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Buffets 101 Part I

Menu development is a process aimed at crafting a menu that satisfies the guest as well as producing a profit for the operator. It is the responsibility of the chef to consider all aspects of the buffet, including the overall theme, the price range and the guest's expectations.

First, review the concept or theme and establish the appropriate menu selections for the buffet. When you begin to select a potential menu, highlight any special requests, seasonal or holiday items and the like. These items will require special consideration as you refine the list. Another point to consider is that although all the food may be presented at the same time, most guests expect to see options for the soup course, main course, side dishes, salads and dessert on a dinner buffet menu.

Some menu items may be drawn from previous events. The advantage in working with familiar recipes and presentations is that you already know what they cost to produce and serve. Other menus may be made up of items that are new to your repertoire. The advantage in offering new items is the ability to reflect popular trends, customize a menu for a special event, or introduce a new concept or theme.

After addressing the special needs and items that the guest may want, continue to develop the menu by listing other items that might work within the theme that you've established. Assign them to menu categories and work toward establishing a list that appropriately covers all the courses your menu should include.

The Menu

Because they can maintain a focus on the guest, chefs have the enviable opportunity to create a unique dining experience. The menu selections and their presentation convey an integrated message to the guest. Buffet-style service offers guests variety, the freedom to choose from different categories, and the option of unlimited portions.

In most operations, buffets also serve as a creative and profitable outlet for a wide range of foods, if priced properly. Whenever you can sell more of the food you bought, you lower overall food costs for the entire business. Buffets are ideal for attracting new market segments or keeping the loyalty of your current clientele, as well as showcasing new additions to the menu. Throughout the menu development and planning process, the chef needs to keep abreast of current trends and the competition to ensure that the menu is one that meets customers' expectations while demonstrating the skills and abilities of the staff. The food is generally the focal point for the guest. It supplies the majority of the drama, excitement and interaction, and it falls to the garde manger to produce items that are flavorful and attractive. The successful chef generates and executes menus that please guests whether they are looking for global flair or traditional elegance.

Price range

Establish the price range for any buffet at the outset of planning. There are a variety of factors to consider, including the competition's price for a comparable buffet and your guest's expectations or special requests, as well as any conditions or limitations on the menu or the service.

The price range determines, to some extent, the number of options that can be offered as well as the specific ingredients or dishes you choose. Food cost can be difficult to estimate if you cannot predict the exact number of guests. But, even if you can, there is no certainty that guests will eat the foods you prepared in the amounts you estimated.

Food cost is an important piece of information. Use standard costing procedures to arrive at a cost per piece or portion. This step identifies costly ingredients or those that may have a limited shelf life. This does not mean that these items must be dropped from the menu, though you may wish to revise the portion size, presentation or preparation method to help control costs. In addition to the cost of the food for a buffet, the chef must consider other items as well.

The cost to produce a specific item can be calculated (labor cost) and used as part of the overall evaluation of any item. High labor costs on one item may be offset by low costs for others. However, any item that has markedly higher labor costs than others on the menu should be reviewed to determine where those costs could be cut or if the item is appropriate for a buffet.

Foods must be at the height of quality when presented, whether prepared in advance or just before service. Strict attention is required to maintain an attractive and hygienic buffet line.

Review each proposed item to determine how well it will hold before and during the meal period. Consider how the food will taste and look, the safety of the guests and any restrictions imposed by the pace of service, budget, equipment and the skills of the buffet attendants.

Some foods lend themselves readily to buffet service, like carved or sliced meats, salads, some pasta dishes and canapés. Foods that must be prepared and served immediately may require special handling during preparation or presentation; this can increase the cost of serving the food. Whenever possible, weed out items that require special handling, not only to make service more efficient but also to reduce the cost of service items like chafing dishes, heat lamps and portable cooking devices.

Although not all dishes are equally suitable for buffets, there are often techniques and strategies to execute a dish that is particularly important to the guest or the theme. To minimize the effect on food and labor costs, present these foods at an action station, especially pasta or omelets that are made or finished to order. Another strategy is pre-plating.

Well-planned menus leave no detail to chance. They should be designed to exceed customers' expectations, not only of the food, but also of its presentation and display. Equally important in all these considerations is the development of a menu that is profitable for the operation. Your goal is to create a balance between cost control and the guests' freedom of choice.

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