If South Carolina doesn’t expressly outlaw self-service dining when restaurants are allowed to reopen dining rooms, one of Myrtle Beach’s biggest buffets may stick with the format.
“We hope we don’t have to be limited,” says Matt Vigari, general manager of Captain George’s Seafood Buffet, which seats 1,087 customers. “We’ll see what we’re allowed to do first: They’re figuring out a plan in the home office if we can’t do buffet, but obviously I hope (for) buffet.”
Buffet is big business along the Grand Strand, where vacationers queue up to help themselves to steamed shellfish, fried rice and sausage links, among other buffet favorites.
But the genre has come under fire from public health organizations trying to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. In its guidance plan for reopening, obtained by The New York Times, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises restaurant owners to “avoid offering any self-serve food-or-drink options, such as buffets.”
Souplantation, a 42-year-old buffet brand, on Thursday announced it would shutter all 97 of its locations permanently in light of an earlier advisory from the Food and Drug Administration discouraging salad bars.
“The regulations are understandable, but unfortunately, it makes it very difficult to reopen,” the company’s CEO told The San Diego Union Tribune. “And I’m not sure the health departments are ever going to allow it.”
Vigari says Captain George’s, which operates four locations in three states, could operate its buffets as manned cafeteria lines if self-service is prohibited, although stationing hungry diners at appropriate physical intervals would “be a logistical nightmare,” he says.
Another option is to switch over to family-style service at the table, but Vigari says his workers aren’t trained in sit-down dining.
“Our servers are used to taking dirty dishes and bringing out clean ones,” he says, adding that even when servers have limited interactions with guests, he needs 125 of them on the floor in the busy summer season. Like many in the industry, he’s worried about bringing back enough former employees to keep Captain George’s running smoothly.
“We sent a letter out the other day, and they’ve all been responding pretty good,” he says. “But we need to know the date.”
He’s also not keen about potentially having to make his employees wear masks: “At an auto parts store, it’s not a big deal. But at a restaurant, it’s crazy.”
It’s not clear whether Vigari’s attitude is representative of the Grand Strand’s buffet industry at large. A representative of the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association did not return a message seeking comment.
A spokeswoman for The Original Benjamin’s Calabash Seafood, who immediately before the pandemic told The Post and Courier that it was “business as usual” at the 1,000-seat restaurant, also did not respond to a phone call and email.
Captain George’s closed after on-premise dining was suspended statewide, but recently rolled out a takeout menu. Vigari said it was carefully constructed to leave out fresh ingredients, such as milk and dairy. Much of the cooking has fallen to managers, who have also busied themselves cleaning carpets and scraping the gum off table undersides while they wait for a reopening signal from the state.
The takeout menu includes crab legs, corn and coleslaw, and not much else. There are 15 items in total. When Captain George’s is in free-for-all mode (or at least $37.99-for-all mode), it serves 250 different dishes.