March 15, 2009
Stuff your face and run
Express buffets seem like The Amazing Race where you gobble whatever food you can get just to pay less
By Huang Lijie
The allure of buffets used to be summed up by the phrase 'all you can eat'. In these belt-tightening times, however, more restaurants are sweetening their buffet deals and slashing prices by as much as 50 per cent.
But there is a catch.
You have to finish your meal within a certain time limit and, depending on the restaurant, this ranges from half an hour to 100 minutes.
Diners hungry for a bargain though are lapping up these deals, even if it means chowing down in double-quick time.
Shangri-La hotel's buffet restaurant The Line launched this concept recently. It boasts 16 food stations and an array of gastronomic offerings including raw oysters, sashimi and grilled meats.
Its weekday lunch promotion, Lunch By The Minute, lets diners who finish their meals under 30 minutes pay only $23 instead of the usual $45.
For every minute after the first half-hour, guests are charged an additional 70 cents, up to a maximum of $45.
The countdown starts after guests are seated and have ordered their drinks. The clock stops when they stop eating and ask for the bill. The staff note the start and end times according to digital time displays on TV screens placed in the restaurant.
The hotel's general manager Thierry Douin, 52, says: 'When we first came up with the idea, we had in mind time-starved business executives.
'We wanted them to enjoy an efficient lunch with a flexible price range, depending on the time they spend eating.'
Hence, the deal, introduced early last month, was initially available only to selected corporate partners.
It proved to be such a hit, however, that it was eventually opened to the public. To date, bookings and inquiries for the promotion have increased by some 20 per cent.
Ms Shirley Chiang, 51, director of a property firm and a chemical processing company, says she tried The Line's 30-minute promotion because it is priced competitively against set lunches at other restaurants, but offers a wider selection of food.
She also found the half-hour limit a reasonable duration for her to eat to her heart's content.
Dining at a normal, leisurely pace, she finished her meal of two small crabs, four oysters, seven pieces of sashimi, a Japanese handroll, a serving of ravioli, salad, fruits and an ice cream-topped crepe in 28 minutes.
One Rochester in Rochester Park also rolled out a 100-minute promotion two weekends ago.
For $38, guests enjoy a free flow of freshly shucked oysters and shots of alcoholic beverages such as vodka, tequila, gin and rum on Friday and Saturday evenings. The usual price for a shot of alcoholic beverage is $5, while an oyster costs $3.
Customers are tagged with bright green wrist-bands stating the start of their 100 minutes, which staff refer to before serving them drinks and oysters.
Ms Diane Tan, 32, beverage manager for One Rochester, says the promotion is meant to enhance the lifestyle outlet's varied offerings and attract more customers.
She declines to give figures on how business has been since the promotion was launched, but says: 'Last weekend, we had the same group of guests coming two days in a row, the second time with more friends in tow, so I guess we have a formula that works.'
Indeed, there is no denying the popularity of express buffets.
The one-hour lunch buffet special at Chinese restaurant Zhou's Kitchen - Gourmet Buffet in Jurong Point, which costs $19.80 instead of $24.80, accounts for 80 per cent of its lunch-time crowd.
At Japanese buffet restaurant chain, Kuishin-Bo, its popular 60-minute lunch special, which costs almost 25 per cent cheaper at $20.90, continues to draw queues despite the economic downturn.
Ms Winnie Loo, 33, assistant marketing and communications manager for the restaurant chain, says: 'Even though it's impossible to say that the current economic climate has had zero impact on our restaurants, sales are at a healthy margin and we do not expect to see any significant drop in the near future.'
Ms Gina Seow, 28, a business manager who has tried its express lunch buffet, says: 'It's a good deal because Japanese food is expensive and an a la carte Japanese lunch at another restaurant could easily cost more than $30.'
She adds that the hour-long time limit is more than enough for her to eat her fill.
Kuishin-Bo has other express buffet promotions too, including the Early Bird Feast, where diners enjoy an almost 15 per cent discount when they finish their dinner before 7pm from Fridays to Sundays, and Last Hour Feast, which slashes the price by almost 40 per cent when customers dine during the last hour before its closing, from Fridays to Sundays.
Brazilian churrascaria chain Carnivore, with outlets in VivoCity and Chijmes, has an express buffet with a slight twist.
There is no restriction on the dining duration but customers have to be seated between 6 and 7pm to enjoy a discount of almost 14 per cent.
The restaurants interviewed say they do not compromise on the quality of the food to sustain the discounts. Instead, they operate on the principle of economies of scale when buying ingredients to ensure that the promotions are viable for the business.
Also, because diners' meals are timed, it encourages a faster turnover, which translates into increased revenue.
While express buffets have no lack of fans, there are diners who remain sceptical about such promotions.
Mr Kevin Loo, 26, who is between jobs, says: 'I usually take at least an hour at buffets so I won't go for a 30-minute one as I might feel really sick after rushing to stuff my face in that short period of time.'
Dr Law Ngai Moh, a specialist in gastroenterology at Raffles Hospital, cautions against eating large amounts of food too quickly.
He says: 'Eating quickly will increase the risk of choking, bloating, vomiting and aspiration of food into the lungs, causing chest infection. It can also cause rapid distention of the stomach leading to fainting spells.
'Eating quickly in large amounts increases these risks by many folds.'
On a safe and healthy way to approach timed buffets, he says: 'Eat everything in small portions. Start your meal with low-calorie foods and stop eating when you are 70 to 80 per cent full.
'If the buffet is good, go back another time instead of overeating as you may end up having to pay more to see a doctor for indigestion.'
WHERE TO FIND EXPRESS BUFFET DEALS
Zhou's Kitchen - Gourmet Buffet
Where: 03-28 Jurong Point, tel: 6363-1123
Available: Weekdays, 11.30am to 2pm
Price: $19.80 instead of $24.80 for 60 minutes
What: The start time is noted by the staff after the guest is seated and the end time is called when the guest stops eating and signals for the bill.
Food: The buffet specialises in Chinese cuisine and includes signature items such as steamed crab with glutinous rice and fermented rice wine chicken. It also boasts a cold seafood station offering fresh mussels and salmon sashimi.
Where: 22 Orange Grove Road, Shangri-La Hotel, tel: 6213-4275
Available: Weekdays, from noon to 2.30pm
Price: Pay $23 if you finish your meal in under 30 minutes. Otherwise, an additional 70 cents is charged per minute, up to a maximum of $45, which is the usual price of the buffet.
From Tuesday, the hotel will be launching an age-based discount scheme called Flash Your Age at all its five food and beverage outlets, including The Line.
Guests who celebrate their birthdays at the hotel on the actual day enjoy a discount on the total food bill that is equivalent to their current age.
The discount is valid for a party of no more than eight people, including the celebrant. Reservations are required. Blackout dates apply on public holidays, eve of public holidays and special festive occasions.
What: The start time is noted by the staff after the guest has been seated and drinks are ordered. The end time is when the guest stops eating and signals for the bill.
Food: Pick from 16 food stations, which offer a variety of cuisines and dishes including crab, raw oysters, grilled meats, sashimi and sushi.
Where: 01-161, VivoCity, tel: 6376-9939, 01-29A, Chijmes, 30 Victoria Street, tel: 6376-9939
Available: Daily, 5.30 to 6.30pm at VivoCity and 6 to 7pm at Chijmes
Price: At VivoCity, guests pay $36 instead of $42 on weekdays and $39 instead of $45 on weekends. At Chijmes, guests pay $39 instead of $45 daily.
What: Guests must be seated within the stipulated time to enjoy the discount. There is no limit on the dining duration.
Food: Besides offering an array of grilled meats such as beef rump steak (right), lamb leg and chicken thighs, there is also a salad bar and hot food section which includes feijoada, a classic Brazilian stew of black beans and pork trimmings.
Where: 02-41A Great World City, tel: 6836-5877, 03-002 Suntec City Tower 1, tel: 6238-7088, B1-47 Jurong Point Shopping Centre, tel: 6792-9286
Available: 60-minute Lunch: weekdays, 11.30am to 3pm, Early Bird Feast: Fridays to Sundays, 5.30 to 7pm, Last Hour Feast: Fridays to Sundays, 9 to 10pm
Price: 60-minute Lunch: $20.90 instead of $28.90 at Great World City and $26.90 at Suntec City and Jurong Point, Early Bird Feast: $37.90 instead of $43.90 at Great World City and $33.90 instead of $39.90 at Suntec City and Jurong Point, Last Hour Feast: $28.90 instead of $43.90 at Great World City and $24.90 instead of $39.90 at Suntec City and Jurong Point
What: The start time is noted by the staff after the guest is seated and the end time is called when he or she stops eating and signals for the bill.
Food: Everything from sushi and sashimi to Japanese noodles such as ramen and soba, and desserts.
Where: 1 Rochester Park, tel: 6773-0070
Available: Fridays and Saturdays, from 6 to 10pm
Price: Pay $38 for 100 minutes
What: Guests are tagged with a bright green wrist band stating the start time, which staff refer to before serving them food and drinks.
Food: Enjoy a free flow of Sydney rock oysters and shots of alcoholic beverages including vodka, gin, tequila and rum.
APPETITE AND DECORUM LOST
Spooked by the blinking colon on the digital clock, Andy Chen, a LifeStyle deputy editor, just kept shovelling food into his mouth without actually tasting what he ate.
In theory, an express buffet is a win-win situation. The restaurant enjoys more customers in the same time given the higher turnover while the diner pays less for as much food as he can shovel into his mouth within a time limit.
But after attacking The Line's Lunch By The Minute buffet in half an hour, I realised I suffered heavy losses.
I lost my decorum, stuffing my mouth with yet more food even while there was food already inside. I lost my civility, practically steamrolling over anyone in my path who did not move as fast as the Road Runner. And I lost my appetite for the rest of the day, so severe was my heartburn.
My wife would argue there was not much to lose on the first two counts to begin with, but even she found it mildly alarming that I skipped dinner.
Still, I am a fast eater, so the task of finishing lunch in under 30 minutes to enjoy a 50 per cent discount is a walk in the park for me.
It was not a question of whether I could fill up in that time. The point was to see if I could eat what I wanted, as much as I wanted, in half an hour - no more, but no less either. If I could not do it, I would be paying half-price for half the satisfaction and what would be the point of that?
After I was seated, the restaurant staff explained to me how Lunch By The Minute works: I had 30 minutes.
A small alarm clock would be placed on my table. When it sounded, a waiter would ask if I wanted the bill; if I did, all cups and plates would be cleared from my table immediately. If I wanted to extend, it would cost 70 cents per extra minute.
Then off I went - and ran into my first problem: There was almost no time to think, let alone properly strategise the meal. I just grabbed from The Line's 16 'theatre kitchens' whatever looked fairly appetising, while walking at a brisk clip.
If there was a queue at a station, I could not afford to wait. I moved to the next station without people, never mind if the tandoori chicken did not really go with the Chinese-style braised beef cheek.
The first round I carried just one plate; subsequently I abandoned all appearances of being civilised and piled high two plates, one in each hand.
Back at the table with my spoils, I faced another demon. The clock was playing mind games with me. Its digital numbers and blinking colon seemed to dare me to slow down. Spooked, I just kept stuffing my face, all kinds of flavours merging unmemorably down my congested throat.
Eating fast naturally is different from rushing. The former goes unnoticed by me, if not everyone else; the latter is stressful because I cannot help but be aware that my mouth is filled to the point that I cannot chew properly.
The Line should cordon off a special area just for express buffet customers (to prevent their embarrassment), but alas, there is no such thing.
In 20 minutes, I had probably eaten enough for two adults, perhaps three not-so-greedy ones. But I ploughed on.
By the time I wolfed down mini eclairs along with some cut fruit, any definition of enjoyment had been abandoned. I couldn't remember the taste of most things I ate, except that the beef cheek was gorgeously tender and the yang chow fried rice exuded the fragrance of a wok's breath.
In all, I ate about seven plates of food, including 20 pieces of sashimi (salmon, tuna, octopus). I probably ate my $23++ worth of food. But since when was the pleasure of eating measured in volume alone, even for a non-gourmand like me?
Japanese buffet eatery Kuishin-Bo's 60-minute Express Lunch, which costs $20.90++ instead of the usual $28.90 (weekdays), is a more humane promotion - and not just because there is no alarm clock to terrorise diners.
An hour is plenty of time for a decently paced meal and just about enough for most diners to sample most of the 16 food stations, including sashimi, tempura, teppanyaki and sukiyaki.
There is time to consider what dishes to have a second helping of, but not so much that people would be tempted to hit the food stations for another round.
The deep-fried soft-shell crab was a little too oily, but I still had about five pieces of it, sucker that I am for fried food. Sashimi, which is expensive and easy to swallow at speed, is everyone's fave at buffets. I had two large helpings of it.
If sashimi is a no-brainer, starch for most people is a no-no. But I, being a carb nut, still had two scoops of lovely Japanese steamed rice and sweet Japanese curry with carrots.
All in, I ate about the same amount as at The Line - seven plates, maybe eight, plus a small bowl of ginseng chicken porridge (more starch!).
The restaurant at Great World City, though smaller than The Line, saw a less frenetic crowd, possibly because the difference between the full-priced buffet and the express one was not as big, so most might have taken their time.
Thirty minutes at The Line, on the other hand, scared me into thinking that time and appetite waited for no kiasu Singaporean.
Afraid that I might not eat my money's worth, I ate more than I needed or wanted.