was oriented to produce food for the buffet crowd, and the Mehras got it down to a science. COVID-19 forced them to pivot, retooling their kitchen for takeout service at first, and then, when they finally reopened the dining room in June, toward a menu-based production line. Mehra likened it to switching from driving a basic sedan to jumping behind the wheel of a racecar.
Like Ivory and Ye’s, East India Company is offering a platter-style replacement for the buffet experience that’s delivered straight to the table. Those restaurants are also dealing with another change: it’s no longer all you can eat. It’s a departure from the normal state of affairs, but Mehra said the response has been positive from customers who are happy the restaurant is open at all.
"The main problem we’re facing is customer confidence and public sentiment," he said. "And that will take time."
Choudhary agreed, saying that patience is a virtue. It’s something he stressed to the group of six who came for lunch a few weeks back. "Once I explained, they understood, and they gladly ordered off the menu," he said. "But it’s tough to come in expecting what you had before."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
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Updated on Thursday, July 2, 2020 at 7:31 AM CDT: Corrects reference to Indian food