Rafi Mohammed

How Do Restaurant Buffets Make Money?

Posted on February 27th, 2007 (3 Comments)

A few Sundays ago, I ventured out to my favorite brunch buffet destination in Cambridge, The Blue Room. While not as over the top as the $65 Sunday brunch at the local Four Seasons (which features unlimited cracked lobster), The Blue Room is a sure bet for high quality ingredients and innovative cooking. And well…you can’t beat the price…$23 for all you care to eat. After enjoying a delicious meal, I did what I always do…I started wondering how this business makes money – without a care in the world, diners were loading high cost items onto their plates. My dining companion suggested that perhaps the profit comes from alcohol sales. She had a good point, most adults had ordered alcohol and kids were drinking fresh squeezed orange juice. Even I had imbibed in a $5.50 draft beer. It got me thinking, was this buffet in essence giving away their high quality food to make a buck or two on drinks?

In search of answers, I discovered Robert Ambrose’s blog, The Art of the Buffet. As you can tell from Mr. Ambrose’s enthusiastic prose, this guy is quite knowledgeable and truly enjoys buffets. After reading his blog, I became more intrigued with buffet prices. Dinner prices at many of the buffets that Robert blogs about range from $9 - $11. Now I really wanted to know…how do these places make money?

Shortly after contacting Mr. Ambrose to interview him about buffet pricing (which he graciously granted), he wrote his own blog on the topic. He makes several interesting points. From a cost perspective, Robert mentions: (1) Tables turnover quickly (since no wait for meals to arrive), (2) Food is reused (today’s left over roast beef becomes tomorrow’s beef stew), and (3) Diners tend to fill up on low cost starches (e.g., potatoes and bread). One point that Robert added in my interview is that buffets have lower labor costs (fewer waitresses and cooks). The only point where I may not be totally onboard with Mr. Ambrose is his assertion that the average person eats less at a buffet then the standard entrée size at a restaurant. I mean, how many of us have left a buffet groaning “no mas?” While Mr. Ambrose makes several interesting points, I still was not satisfied…I kept waking up in the middle of the night wondering… “how are these buffets making money?”

Furthering my research, I discovered the 10K financials of Old Country Buffet (OCB). Now here is where things get interesting! As of September 2006, OCB operated roughly 360 restaurants in the U.S., most of their locations being all you can eat buffets. For their fiscal year ending June 28, 2006, OCB had total revenues of $963 million, operating profits of $46 million, and actually had a negative net profit of (-$4.8 million). The average check price per person was $7.89 (averaged over breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Food and restaurant labor costs accounted for 34% and 28.5% of total revenues respectively.

I’ve thrown out a lot of numbers, so let’s discuss the interesting figures. First, I’d focus on OCB’s operating profits as I believe they best represents the profitability of OCB’s ongoing operations (thanks to Ken Li - my good friend and old office mate at Monitor Group – for helping me interpret this financial information).* OCB has a 4.7% operating profit (operating profit divided by revenue)…which means that on the standard check of $7.89, the restaurant makes an operating profit of 37 CENTS. All that effort and OCB’s profits per person is less than the price of a U.S. first class stamp. “Wow,” you may be thinking, “that’s a tight margin.” But remember, OCB is not unique, many companies have comparatively slim margins (that’s why a 1% price increase can make such a big difference – in OCB’s case, 1% is equivalent to an 8 cent average price increase). What I found most interesting about OCB’s numbers is with food costs accounting for 34% of revenue, this translates into the average person eating $2.68 in food. When I look around at these buffets, a lot of people seem to be eating more than $2.68 of food. Much like the auto insurance industry used to face, restaurant buffets suffer the problem of adverse selection. Skipping the economist’s gobbly gook definition – let’s get to the real point of adverse selection: diners who enjoy food are attracted to buffets and they can destroy profit margins.

I feel sorry for my friends - they really suffer from my pricing obsession. Whenever I talk to them, I always steer the discussion towards my next blog. They’ve been hearing about buffets for the last few weeks. Interestingly, their comments also point to the notion of adverse selection (“buffets make money off my young daughter,” “seniors do not eat very much,” “my wife just eats the salads.”). They are in essence explaining that buffets make money off some customer segments and lose on others.

My bet is there’s room for buffets (both everyday as well as Sunday/Holiday only) to better deal with adverse selection through better pricing. First off, why not raise the overall price (my bet is that big eaters will not have an issue with higher prices – they realize the value they get) and better discount prices for small eaters (e.g., seniors, children)? Or how about offering a “chef’s table” – for an extra $3 diners get access to premium carved meats (to profit from those that go straight to the high margin items). If bus tours that make reservations kill margins (e.g., high school football teams) – why not charge higher prices to make a large group reservation? If Sunday buffets are not making money from people that drink tap water, why not charge them a different price? While straightforward, these types of small changes can have a powerful impact of the bottom line…remember that postage stamp sized profit margin!

Please feel free to send me any questions or comments. I update this blog two to three times a week – please consider signing up to be notified by e-mail of a new blog post. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog.

* The big difference between operating and net profits for Old Country Buffet is a large interest expense. This large interest expense could have come from the company buying out public shareholders in 2000 and recent acquisitions.

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Readers' Comments on This Blog Entry

From Joel Friedland on April 10th, 2007
The simplest way for buffets to deal with adverse selection is to keep out the very big eaters. Most buffets post a billboard at the entrance that the restaurant reserves the right to deny seating to (some) patrons based on past experience. In metropolitan NYC, a number of buffets near the Meadowlands stadium in New Jersey no longer accept the patronage of offensive linemen from the Giants and Jets football teams.
From Joel Friedland on April 10th, 2007
More expensive buffets are more likely to be profitable, not just because of their higher prices, but also because customers are more likely to be at the buffet for family or holiday celebrations or for business. Overeating among family or business associates can result in stigmatization in the future; a very high social price to pay for taking a third or fourth trip through a buffet line. Formal dress codes at Sunday buffets and at weekday hotel dining room buffets produce better behaved people who are far less likely to overeat. Dress codes are not as effective as the unspoken, informal controls, of potential stigmatization from one's peers for misbehaving by overeating. Such misbehavior evinces a lower middle class, working poor, or even a criminal background to one's peers. That potential stigma redounds to enhance restaurant profitability.
From Van-Anh Truong on July 6th, 2009
Wow, I have to give you some props on this blog. Now everything is becoming clear and is making a lot of sense. So yesterday i went to the buffet with my boyfriend and i asked him the same question..."How are Buffets making profit?" Once we got home Google was the first place we got to. And we found you! Every interesting blog.