By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The coronavirus pandemic hit restaurants hard, especially buffet restaurants. What used to be an advantage for buffet restaurants, has now become a nightmare. Buffet restaurateurs, with thin profit margins, make their money on its appeal to a broad base of customers and big gatherings because of its variety and unlimited amount of food for diners and the venue’s size. The more packed the restaurant and the quicker the turnover, the fresher its food—the better the profits. That is the buffet restaurant’s recipe for success.
However, COVID destroys that formula. To prevent the virus from spreading, social distancing is required at any big public gathering. It restricts the number of diners in one table to no more than five people. Gone are the big parties for birthdays, babies, weddings, graduations, promotions, festivals, holidays, company events, and any other type of celebrations. Those profitable occasions have vanished.
Without the volume of customers, how can buffet restaurants survive? What can they do? I have been wondering how Renton’s Feast Buffet, one of the best Asian buffet restaurants in the Greater Seattle area, has been doing since COVID. I called the owner two months ago during Gov. Jay Inslee’s order for sheltering-in.
Suki Poon, owner of the 25,000-square-foot restaurant that opened five years ago, was not too distressed.
“There’s nothing we can do. A pandemic occurs once in 100 years. We can’t fight that. We just have to wait for things to get better.” The consolation is, her restaurant has received the federal Payment Protection Program loan and support from her landlord.
Things did get better. Washington state’s COVID infection cases have declined, even though we were the first state to report a case of the virus. We are now one of the few states to have the virus under control and the infection rates and deaths are way lower compared to other states.
Feast reopened on Sept. 10. I was curious how its reopening went after being closed for six months. But I was unable to visit the restaurant due to hazardous air created by the wildfires in our state and from Oregon, and we had to postpone our visit. Sometimes, you wonder why misfortune stacks together all at once. Last Friday, the air cleared a little, and my husband and I went to Feast. We were not sure about dining in, so we decided on take-out.
Arriving at Feast
Feast has implemented all the safety precautions, including temperature check upon arrival. Social distancing marks were on seats, floor, and tables. Plastic gloves, hand sanitizers, spoons, and forks were on every serving counter. All the counters were wiped clean.
The last time I ate there, it was like a circus. There were many parties in its huge banquet room for 20 to 50 people, and a big screen television. Feast’s capacity is 580. Now, the restaurant is quiet with much fewer customers, not even half full. According to the state guideline, restaurants can serve at only 50% capacity. I don’t know how the state can enforce that. I feel sorry for restaurateurs. It’s tough to run a restaurant with so many restrictions these days.
I guess we picked a good day. Friday night offers lobsters. It’s a little bit more expensive. But it’s worth it. Oyster lovers would be delighted to see all the raw oysters with shells displayed on the trays.
The sushi bar is filled with colorful and palatable items. I helped myself to several pieces of raw salmon. And fish eggs of course, they are delicious and have great nutrients. I would never say “no” to California rolls.
Besides the sushi sections, Feast provides a wide variety of dim sum and a noodle bar. If you like ramen, you can create your own noodle bowl by picking your own ingredients, such as meats, vegetables, mushrooms, and all kinds of goodies. You can do soup noodles or stir-fried. I enjoy noodles, but decided not to have it this time, as they are filling. That evening, my goal was to eat like a horse.
Feast’s specialty is Asian buffets, and I am amazed so many American cuisines are available, and more. For instance, steak, prime rib, pizza, macaroni and cheese, salads, and jello are still part of the attraction. Last time, I treated my grand niece and nephew at Feast, they just loved its marshmallow candies.
Feast still serves those popular kids’ items.
Oh, the dessert bar is just as beautiful and tempting as the last time I visited.
There must have been over 20 kinds of sweets. I like the dessert servings. Each ofthem is cut or served in a small container. For desserts, sampling many kinds was my goal, rather than eating a big serving of one kind.
Its seafood varieties are the best. Besides lobsters, you can eat Alaskan crab legs, shrimp, stuffed crab, cooked oysters, stuffed mussels with cream sauce, clams, fish, and more. Over at the poultry section, I picked up two salty chickens and one roast duck drumsticks. What could be better than meat with bones! And those bird legs are not greasy. Dr. Catherine Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition, wrote that meat with bones is better for your health because you can also eat the fat, bone, marrow, skin, and other connective tissue. The most important factor is, meat with bones taste so much better.
Dine in or take-out
I tried to squeeze in as much food as I could in my take-out box. Before I finished, my husband asked, “Do you want to eat here instead? I am comfortable here.”
The fact he changed his mind showed that he was at ease with the social distancing changes. The atmosphere was pleasant with little noise. The last time I was there, I couldn’t hear what my friends were saying as it was very crowded and noisy.
“Too late,” I said. “I would like to eat here, too, but I already filled up my box.” I was quite efficient—taking photos of the restaurant and picking up food from the counter simultaneously.
My mother used to laugh at me for having a sparrow’s stomach. “You small eaters don’t get your money’s worth in a buffet restaurant.” Usually after two servings, I declared, “Done!” Most friends laughed at me for “being ripped-off,” “defeated,” and “useless.” But this time, I did well…The amount of food I put in my take-out box was way more than the amount I was able to consume. Those leftovers from my take-out box carried over for one more lunch and dinner the next day.
My husband did even better with his take-out box. When we paid, we learned that take-out is based on weight. Also, the cashier opened our box and checked what kind of food we picked. His take-out was more expensive than mine because of the many lobsters and Alaskan crab legs he took. And I forgot about the lobsters, since I was working at the same time. I was glad my husband remembered to fill his box with several pieces of lobsters. We met a non-Asian couple and a kid outside Feast. They raved about the food.
“It’s amazing,” said the wife. “Love their sushi.” Yes, I rate the sushi selection high, too. In fact, I would give high marks to Feast for all the adjustments they made to accommodate during the pandemic. And its food was as delicious as my past visits. They were able to keep their standard—not an easy task. We enjoyed our take-out at home with varieties of food, including dessert.
It will take time before restaurants can get back to normal. People are still hesitant to dine in restaurants. One server shook her head and said business is not good. Another one said, “It gets better every day.”
It is hard to run a restaurant these days, especially for buffet dining when diners cancel their parties for the year. With the pandemic, every business owner has to be more patient and resilient than before. I am so glad Feast has reopened. To draw customers, it now offers free drinks (except alcohol) until the end of September. Also, I was thrilled to see many people working there. A Feast manager said the restaurant tries to employ as many people as possible like before. Jobs are key to keep our community healthy.
If you enjoy all-you-can-eat, varieties of food at a reasonable price, Feast is your kind of place. If you have a big family, just sit at two or three tables for social distancing purposes. If you have not dined in restaurants lately, do take-out like us. Asian restaurants are the backbone of our community’s economy. Now is the time for us to support the restaurants in our community.
Feast Buffet is located at 485 Renton Center Way SW, Renton. It’s open 7 days a week.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.