Buffet Behavior

Cornell University is famous for their School of Hotel Administration, which conducts research in many areas of hospitality Chinese all you can eat buffetmanagement. Recently two faculty members (Drs. Andrew Hanks and Brian Wansink) did several studies on the behavior of customers at all-you-can eat buffets, and came up with some interesting conclusions:

  • Obese customers usually sit at tables rather than booths, and they’re more likely to sit facing the buffet.
  • Most of the obese customers begin eating immediately, while over 70% of normal-weight customers look over the selection before making a choice. Even so, 75% of diners take some of the first food they see, so the layout of the buffet is crucial for the house’s revenue management.
  • At breakfast buffets, diners who load up on richer foods (eggs, grits, biscuits and gravy) tend to take more food on their plates than those who opt for healthier items such as fresh fruit, granola and yoghurt.
  • At Chinese buffets, customers of normal weight are three times more likely to use chopsticks than their obese counterparts. They were also twice as likely to place a napkin in their laps.
  • At the conclusion of the meal, 6% of obese customers had leftovers on their plates, compared with 10.6% of normal weight customers.

The two researchers also came up with some fascinating observations about the relationship between price and satisfaction. At an Italian buffet in upstate New York, diners who paid twice as much for the meal enjoyed it 11% more than those who paid less—a perfect illustration of the theory of perceived value. In addition, people who paid the cheaper price for the buffet were more likely to feel that they overate, while both groups actually consumed the same amount of food.

Very obviously, the experience of the all-you-can-eat buffet is perceived very differently—either as an excuse to overeat (for the obese) or as an extended range of choices (for people of normal weight). The bad news, according to the CDC, is that nearly 70% of Americans are now overweight, and 35.9% are obese (meaning at least 20% or 30 pounds over their ideal weight). When Michael Bloomberg hears about this research, he’s going to forget all about super-sized sodas.


Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press; his second book, Moonshine Nation, is forthcoming from Lyons press is July. For more information, go to amazon.com


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