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How buffets in eastern Idaho are bouncing back from COVID-19

Business & Money

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Chuck-A-Rama in Ammon is back open following closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. | Nate Eaton, EastIdahoNews.com

IDAHO FALLS — Buffets are back.

After suddenly closing in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all-you-can-eat restaurants in eastern Idaho are bouncing back with the support of hungry customers.

While some people have sworn off buffets for good because of the coronavirus, business is slowly returning to normal for Pizza Pie Cafe and Chuck-A-Rama.

“We had a phenomenal day yesterday at our Ammon restaurant and were just barely short of last year’s sales with half the tables,” says Rene Schuurman, the president of Mountain West Brands, which owns Chuck-A-Rama Buffet. “Our customers are supporting us, and we’re so thankful for them.”

Chuck-A-Rama has been open 53 years, and before the pandemic, the Ammon restaurant was busy every night of the week. Known for fried chicken, scones and hot rolls, some Chuck-A-Rama locations tried carryout options at the start of the pandemic but were unsuccessful, so all 11 restaurants had to completely close.

By next week, they will all be back open, with most of the chain’s 700 employees returning to work.

“We’re all a big family. Out of the 36 managers in the company, we got 35 of them back and 70% employee retention rate,” Schuurman tells EastIdahoNews.com. “We were very blessed and very fortunate to be able to get our people back.”

Chuck-A-Rama has implemented several COVID-19 safeguards so customers can enjoy their food and feel safe. Every employee wears a mask and has their temperature checked when they report for work. Half of the tables are blocked out for social distancing. And a buffet attendant greets every customer when they approach the food counters.

“She is handing out a new plate and silverware that is served in bags. She makes sure she does not give the customer a plate unless they sanitize their hands,” Schuurman says. “We want our customers to feel safe. We’ve done everything and then some to make our restaurant safe.”

Pizza Pie Cafe in Ammon re-opened in dining room several weeks ago. | Nate Eaton, EastIdahoNews.com

Similar practices are underway at Pizza Pie Cafe. The chain has restaurants in Rexburg, Ammon and Pocatello and is running about 70% to 75% of normal sales compared to this time last year, owner Matt Smith says.

“We have really good customers, and it’s been a real blessing. We’re grateful people have come back out to eat with us,” Smith says.

Pizza Pie Cafe continued to offer carry-out and delivery at most of its 14 restaurants in the beginning of the pandemic. Dining rooms re-opened several weeks ago with hand sanitizing stations, spaced-out tables, and employees serving salads, pizza and pasta on the buffet line. But some changes have been made because of customer feedback.

“People go to a buffet because they want to eat a lot of food. People don’t like someone serving them pizza. They might feel embarrassed to ask for six slices, so in the beginning, we made everyone’s pizza and salads, but we did away with it because the customers hated it,” Smith explains.

Both Chuck-A-Rama and Pizza Pie Cafe require customers to use a new plate every time they get food. Spoons and utensils on the buffet are replaced at least every 30 minutes, and logs are kept to make sure policies are followed.

Smith says Pizza Pie Cafe kept all of their managers, and “we brought back everyone who wanted their job.” He notes that many customers have said how much they enjoy being back in a restaurant chatting with their friends or family members in a booth.

“The people here have supported the restaurants really well, and we’ve been really fortunate,” he says. “We try to produce a product people want, and hopefully they come in. We can’t dwell on the negative and challenges – we focus on the positive, and we’ll get through.”

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