In the early days of the pandemic, there were some people who vowed never to return to a buffet or salad bar and predicted the demise of all self-serve dining.
Rene Schuurman just tuned out the naysayers.
“I never worried,” said the president of Mountain West Brands, which owns Chuck-A-Rama Buffet restaurants. “Our roots are so deep in this community and our customers are loyal.”
While often the butt of jokes, Chuck-A-Rama is a favorite among Utah’s large families and senior citizens who are drawn to its large portions, affordable prices and comfort food menu that includes fried chicken, roast beef, potato salad and deep-fried Utah scones.
Schuurman said it was no surprise that long before July — when state health officials allowed self-serve buffets and salad bars to reopen with restrictions — Chuck-A-Rama customers were calling, emailing and posting on social media variations of the same question: “When are you reopening?”
“Please come back ASAP,” wrote one customer, “we need our favorite Utah buffet.”
“I’ve been postponing my birthday celebration” wrote another fan “until you open again.”
And at least one person now living out of state was rooting for reopening. “I’m craving uncle Chucks all the way from L.A.”
Over the past three weeks, Mountain West Brands — which also owns Market Street Grill restaurants in Salt Lake City, Cottonwood Heights and South Jordan and Grub Steak in Park City — has reopened seven of its nine Utah Chuck-A-Rama stores including Bountiful, Draper, Lehi, Murray, Ogden, Provo and St. George.
The original Salt Lake City location, 744 E. 400 South — which first opened in 1966 and serves as the company headquarters — will open Aug. 25.
The Logan store will be the last to go online in a week or so, said Schuurman, noting that the company has been able to bring back all but one of its 36 managers and about 70% of its pre-COVID workforce.
The company also owns and operates stores in Boise and Idaho Falls, which opened in June.
The successful relaunch of the stores is no accident, said Schuurman, who said he was proactive during the shutdown working with the State Health Department and Gov. Gary Herbert’s office on safety precautions that buffets could implement to keep employees and customers safe and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
One of the big worries is the number of people handling serving utensils, he said. “But it’s been our policy forever to replace the utensils whenever we put out a new salad bowl or hot bowl.”
And, he added “if you know anything about Chuck-A-Rama you know we’re busy and bowls are lucky to make it 10 minutes without needing to be replaced.”
In order to open, buffets and salad bars, restaurants must follow new safety protocols that weren’t in place before the pandemic including:
• Checking employee temperatures before each shift
• Handing plates, utensils, cups and other service items directly to customers. No self-serve.
• Replacing the serving utensils every 30 minutes.
• Placing tables at least 6-feet apart — a rule that all restaurant must follow, not just buffets.
• Limiting groups to no more than 10 people.
Patrons also are required to use hand sanitizer before entering a line and must wear a face covering in food-serving areas. Masks can be removed once diners are seated.
At Chuck-A-Rama, after using the hand sanitizers, customers also can choose to wear a glove or use a deli sheet provided by the restaurant, for additional protection, said Schuurmann. “We’re offering all kinds of ways to make people feel comfortable.”
Not all buffets in Utah are feeling as confident. Many of of the large Asian buffets are still shuttered, as are the once-popular self-serve lunch buffets at Indian restaurants. Many of the salad bars and hot bars at grocery stores also are still on hold.
“We have not reopened any of our self-serve options,” said Lindee Nance, Vice President of Marketing for Harmons Grocery stores. “It’s one of those things that we are not eager to bring back until we can do it safely.”
Nance said customized salads are still available. Customers can fill out a form listing the items and quantities they want and an employee will assemble it for them.
“It’s priced the same way, by weight,” she said, “It’s just us making it for them instead of self-serve.”
But the process is “clunky,” she admits and not as popular as the build-your-own version that made salad and soup bars popular.
It’s possible the store could implement some of the requirements called for in the state health guidelines, like having an employee stationed at the bar handing out sanitizer, gloves and containers, Nance said. But there are no immediate plans to do so.
“We’re looking at it every week.”
Even Grub Steak — Chuck-A-Rama’s sister restaurant in Park City — has not reopened its popular salad bar, said Schuurman.
No matter what precautions a buffet restaurant implements, Schuurman knows there will be critics. “Those are not our typical customers,” he said. “Our customers get it and understand us.”
In fact, the detractors represent a challenge to Schuurman, who has worked at Chuck-A-Rama for 43 years.
“They are people who have never been in before or not been in for a long time,” he said, “I know that all we have to do is get them in door and their comments will be a lot different.”