All-you-can-eat buffet © Thinkstock/Jupiterimages

The Basics

It's back on the menu: All you can eat

Restaurants from big chains to mom-and-pop diners are reviving the endless meal. But who benefits more -- the customers or the eateries?

By The Big Money

For a while last summer, it looked like the moderates might win the tug of war for the minds and stomachs of American diners.

The culinary arms race of ever-larger portions had started to taper off, "supersize" became a dirty word, and commodity prices, including those of many basic ingredients, were skyrocketing.

But then consumers began slamming the brakes on spending. Restaurants, by nature a discretionary splurge, started feeling the pinch. Third-quarter same-store sales -- sales at stores open at least a year -- were down 2.5% at full-service restaurants, according to market research firm Technomic.

To compete in a newly cutthroat landscape, restaurant-management companies are turning to that relic of retirement-community buffets and 1980s-era Las Vegas: the all-you-can-eat plan.

In recent months, several nationwide casual-dining brands have included all-you-can-eat pricing options on their menus, and there's evidence that local chains and mom-and-pop eateries are also running promos encouraging customers to belly up to the trough. Pancake purveyor IHOP offered all-you-can-eat buttermilk pancakes for 5 bucks, and seafood chain Red Lobster rolled out an all-you-can-eat shrimp deal.

The tactic is a bid to keep newly budget-minded customers from defecting to the drive-through. Such trading down is a perennial thorn in the side of casual sit-down restaurants during downturns, although they try to lure fine-dining customers to trade down themselves. The marketing director for Cici's, a Coppell, Texas, pizza chain that operates entirely on an all-you-can-eat model, says its customer feedback indicates that a growing number of diners are trading down from pricier eateries.

Why restaurants do it

What's the appeal of all-you-can-eat fare for the restaurants? Despite the potential for abuse (there are entire communities of blogs dedicated to the task of socking a restaurant for as much as possible over the course of one all-you-can-eat visit), it does have a track record of getting people in the door.

You might buy more: Better yet, it's inevitable that some of these diners will change their minds before ordering and opt for higher-margin a la carte items. Even if one member of a party sets out to gorge on the deal, the rest of the table will most likely order a la carte, so if the restaurant does lose money on individual big eaters, their companions' orders, as well as ancillary items such as drinks -- especially alcoholic ones -- and desserts make up the shortfall.

The food's cheap: There are other tricks of the all-you-can-eat trade. The stuff-yourself-silly item is usually a cheap water- or starch-based commodity like soup or pancakes.

For instance, Darden Restaurants' Olive Garden brand ran an "endless pasta bowl" promotion this fall, and it offers a continuing all-you-can-eat lunch option that includes soup, salad and bread sticks. It's worth noting that Olive Garden out-earned most of its casual-dining peers in the third quarter; its same-store sales rose 2.4%.

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Fine dining done cheaply © Corbis
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You can't take it home: All-you-can-eat deals are also sometimes bundled with side dishes or as part of a combo meal. In some cases, the wait staff is trained to enforce the "clean-plate rule": Just like at Mom's, you can't have the second or third serving until you've eaten what's already in front of you. Otherwise, the endless dinner could become the endless doggie bag.

There are also some subtle cues -- such as using smaller plates and waiting longer to clear empty dishes from the table -- that can keep diners from eating a restaurant out of business.

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