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Self-service restaurants in SARS-CoV-2 pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the self-service restaurant sector, as well as other types of food services, are facing an unprecedented crisis needing to adapt the service to avoid closing the doors. With its varied and quick meals, the self-service buffet is one of the most important types of outside services. However, the type of service where the clients follow a line on the buffet and serve their meals, impairs the traditional restaurant operation during the COVID-19 pandemic and, perhaps, after it. In this sense, this work presents an overview of the self-service buffet restaurant operational system in the context of COVID-19.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant sector is facing an unprecedented crisis, and it needs an urgent discussion on how to handle or adapt the service. Among other types of restaurants, the self-service buffet is one of the most important types in the foodservice sector as part of hospitals cafeterias, hotels, corporations, educational institutions, as well as street options, aiming for diversified and quick meals. The self-service buffet restaurant sector deals with food contamination hazards from food handlers and clients when serving their plates, increasing the risk of foodborne diseases (FBD). Besides the risk of FBD by food handlers, the way people serve themselves touching the utensils, talking while in line, coughing or sneezing while serving the meal, letting objects or part of their clothes touch food at the buffet, letting the utensil fall into the dishes, touching the food utensils without proper hand hygiene (even after coughing or sneezing and covering with your hands) may potentially expose clients to contamination by SARS-CoV-2, causing COVID-19. In this sense, the self-service buffet restaurant sector has a big challenge to adapt and change during and after the COVID-19 pandemic to maintain the business running. Therefore, this work will focus on the reality of the self-service buffet restaurant sector, and we invite the researchers and community to discuss the potential adaptation of this type of service, avoiding the end of self-service buffet restaurants impaired by the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. Food Away from Home and Self-Service Restaurants
Worldwide, people have grown to rely on the convenience of consuming foods prepared outside of their homes . This pattern is mainly due to the lack of time and skills to prepare meals . One of the most critical barriers to eating meals prepared at home is the challenge in balancing work, school, and leisure schedules, forcing people to “eat on the run” .
This scenario led to the growth of the foodservice sector, especially the establishments that provide fast meals with affordable prices to people mainly on workdays, but also leisure moments. The self-service buffet is a common type of food service that offers breakfast, snacks, lunch, and/or dinner meals. In some countries, the self-service buffet restaurant represents more than 60% of the foodservice sector .
The self-service meal is characterized by an offer of dishes placed in a buffet that people can choose among the options offered to compose their plates. It is a common type of service as part of hospitals cafeterias, hotels, corporations, educational institutions, and street restaurants. There are two primary modalities of this kind of restaurants, “by the kilo” in which customers pay the price considering the weight of the meal on their plate; and the ones that the costumers pay a fixed price and it is an “all you can eat buffet” . In both ways, traditionally, there is a line for people to follow to access the buffet and choose what they want to eat, increasing the risk of food contamination. Also, the risk of contaminating others in line is high. Before the pandemic of SARS-CoV-2, people usually stayed very close to one another while serving their plates. The habit of talking was prevalent, especially when waiting for a worker to portion specific items.
3. Self-Service Buffet Restaurants and the Potential Risk of Contamination
As well as any other type of food service, the self-service buffet restaurants must offer safe food and a safe environment for their clients. Several studies have been focusing on food handlers as responsible for food contamination due to their contact with ingredients and meals . However, considering the self-service buffet type of restaurant, costumers are also highlighted as an essential contamination vehicle due to their attitudes before and while serving .
Studies of attitudes on self-service buffets have shown that many consumers engage in unsanitary behaviors. Among the types of restaurants, self-service poses unique problems as food exposed to many people, and there is little (if any) control with hands, clothing, dirt, and droplets that may contaminate foods and utensils . Besides the risk of FBD, the way people serve themselves touching the utensils, talking while in line, coughing or sneezing while serving the meal, letting objects or part of their clothes touch food at the buffet, letting the utensil fall into the dishes, touching the food utensils without proper hand hygiene (even after coughing or sneezing and covering with your hands) may potentially expose the clients to contamination by SARS-CoV-2, causing COVID-19, even in environments that should excel in hygiene care, such as hospitals .
4. Self-Service Buffet Restaurant and COVID-19
The world is facing an unexpected COVID-19 pandemic with several consequences in economic, social, environmental, and health aspects that brought the risk of death from the viral infection and psychological burdens affecting the individuals’ way of life . Until now, there is no evidence about the transmission of COVID-19 by food . However, COVID-19 pandemic's impact represents a service disruption that most restaurant sectors were unprepared to handle. They will need to shift their business model to offering delivery or serving take-off portioned meals. Keeping operations running already presents a significant challenge for most restaurants, dealing with customers’ contamination concerns broaden the challenge . In this sense, the self-service buffet restaurant seems to be the most affected type of foodservice during the pandemic due to the type of service. The fact of people near each other, touching the same utensil to serve their meal, as well as the other risk attitudes mentioned before, can expose them to the risk of contamination of SARS-CoV-2.
Because the food is exposed to customers, it poses challenges for protecting them not only from FBD but also from the potential contamination of SARS-CoV-2. Self-service equipment and operations may not provide adequate protection from primary risks such as dirty hands (on utensils) and droplets (from sneezing, cough, talking) . Sneeze guards have been used to protect buffet foods. However, it is common the lack of it in some restaurants, or, if provided, it is not adequately addressed for all operating conditions including in the hospital buffets . Self-service buffet restaurants face more challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the social isolation and because, in normal functioning, it exposes the food and utensils to costumers as an additional source of contamination. Much has to be discussed about how self-service buffet restaurants should deal with the fear and the risk of contamination after the COVID-19 pandemic breaks out. Improvements in operating standards are needed to promote safety in buffet restaurant operations and recover the clients’ trust.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the regular operation of the self-service restaurant is not possible. In this sense, operational adaptations to order delivery or takeout can minimize unnecessary interpersonal contact and emphasize the restaurant's commitment to safety and hygiene protocols. After the pandemic period, the buffet restaurants’ cleanliness and food quality standards are imperative as well as the crowding control by reducing the number of seats or increasing space between tables .
These types of restaurants also count on the volume of clients who serve themselves, eat, and quickly give space to other customers. Will it be worthy for the sector to open and produce all the dishes if they have half of their customers? Our studies in Brazilian self-service buffets show that customers usually take 20 minutes to enter a restaurant, serve, and eat. With changes related to a minimum safety space between clients in line and between tables, this time will increase, and tables' shifts will take higher periods. Profits come from a balance between expenses and the flow of customers.
To maintain these restaurants' types opened during the pandemic, many started to offer deliveries of their dishes to households. This change in the market brought some shifts and questions to the sector. Customers started to have their favorite foods at home without direct exposure to COVID-19. However, food safety should be a concern because adequate transportation and packaging are essential to avoid food contamination. Owners had the chance to sell their products with a smaller number of employees and without the costs of maintaining the restaurant´s hall. Nevertheless, disposable silverware increased, as well as masks and gloves disposals, impacting sustainability. It is a difficult period to think about the losses and benefits of rethinking how the buffet restaurants will be able to return.
Could it be the end of the self-service buffet restaurant? Will this type of food service survive the COVID-19 pandemic? To answer these questions, it is important to consider several aspects.
- Changes in the way customers enter and serve themselves;
- Good hygiene habits such as hand wash before touching utensils and no talk, cough or sneeze while in front of the buffets;
- Less time in front of the buffets;
- A lower number of customers in the hall;
- Maybe a shift of customer´s serving to employee´s serving dishes;
- More frequent sanitization of tables and chairs;
- Alcohol dispensers for the clients;
- Physical barriers between tables.
The pandemic COVID-19 has shown that we need to change habits and values. It is not always easy, but perhaps we should start to see what is possible to make it differently. The pandemic can be a chance for restaurants to adapt and look for ways to rethink their services and costs, especially in a time of economic recession, when businesses are expected to receive fewer customers. Therefore, it could not be the end of the self-service buffet, but time to rethink and remodel it to meet the "new normal". In the end, all of the actors involved, buffet restaurants’ employers, employees, clients, should adapt themselves facing the COVID-19 pandemic operational, financial, and emotional burden.
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