Buffets are like a battle between restaurant and customer, a value-for-money game where the customer tries to consume as much as possible and the restaurant hopes that you don’t eat its profit margin with that third helping of pancakes. But our culture’s terrifyingly impressive propensity for overeating begs the question: how do buffets stay afloat, and even manage to turn a profit?

Former Freakonomics editor Bourree Lam analyzed the buffet business for Lucky Peach earlier this year, and you can read an excerpt of the article in the Atlantic. According to Lam, all-you-can-eat (AYCE) restaurant operators are watching two things very closely: Their waste levels and their customer spread.

Minimizing waste helps any restaurant cut costs, but buffets that precook large portions are far more likely to have excess food at the end of the night than places that cook to order. And since buffet customers usually serve themselves, the kitchen has limited ability to control portion sizes and limit the amount of leftover food on the plate.

Photo: Flickr/Breigh Hammarlund

Photo: Flickr/Breigh Hammarlund

But there are ways. Pre-portioning certain items—for instance, making personal sized pizzas instead of a one large pie—means customers are less likely to overserve and kitchens are less likely to overcater. And Lam reports that Ovation Brands, which operates more than 300 buffets around the country, collects weekly data on its restaurant waste which helps the company project how many customers to expect and what they’ll be eating.

“We know pretty well how much food will be consumed on any particular day. We use far more fish products on the weekends, more salads at the beginning of the year. Meatloaf and fried chicken are the most popular items,” said an Ovation spokesperson. The ability to predict what and how much food to prepare is incredibly valuable for any restaurant, and the company is enjoying its strongest sales figures in years according to Lam.

But what about those diners who are out to beat the buffet, who approach the table with a thought out strategy and employ tactics like focusing on the most expensive items and resetting their appetite with small amounts of dark chocolate?

Photo: Flickr/ amma_maw

Photo: Flickr/ amma_maw

It’s all about the averages, says Lam. The hope is that enough undereaters come in to balance out the overeaters, that a family brings in a grandparent or young child in addition to its gutbusting members. Restaurants are also repositioning buffets to be less about stuffing your face cheaply, and more about enjoying a variety of quality dishes. As an example, Lam points to Las Vegas buffets that cost upwards of $50 and serve items like Kobe beef and crabs legs.

Not only do these buffets offer better grub, but customers actually enjoy it more. A Cornell study showed that people who paid $8 for a buffet enjoyed it more than people who ate the same food but only paid $4. “People really ended up regretting choosing the buffet when it was cheap,” said the study’s co-author David Just. Never a truer word spoken.

[via the Atlantic]