Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here to commemorate the life of a great American institution. Its health had been in decline for years, and it had many underlying conditions, but it bore its pain in quiet dignity, until COVID marched into town, and took its soul. It will now suffer no more, it was buried without much fanfare, and we likely will not see it or its offspring for many years to come.
We are here to reflect upon, and indeed find meaning in the tumultuous life and times of the all-you-can-eat buffet. That infamous American contribution to the world, copied by so many, yet quintessentially American, was born in the 1940’s in Las Vegas, NV, and died all over the US at the same time, during the COVID lockdown.
Of all the possible restaurant configurations the one most likely to spread disease is the buffet, where everyone touches the same serving utensils, eats food everyone else breathed over, and stands in line elbow to elbow while waiting to heap their plates. With videos from the Japanese news outlet NHK showing how easily disease can spread at a buffet racking up millions of views and countless articles, the buffet knew his end was near. Then the FDA recommended discontinuing self-serve stations, and even Georgia, that incredibly permissive state, requested that all restaurants that reopen should not have any buffet areas.
Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, two famous buffet restaurant chains, closed all 97 of their locations permanently, stating that they have no intention of reopening. Golden Corral, arguably the most famous American Buffet chain, just reopened their 100th location (out of 483) but they have removed the buffet, which sounds almost as sad as Kentucky Fried Chicken removing the chicken from the menu. Home Town Buffet and Old Country Buffet have started reopening without the buffet, which is like Dunkin Donuts not serving any donuts. The buffet has gone the way of the horse drawn carriage, the spear, and the top hat; off to a better world.
But how did it ever work in the first place? You charge people a relatively low price and let them munch as much as they want? The first buffet ever, according to legend was put out by Herb McDonald, a manager at the El Rancho Casino in Las Vegas in an attempt to keep gamblers in the casino on a slow night. After seeing its success, he introduced the 24-Hour Buckaroo Buffet, which only cost $1, and offered “every possible variety of hot and cold entrees to appease the howling coyote in your innards!” according to their flyer. But the Buckaroo Buffet never made the casino money, it was a loss leader to get people into the casino, where they would then donate their money back to the casino at the tables and slots.
Most buffets must work on a different system, because up until COVID there were thousands of buffets across the nation, and they were not loss leaders, so how do you make money when charging between $12 and $20, and allowing people to eat to their hearts content? Let’s learn the secrets behind the buffet:
- They save money by having significantly less staff than other restaurants. Obviously, there are no waiters and busboys, just people to clean the tables in between customers and refill the buffet dishes. The food is not being plated beautifully by line cooks, there are no individual orders which take time, and most of the food consists of items that can be mass produced in huge batches that will last all day or most of the day. Additionally, food is never sent back to the kitchen because a customer wants it a bit more well-done, if a customer doesn’t like something he just throws it out.
- The quality of the food is not the highest and most of what they’re serving comes frozen and prepackaged, so you’re doing more heating and serving than actual culinary art. Additionally, you buy your food is such great quantities that pricing is lower than usual.
- There is some reuse of unused food (untouched chicken going into tomorrow’s goulash or chicken lo mein), but buffets work really hard to understand the customer expectations and end the day with as little left over food as possible, because once a serving spoon hits a platter, the whole platter can’t come back into the kitchen.
- You make sure to put the low-cost items first on the buffet, usually carbs that fill people up cheaply like French fries, pasta, and breads, and only further down the line do people get to the more expensive proteins. According to studies, about two thirds of your plate will be filled from the first few items on the buffet. Seventy five percent of people will take from the first dish, no matter what it is.
- The plate size at a buffet is smaller than standard plates, so that you can only load up so much at once. People rarely go back to their seats with a half-empty plate, so you want them to fill it with less. Also, once they are at their seats and feel full, they are less likely to come back to the buffet for more, but if the food is in front of them, they’ll eat more.
- They use larger than usual serving utensils for the cheap foods, and smaller than usual utensils for the expensive food. Customers can fill half a plate with one scoop of fries, but when they get to the meat, the tongs are small, and the meat is cut into smaller chunks.
- Often the higher priced items will be literally hidden in some corner almost invisible. This way they can advertise that the item is offered but hopefully very few people will take advantage of it.
- Interestingly, you can’t charge too little or people won’t enjoy their food. In a study conducted by Cornell Food & Brand Lab, customers on separate days were served the exact same buffet of pizza, pasta, breadsticks, salad and soup, but some days the price was $4 and some days the price was $8. After interviewing the diners, they found that those who payed $4 consistently rated the experience and food lower than those who paid $8. So the good news is that you can’t charge too little.
- The buffet business is all about quantity not quality. People go there expecting to eat massive quantities of food, not high quality food. And they make their money from the high numbers of people who come through their doors. Most buffets have very large dining room (4,000 sqft and up), and have a large amount of people coming through over the course of the day. They may only make an average of $1-2 per person, but with hundreds coming every day, they can manage a six figure profit each year.
Of course in a COVID or even Post-COVID world, quantity is going to change, making the buffet model unsustainable, so we can bid our farewells to the buffet for the next few years, but in the meantime let’s learn a thing or two from this exiting American institution:
- Don’t fill up your plate with the French Fries. In life, we often have to choose between more immediate pleasures that don’t benefit us in the long run, the empty carbs, or the more significant pleasures, usually the ones that come through achieving something instead of acquiring something, that contain better nutrition, the proteins that help us build muscle. They are usually further down the path, and you need to ignore the enticing carbs to get to them, but it’s always worth the wait.
- You can get quantity in life or you can get quality, but the two rarely mix. You can have hundreds of friends, or a few friends and many acquaintances. You can learn a lot or you can learn deep. You can do a lot of things at the same time, or you can do one really well. This doesn’t mean that quality is always the most important, we just need to decide if we want fine dining or buffet, and not expect to get both in the same place.
We may sometimes struggle to understand how it can be that such a tiny sliver of the world population is living a life in line with Hashem’s plan, but He Himself says (Deut 7:7), “Not because you are more numerous than any people did the Lord delight in you and choose you, for you are the least of all the peoples. But because of the Lord’s love for you, and because He keeps the oath He swore to your forefathers, the Lord took you out with a strong hand and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.”
- There’s also a side to quantity that is very desirable. Buffets can thrive despite only making $1 a customer because they have such a large quantity of customers, over 100,000 a year! When it comes to good deeds, there are the big acts of sacrifice or challenge that we may do infrequently, but the majority of our good deeds are small ones, but they add up in a powerful way. As the Talmud tell us (Bava Basra, 9B), “coin by coin, it adds up to a big account.” We can thrive on doing dozens of small and easy good deeds each day. An extra smile for a friend in need, an extra few seconds to say a proper blessing before eating, an extra three minutes to call our parents, keep it up for long enough and we have a beautiful stock portfolio built up for our eternal retirement!
There’s probably a few more valuable lessons to be gleaned from the buffet saga, but they are so deeply hidden behind that massive basket of assorted breads and under the big bowl of iceberg lettuce, that I don’t think I even saw them. So we’ll have to stick to these ones, we don’t want to go back to the buffet and refill our plate again, that’s where the trouble starts!
Pasha Dvar Torah
This week’s parsha, Bamidbar, talks about the different censuses that took place in the second year of the Jew’s sojourn in the wilderness. There are two separate censi (that is the incorrect term as censuses is correct, but it is a Latin word, so I like to pluralize it the way we pluralize other Latin words, namely with a suffix of i) that are talked about in our parsha. The first one counted the entire Jewish people except for the tribe of Levi, and the second one counted the tribe of Levi. Before describing the census of the Levites, the Torah discusses their genealogy briefly:
“These are the descendants of Aharon and Moshe, on the day that G-d spoke to Moshe” (Numbers 3:1)
Rashi points out a refreshing idea: [Scripture] mentions only the sons of Aharon, yet they are called the descendants of Moshe —because he taught them Torah. This teaches us that one who teaches another’s son Torah is considered as if he fathered him. (Rashi, on loc.)
Rashi points out that this fits with the end of the verse; “On the day that G-d spoke to Moshe”- They became his descendants, since he taught them what he had learned from the mouth of the Almighty.
The idea is beautiful, but the only problem is that the Torah seems to be calling them the sons of Aharon on the day that Moshe heard the commandments from G-d, not the day that he taught the commandments to Aharon and his sons. According to what we’re saying, the Torah should have said “These are the descendants of Aharon and Moshe, on the day that Moshe spoke the word of G-d to them.”
The Nachal Eliyahu learns from this that the job of a teacher, mentor, or leader does not begin when they start teaching, but rather when they learn the material themselves. A person who is going to teach something to others needs to learn it in a far more comprehensive way because the people he teaches are different than him and may look at an issue in a different manner.
Therefore, even while Moshe was learning the Torah from Ha-shem, it was as if his teaching job had started, and that’s why the Torah begins referring to Moshe as the father of his students on the day that G-d spoke to him.
(I know this is an oft-repeated concept of mine, but I believe it is fundamental, so it bears discussion from many angles.) We are all teachers and leaders. Whether it be our children we lead, our neighborhood, actual students, or even friends that look to us as a role model, we all teach. In that vein, it is important for us to learn things in a way that they will translate fluidly into lessons for others. Then we can start our teaching even while we’re learning, our leading even while we’re following!
The first Parsha in the fourth book of the Bible, called “Numbers,” starts off by earning the book its title with a counting of the Jewish people tribe by tribe. Rashi explains that since the Jewish people are so precious to G-d, He constantly counts us, just as one would count his treasures numerous times (remember that nursery rhyme, “the king was in his counting house, counting all his money…”).
Nachmanides gives three reasons for the counting, including the idea that this was a way for each and every Jew to get personal attention from Moshe and Aaron, and to be counted as a unique individual amongst the larger Jewish nation. The sum total was 603,550 males of age for army service , which was twenty to sixty years old (not bad for a people that had only 70 people descend into Egypt a mere 210 years earlier!). This did not include the tribe of Levi, whom G-d would later command Moshe to count separately. One of the reasons the Levites were counted separately is because they didn’t serve in the army, as they were serving in the Temple. Additionally, there would later be a decree that the people from the general census would die during the forty years of wandering in the desert because of a major sin they had committed. G-d didn’t want the Levites to be part of this census, because they were the only entire tribe that remained faithful to G-d during the sin of the Golden Calf.
The next part of the Parsha deals with the layout of the camp in which the Jews traveled in the desert. Basically, it was as follows. The Tabernacle was in the innermost camp, surrounded on three sides by the Levites and on the fourth by the Kohanim, or priests. Surrounding them were four sets of three tribes spreading out to the East, South, West, and North (an easy way to remember that is Eat Soggy Wheaties Never). Each set of three had a special banner, and the layout paralleled the layout Jacob commanded his children to use when carrying his bier to Israel from Egypt. It also imitated the manner in which four sets of heavenly angels surround G-d’s throne. (I’ve been trying to get my kids to sit in such an orderly form around our dinner table, but no luck so far!)
The Torah then enumerates the progeny of Aaron, but calls them the offspring of Moshe and Aaron. Being that Moshe was the leader who taught them Torah, he had a spiritual paternal role. It is fascinating to see how the greater a leader becomes in the Torah world, the more obvious it becomes that he feels as if each and every Jew is his own child.
The Torah continues with G-d telling Moses that the tribe of Levi will forever serve in the Temple, instead of the firstborns who were originally supposed to serve. This was due to each group’s respective role in the Golden Calf crisis of 1312 BCE (the Levites abstained and objected: the firstborns were among the participants). Following this announcement, G-d tells Moshe to make a separate census of the tribe of Levi. After the census is a special ceremony in which the Levites redeem the firstborns and the sacred responsibility of service passes from one group to the other.
The last part of the Parsha deals with a topic that will be continued next week, the transport of the Tabernacle. The tribe of Levi was split into four groups. The progeny of Aaron became the Kohanim, the priests, and their role was to perform all the primary services in the Temple, such as bringing the offerings, lighting the Menorah and burning the incense. The other three groups, the families of Gershon, Kehas, and Mirari were the Levites, and they provided the ancillary services, such as opening and closing the gates, transporting the Tabernacle and its vessels, and singing during the offering of the sacrifices. (I am a Levite, and definitely inherited my Levite vocal cords, so you can all feel free to stop by my office to hear a rendition of Hava Nagila in its full chazzanish glory or in the full glory of chazzanut.)
When the Tabernacle had to move from place to place (it moved over 30 times during the 40 years in the desert, and this was before the times of the double-wide trailers) it was the job of the Levites to transports it. Here the Torah tells us the breakdown of the different families’ responsibilities. The family of Kehas merited to move the most holy vessels, such as the Menorah, Holy Table, and the Holy Ark. Since these vessels were so holy, they had to wait for the Kohanim to wrap them in special moving cloths (there was no Tumi® luggage in those days), before they could transport them.
Let’s end with one last lesson from the carrying of the vessels. The Sages tell us that the Holy Ark, which contained the Tablets and the Torah, actually lifted itself into the air and carried the Levites who were assigned to carry it! If that was the case, why does the Torah tell us to appoint Levites to “carry” it: why don’t we just let it fly by itself? This is meant to be a lesson for us. When we support a Torah lifestyle or Torah institutions, we need to remember that although on the outside it appears as though we are carrying the Torah, in truth, we are the ones being elevated, uplifted, and supported by it!
Quote of the week: A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something. – Samuel Fremont
Random Fact of the Week: 85,000,000 tons of paper are used each year in the U.S!
Funny Line of the Week: I had a friend who was a clown. When he died, all his friends went to the funeral in one car.
Have a Remarkable Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham