There are probably as many types of food bars as there are types of operations. Food bars can range from a simple salad bar to those offering a choice of ethnic foods. All types of operations are prospects for a food bar. Fast-food operators, family restaurants, upscale white tablecloth operations have all installed food bars.
There are several advantages to a food bar, particularly for operations facing a relatively short, high-volume lunch period. Service is rapid, and turnover is speeded. In fact, lunch is the meal period in which food bars predominate.
- From the operator’s standpoint, one of the big benefits of installing a food bar is the reduced service personnel needs, since customers serve themselves. Labor is reduced in both the dining area and kitchen. Preparing food in bulk, instead of to order, cuts a kitchen staff considerably.
- From the customer’s standpoint, the benefits are seeing what you are getting, serving yourself (thus controlling the size of portion), and, for most food bars, the opportunity to return for extra servings.
Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner
Food bars are found at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as the increasingly popular Sunday brunch buffet. The variety of foods offered has proliferated as steadily. While the salad bar is still the cornerstone, there are now soup, sandwich, fruit, entree, ethnic, and dessert bars, as well. No matter the type of food, there’s a food bar configuration for it. There are all-heated bars, refrigerated bars, and bars with no heating or refrigeration. There are also combinations of any or all of those types in one unit. Refrigeration can be mechanical or ice. Some manufacturers provide ice-cooled units with a refrigerated well that keeps ice from melting quickly.
Most heated food bars use electricity, but there are gas-heated models available. Natural gas is generally confined to fixed bars, but propane tanks are available for many mobile units. And many operators use chafers heated with conventional jellied fuel. When you add all of the different serving accessories, from soup insets to meat carving blocks, heat lamps, taco assembly racks, beverage dispensers, dispensers for ice, and dispensers for toppings for ice cream sundaes, you multiply the types of food-bar combinations possible.
Don’t forget other accessories like guards, which may be required by law. Tray rails help patrons handle trays. And some type of dispensing for plates, bowls, glasses, and cups is essential. Lighting can be the key to making the food look appealing. In some operations, room light levels may be high enough. In most dining areas, however, the food bar will benefit from additional lighting, whether from spotlights at ceiling level or lighting on the bars themselves, generally concealed under the sneeze guard support structure. To all these choices, add choices of size. Food bars are available in portable, mobile, and fixed installation models. Modular units have the advantage of permitting the operator to start out with a smaller display to see how it is received. The initial food bar can be expanded to the limits of available space without major disruption. There’s a large choice of food-bar decor as well. Most manufacturers provide a number of different surface treatments. Some models are available with replaceable panels that can be covered or painted in a texture and color scheme to match the room decor. Stainless steel top surfaces stand wear and abuse better than other surface treatments, and are easily cleaned.
Layout Is Important
In today’s cafeteria, the originally all-manned service from behind the counter has been replaced in part by self service by patrons. There are usually reach-in sandwich, salad, and dessert cases, and self-serve beverage, condiment, and flatware stations. Cafeteria operators have found that the most effective setup follows the natural meal progression: from soup to salad to appetizer to entree to dessert.
However, most operators with food bars have found that separating the dessert bar from the rest of the lineup pays off in plate-waste reduction. On the other hand, some recent studies show 17 to 23 percent of a food bar’s customers will not take a dessert when the dessert bar is separated from the main line.
There are other variations in the lineup. Some operators place soup after the salad so the danger of the soup spilling is reduced during the stop and start salad serving. Breads may be placed before or after entrees. For entree sections, many operators prefer to place vegetables before entrees as a cost control. The patron is less likely to pile up meat, poultry, or seafood if the plate is already partially filled with vegetables and potatoes.
Essential Equipment for a Great bar Operation
There are three main types of equipment required for a food bar operation: basic serving unit(s), beverage station(s), and support units. The basic serving unit, or a combination of two or more in a large food-bar setup, is central to most operations. Work with the operator to determine the need for refrigeration, heating, and plain surfaces.
Don’t forget to explore the prospect’s need for proper storage. One of the big advantages of the food bar over skirted tables is that plain, heated, or refrigerated storage may be built into the unit’s base. For many operations, where the kitchen is some distance from the food bar, it makes sense to have heated and/or refrigerated food storage space so items may be quickly replenished without repeated trips to the kitchen.
Beverage stations may be segregated by type of beverage service (hot, cold, water) or may have them combined on one unit. Hot-beverage stations usually offer brewed coffee, both regular and decaffeinated, as well as hot water for tea. Cold beverage stations generally have a carbonated dispenser and often have one or more noncarbonated dispensers for juices and milk. Support units generally consist of plate, bowl, cup and glass dispensers. There may also be flatware and napkin dispensers, and condiment stands.