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Will casino buffets ever return? Three local gaming spots are testing sit-down option

Buffet plate at Jamul Casino
A plated sampler of hand-picked dishes ordered by a customer on May 28 at Jamul Casino’s buffet, which has switched from self-service to traditional table service, but with an all-you-can-eat menu.
(Courtesy photo)

Self-service eateries are banned due to COVID-19, but some casinos are finding ways to bring them back

As competition for visitor dollars has heated up between local casinos in recent years, one of the most-popular ways the Indian-run gaming venues have built customer loyalty is their all-you-can-eat buffets. Roadside billboards from El Cajon to Rainbow regularly promoted endless portions of lobster tails, crab legs and prime rib at absurdly low prices.

But because buffets have been linked worldwide to coronavirus transmissions, all self-service restaurants have been closed nationwide since pandemic shutdowns began in mid-March. Some will never return, like San Diego’s 42-year-old Souplantation restaurant chain, which announced the permanent closure of its 97 restaurants in May.

Most of the region’s tribal-run casinos have reopened for business in the past two weeks, but virtually all of their buffets remain closed. The exceptions, at least so far, are casinos in Jamul, Alpine and Valley Center, that are offering an all-you-can-eat menu in their reduced-capacity buffet dining rooms, but with seated table service.

The new sit-down buffet at Jamul Casino launched May 27, offering themed menus four days a week. And Valley View Casino in Valley Center opened its sit-down option on June 1 for service seven nights a week, but for now it’s only available to rewards card members. Viejas Casino reopened its buffet for Friday through Sunday evenings only in mid-May, but shut it down again on June 5.

So far, customers seem happy with the results.

“It’s been overwhelmingly positive,” said Benjamin Petell, vice president of non-gaming operations at Jamul Casino. “Guests really enjoy it. They like not having to walk through a buffet line and it’s a much more enjoyable dining experience. They can peruse a wide menu and try multiple things from the comfort of their table.”

Valley View officials declined to comment for this article, but on Wednesday afternoon the line of customers at the casino’s buffet stretched all the way around the perimeter of the 560-seat restaurant. Despite the reduction in seating and strict rules that prohibit diners from leaving their table during their meal, there was no shortage of diners at the venue, which is serving its full 100-item “Maine Lobster Buffet” for $37.99.

The Buffet at Valley View Casino
A long line of masked customers wraps around The Buffet at Valley View Casino on Wednesday. It reopened June 1 for table service only.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When Viejas reopened in May, it was offering all-you-can-eat service in its 550-seat buffet on Fridays-Sundays only. But on Monday, a reservations clerk said by phone that the all-you-can-eat buffet concept closed on Friday, June 5. Now, the buffet restaurant is being operated as a sit-down cafe with a la carte ordering.

All the other local casinos have yet to announce reopening dates for the buffets. Barona has temporarily turned its buffet dining room into a smoking room during its phased reopening. Sycuan Casino officials say they’ll be making several changes to their buffet, but it will be one of the last amenites to reopen at the El Cajon resort. And officials had no comment on when or whether the buffets will reopen at Pala Casino, Harrah’s Resort Southern California in Valley Center and Pechanga Casino Resort in Temecula. Casino Pauma, the last local casino to reoen for business will return on Friday but without its buffet. Golden Acorn Casino doesn’t have a buffet.

Casinos in Las Vegas began reopening Thursday at reduced capacity, but so far none have announced plans to relaunch their buffets, according to Howard Stutz, executive editor of the Las Vegas-based industry publication CDC Gaming Reports.

Stutz said buffets have long been a popular amenity at casinos, but fear of the coronavirus has reduced demand for the self-service eateries where hundreds, if not thousands, of people might touch the same serving utensils every day.

“Buffets have always been a big attraction because offering cheap eats gets people in the doors. The theory is that they eat for a low price and gamble more,” Stutz said. “But now people don’t want to go up and serve themselves, so a lot of properties aren’t reopening their buffets. There’s a question if they’ll ever return.”

Stutz said buffets are “loss leaders” for casinos, meaning they operate at a loss to attract customers. Some Vegas buffets were rumored to lose more than $25,000 a day. Before the pandemic, that was an acceptable cost to lure visitors away from the competition. But with the public’s new caution about buffet service, social distancing restrictions that have reduced seating and income, and an anticipated decline in tourism, casinos may not be willing to carry that loss anymore.

Rosa and Robert Garcia would be very sad to see casino buffets go. The Chula Vista retirees have been visiting local casinos since Viejas opened in 1991. They’re not big gamblers, but the Garcias enjoy watching people play and they love the lobster buffets at Barona and Valley View, where they typically dined twice a month before the pandemic.

With the rewards cards and discounts they get as frequent visitors, Garcia said she and her husband could often get Barona’s $44 buffet for just $19 apiece.

“At that price it would cost us more to have dinner at Red Lobster,” Garcia said. “I think the seafood quality is higher at the casinos, too, because it’s so fresh.”

A dessert sampler plate at Jamul Casino's buffet
A dessert sampler plate prepared last week at Jamul Casino’s new seated table-service buffet.
(Courtesy photo)

The 160-seat buffet at Jamul Casino is one of the region’s smallest, offering just 30 items with a different daily theme four days a week, like barbecue Wednesdays, seafood Thursdays and lobster brunch on Sundays. Depending on the theme, the all-you-can-eat price ranges from $30 to $50.

After the Jamul Casino closed in mid-March, chief marketing officer Scott Bauer said a survey was conducted of past customers to determine how they felt about coming back and any concerns they might have related to the coronavirus.

“We asked if they wanted to eat at a buffet any longer and many answered in the affirmative,” Bauer said. “We were surprised at how many people wouldn’t have a problem going back. So we knew we had the demand but we also knew we’d have to change how it was offered.”

To adhere to new social distancing rules, seating in the Jamul Casino buffet has been reduced by nearly half to 85. Customers must wear their masks until seated and are handed single-use paper menus. Servers make a list of all the items the customer wants and then brings it to them on a single platter, as many times as they like.

Since reopening the buffet, Jamul’s Petell said there has been one surprise the staff noticed in just the first few days. With time to think about what they’re ordering, buffet customers are ordering less, and a lot less uneaten food is ending up in the landfill.

But Petell said he’s not sure that the seated experience will ever be as popular as the cooked-to-order stations at the old buffet.

“There’s something very special about having it sauteed right in front of you,” he said.

Garcia said that despite the face mask requirement and change in service style, she and her husband are looking forward to dining again at local casino buffets. But one thing that would change the experience for them would be if the buffet prices go up or the discounts are eliminated.

“We’ve got to remember that many years ago people went out to Vegas because of their 99-cent breakfasts and hot dogs. But that’s all gone now,” she said. “If those promotions are gone, the people will be gone, too.”

Updates:

9:15 AM, Jun. 09, 2020: Story has been updated to note Viejas Casino’s decision to re-close its buffet on June 5 until further notice.


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