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Before COVID-19, a cruise ship buffet was widely known and praised as a free-for-all smorgasbord, but the self-service onboard food experience is likely to change moving forward. However, the switch might not be as big as expected nor last forever.
Just like in Las Vegas, buffets have been a staple of the cruise experience for decades. Transcending a mere salad bar, lineups usually amass a huge array of cold and hot items from charcuterie to dessert and everything in between, all calling for guests to customize and plate ad infinitum.
Buffet arrangements vary with some being a straightforward spread of courses, while others feature food on separate stations or islands. Others utilize some hybrid of the two. In either case, one thing that will probably not be modified is the massive selection. The means in which it is served, however, almost certainly will be updated to avoid the spread of any germs or disease.
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Before entering a buffet, cruise ships and riverboats have already done a very good job of providing either hand sanitizer stations or handwashing sinks. The effort to encourage and enforce clean hands prior to touching serving utensils is admirable, but taking away shared utensils is a foolproof guarantee of cleanliness. Of course, the hope after this pandemic is that the general public will become better about their own basic hygiene, which is the first line of viral defense.
Beyond this, many cruise lines already convert their buffets to full service at the very beginning of a sailing to lessen the likelihood of a norovirus spread. Rather than guests manually dishing up preferences onto a plate, crew are positioned behind sneeze guards and do it on their behalf. It stands to reason that this will likely be a temporary solution for cruises upon their return.
Some situations, as on Carnival Cruise Line, include a mix of serving styles where the staff, following guests’ directions, compose a bespoke hamburger or burrito at Guy’s Burger Joint or BlueIguana Cantina, respectively, only for diners to complete their dish at a condiment bar. It’s a good bet that such bars will become fully served, as well.
Or, an alternative approach could be to treat buffet venues like regular restaurants with no guest presence of any kind where the food is located. On vessels, particularly riverboats, where serving stations are more tightly packed, this could prove helpful to avoid congregating and promote social distancing for a time.
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Even this idea is not entirely foreign to cruisers. Take, for instance, Holland America Line: Its Canaletto Italian restaurant is essentially a redressing of the buffet for full service. Guests sit at buffet tables topped with more elegant linens as waiters deliver courses from the buffet galley.
The remaining question, of course, is timing. The extent of food being fully served, either quickly from the buffet line or slowly to tables — which themselves may be limited in quantity for greater spacing in between — might require scheduling assigned seating or at least entry times. However, this would throw a massive wrench into the beloved freedom of picking and choosing bites to eat at leisure. So, chances are cruise lines will do all they can to work around this hurdle, perhaps including the reduction of ship-wide passenger capacities to start.
This is all to say there is still much to be considered before ocean ships and riverboats begin operating again, and just how much the onboard experience will actually change and for how long is to be determined.