A buffet restaurant is one where customers can fill their plates with a variety of food for a set price. Normally buffet restaurants pick a particular theme, such as Mexican or Chinese, and then choose different variations of standard dishes to offer. Buffets help communities by exposing them to different types of food without making them buy a full plate of something they may not like.
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Learn how to start your own Buffet Restaurant and whether it is the right fit for you.
Start a buffet restaurant by following these 10 steps:
- Plan your Buffet Restaurant
- Form your Buffet Restaurant into a Legal Entity
- Register your Buffet Restaurant for Taxes
- Open a Business Bank Account & Credit Card
- Set up Accounting for your Buffet Restaurant
- Get the Necessary Permits & Licenses for your Buffet Restaurant
- Get Buffet Restaurant Insurance
- Define your Buffet Restaurant Brand
- Create your Buffet Restaurant Website
- Set up your Business Phone System
There is more to starting a business than just registering it with the state. We have put together this simple guide to starting your buffet restaurant. These steps will ensure that your new business is well planned out, registered properly and legally compliant.
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STEP 1: Plan your business
A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. It will help you map out the specifics of your business and discover some unknowns. A few important topics to consider are:
- What are the startup and ongoing costs?
- Who is your target market?
- How much can you charge customers?
- What will you name your business?
Luckily we have done a lot of this research for you.
What are the costs involved in opening a buffet restaurant?
The median cost to open a restaurant (without buying the land) is about $225,000, but there are ways to cut your costs. Because buffets can be successful regardless of the neighborhood you’re located in, you may be able to find an affordable location and furnish it with used equipment and supplies (e.g., tables, chairs, decor, etc.) to save money.
What are the ongoing expenses for a buffet restaurant?
Owners should factor in the following costs for a buffet restaurant:
- Restaurant equipment costs
- Cost of food
- Rent/land maintenance
- Marketing costs
- Employee salary
Who is the target market?
Owners profit from families and individuals who see the benefits of buffets. Those who are big eaters can choose an All You Can Eat (AYCE) option. Those who have a difficult time deciding on a meal can instead try whatever they want, whenever they want it. Finally, many people use buffets as a way to try new foods. Most people won’t cook their own lobster or order an expensive meal in a restaurant, but they may choose a tail to try when they’re at a buffet to see if they like it.
How does a buffet restaurant make money?
Profits at a buffet restaurant (or any restaurant) can be slim. In fact, the high-end Vegas buffets typically lose money with their expensive menu options like Alaskan King Crabs and Wagyu beef to encourage gambling. Owners who don't work at a casino should price their buffet margins at about 70% or so to cover the cost of what’s on the plate, meaning if the cost of the food on a plate is about $3, then the customer should be paying about $10 for their meal. The additional 70% goes toward maintaining the restaurant’s daily operations.
How much can you charge customers?
A standard homestyle buffet costs about $12 for dinner, while a Chinese or Indian buffet may keep the price closer to $10. Calculate the price of the menu items you offer, and then do research on what other buffets are charging in the area before setting the final price.
How much profit can a buffet restaurant make?
Like all restaurants, owners need to be extremely conscientious about waste. Streamlining the ordering and pricing process can greatly impact your bottom line. Many people will not end up eating nearly as much as they think they will, and even if they do overdo it, the potential for profits is still available. Still, margins can be as slim as 1 or 2%, even considering these facts. Assuming a 2% profit margin, a buffet restaurant would need to sell about 90 meals every day at $12 a piece in order to make about $8,000 worth of profit a year.
How can you make your business more profitable?
Buffets are all about choices for the customers, so consider offering more ways for your customers to get what they want. For example, you may want to do student nights on a slower day of the week, or a themed buffet such as Taco Tuesday. In addition, try offering people meals prepared fresh, either at a cooking station, or as a separate part of the menu. For example, BD’s Mongolian BBQ (a chain buffet restaurant) would offer customers the chance to do one trip to the buffet as a lunchtime offering rather than the standard AYCE.
What will you name your business?
Choosing the right name is important and challenging. If you don’t already have a name in mind, visit our How to Name a Business guide or get help brainstorming a name with our Buffet Restaurant Name Generator
When registering a business name, we recommend researching your business name by checking:
- Your state's business records
- Federal and state trademark records
- Social media platforms
- Web domain availability.
It's very important to secure your domain name before someone else does.
STEP 2: Form a legal entity
Establishing a legal business entity such as an LLC or corporation protects you from being held personally liable if your buffet restaurant is sued.
Form Your LLC
Read our Guide to Form Your Own LLC
Recommended: You will need to elect a registered agent for your LLC. LLC formation packages usually include a free year of registered agent services. You can choose to hire a registered agent or act as your own.
STEP 3: Register for taxes
You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
In order to register for taxes you will need to apply for an EIN. It's really easy and free!
You can acquire your EIN for free through the IRS website, via fax, or by mail. If you would like to learn more about EINs and how they can benefit your LLC, read our article, What is an EIN?.
Small Business Taxes
Depending on which business structure you choose, you might have different options for how your business will be taxed. For example, some LLCs could benefit from being taxed as an S corporation (S corp).
You can learn more about small business taxes in these guides:
- LLC Taxes
- Sole Proprietorship vs LLC
- LLC vs Corporation
- LLC vs S Corp
- How to Start an S Corp
- S Corp vs C Corp
There are specific state taxes that might apply to your business. Learn more about state sales tax and franchise taxes in our state sales tax guides.
STEP 4: Open a business bank account & credit card
Using dedicated business banking and credit accounts is essential for personal asset protection.
When your personal and business accounts are mixed, your personal assets (your home, car, and other valuables) are at risk in the event your business is sued. In business law, this is referred to as piercing your corporate veil.
Additionally, learning how to build business credit can help you get credit cards and other financing in your business's name (instead of yours), better interest rates, higher lines of credit, and more.
Open a business bank account
Besides being a requirement when applying for business loans, opening a business bank account:
- Separates your personal assets from your company's assets, which is necessary for personal asset protection.
- Makes accounting and tax filing easier.
Recommended: Read our Best Banks for Small Business review to find the best national bank or credit union.
Open net 30 accounts
Net 30 accounts are used to establish and build business credit as well as increase business cash flow. With a net 30 account, businesses buy goods and repay the full balance within a 30-day term.
NetMany net 30 credit vendors report to the major business credit bureaus (Dun & Bradstreet, Experian Business, and Equifax Business Credit). This is how businesses build business credit so they can qualify for credit cards and other lines of credit.
Recommended: Read our best net 30 vendors, guide and start building business credit.
Get a business credit card
Getting a business credit card helps you:
- Separate personal and business expenses by putting your business' expenses all in one place.
- Build your company's credit history, which can be useful to raise money later on.
Recommended: Apply for an easy approval business credit card from Divvy and build your business credit quickly.
STEP 5: Set up business accounting
Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
Make LLC accounting easy with our LLC Expenses Cheat Sheet.
STEP 6: Obtain necessary permits and licenses
Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
Federal Business Licensing Requirements
There are federal regulations regarding what can and cannot be added to, sold as, and processed with food. Attached is a resource from the Food and Drug Administration detailing the process of starting a food business: How to Start a Food Business
State & Local Business Licensing Requirements
Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate a buffet business. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.
Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, read our article, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.
For information about local licenses and permits:
- Check with your town, city or county clerk’s office
- Get assistance from one of the local associations listed in US Small Business Associations directory of local business resources.
Certificate of Occupancy
A buffet business is generally run out of a storefront. Businesses operating out of a physical location typically require a Certificate of Occupancy (CO). A CO confirms that all building codes, zoning laws and government regulations have been met.
- If you plan to lease a location:
- It is generally the landlord’s responsibility to obtain a CO.
- Before leasing, confirm that your landlord has or can obtain a valid CO that is applicable to a buffet business.
- After a major renovation, a new CO often needs to be issued. If your place of business will be renovated before opening, it is recommended to include language in your lease agreement stating that lease payments will not commence until a valid CO is issued.
- If you plan to purchase or build a location:
- You will be responsible for obtaining a valid CO from a local government authority.
- Review all building codes and zoning requirements for your business’ location to ensure your buffet business will be in compliance and able to obtain a CO.
When selling food, you will need licensing from a local health department; all establishments serving food are required to pass a health inspection. Tips for faring well on a health inspections
STEP 7: Get business insurance
Just as with licenses and permits, your business needs insurance in order to operate safely and lawfully. Business Insurance protects your company’s financial wellbeing in the event of a covered loss.
There are several types of insurance policies created for different types of businesses with different risks. If you’re unsure of the types of risks that your business may face, begin with General Liability Insurance. This is the most common coverage that small businesses need, so it’s a great place to start for your business.
Learn more about General Liability Insurance.
Another notable insurance policy that many businesses need is Workers’ Compensation Insurance. If your business will have employees, it’s a good chance that your state will require you to carry Workers' Compensation Coverage.
STEP 8: Define your brand
Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
If you aren't feeling confident about designing your small business logo, then check out our Design Guides for Beginners, we'll give you helpful tips and advice for creating the best unique logo for your business.
If you already have a logo, you can also add it to a QR code with our Free QR Code Generator. Choose from 13 QR code types to create a code for your business cards and publications, or to help spread awareness for your new website.
How to promote & market a buffet restaurant
Check to see how other buffet restaurants are promoting themselves in the area, and consider how well they’re faring at bringing customers in. You should be filling some type of void in a neighborhood, so you’ll want to focus on what you can offer that others can’t. Some people do care about quantity of food over quality (and vice versa), so ensure you understand what a community is looking for before deciding on a marketing strategy.
Consider doing traditional promotions, such as early bird or senior citizen, as a way to get people in the door. However, be careful not to price your menu options too low. The cheaper the price, the more likely it is that people will think the food is cheap too.
How to keep customers coming back
Keep customers coming back by offering them the most popular menu items available, yet also switching out options for more variety. If customers feel like there's more to discover, they’re more likely to get excited about coming in. Owners should find ways to incorporate fresh, local, seasonal ingredients whenever possible.
Still unsure about what kind of business you want to start? Check out the latest Small Business Trends to help inspire you.
STEP 9: Create your business website
After defining your brand and creating your logo the next step is to create a website for your business.
While creating a website is an essential step, some may fear that it’s out of their reach because they don’t have any website-building experience. While this may have been a reasonable fear back in 2015, web technology has seen huge advancements in the past few years that makes the lives of small business owners much simpler.
Here are the main reasons why you shouldn’t delay building your website:
- All legitimate businesses have websites - full stop. The size or industry of your business does not matter when it comes to getting your business online.
- Social media accounts like Facebook pages or LinkedIn business profiles are not a replacement for a business website that you own.
- Website builder tools like the GoDaddy Website Builder have made creating a basic website extremely simple. You don’t need to hire a web developer or designer to create a website that you can be proud of.
Using our website building guides, the process will be simple and painless and shouldn’t take you any longer than 2-3 hours to complete.
STEP 10: Set up your business phone system
Getting a phone set up for your business is one of the best ways to help keep your personal life and business life separate and private. That’s not the only benefit; it also helps you make your business more automated, gives your business legitimacy, and makes it easier for potential customers to find and contact you.
There are many services available to entrepreneurs who want to set up a business phone system. We’ve reviewed the top companies and rated them based on price, features, and ease of use. Check out our review of the Best Business Phone Systems 2022 to find the best phone service for your small business.
Recommended Business Phone Service: Phone.com
Phone.com is our top choice for small business phone numbers because of all the features it offers for small businesses and it's fair pricing.
Start a Buffet Restaurant in your State
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
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Is this Business Right For You?
This business is good for someone who loves giving customers a unique experience at a restaurant and wants to open up people's eyes to new forms of cuisine. Owners should also have an interest in food patterns, and how to get the best seasonal ingredients for the cheapest prices.
Want to know if you are cut out to be an entrepreneur?
Take our Entrepreneurship Quiz to find out!
What happens during a typical day at a buffet restaurant?
A buffet restaurant owner may complete any of the following tasks in a given day:
- Selecting buffet options
- Maintaining buffet/cooking equipment
- Hiring and managing employees
- Completing safety inspections
- Advertising the business
What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful buffet restaurant?
Prior experience in buffets will be a huge help. There is a psychology behind buffets, and it helps to understand how people eat and what they want exactly. Buffet owners should also be extremely organized, as the organization and flow of people will need to be carefully considered before a final layout is decided upon.
What is the growth potential for a buffet restaurant?
Growth potential is possible with a steady clientele. Many of the most successful buffets are gathering places in communities, somewhere to go after church or on Fridays after a long work week. Loyal customers encourage newcomers to try your buffet offerings, and provids valuable word of mouth too.
Take the Next Step
Find a business mentor
One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.
Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.
Learn from other business owners
Want to learn more about starting a business from entrepreneurs themselves? Visit Startup Savant’s startup founder series to gain entrepreneurial insights, lessons, and advice from founders themselves.
Resources to Help Women in Business
There are many resources out there specifically for women entrepreneurs. We’ve gathered necessary and useful information to help you succeed both professionally and personally:
If you’re a woman looking for some guidance in entrepreneurship, check out this great new series Women in Business created by the women of our partner Startup Savant.
What are some insider tips for jump starting a buffet restaurant?
The first thing you'll need to do is obtain the proper permits to both move into your chosen building, and to handle food. This will require going to your local authorities and health department to find out more about what's required in your area.
Many people are afraid of opening AYCE buffets simply due to the amount of food a person is likely to consume. However, there are plenty of tricks to getting people to eat less, both to save you money and to keep people from feeling uncomfortably full (or even ill).
Restaurant owners should keep their plates small, and their water glasses large. The more people fill up on drinks, the less they’ll fill up on food. Many of the buffet offerings should be extremely cheap foods that can be purchased in bulk. For example, carrots and potatoes only cost a few dollars for a 50 pound bag. These cheaper side dishes should be placed prominently around high priced offerings to encourage people to vary their diet. Consider using cheaper cuts of beef or fish, and focusing on the quality of the cooking.
You may also want to consider franchising opportunities, such as Golden Corral. When you franchise, you sacrifice some power over menu options in return for a trusted name and free nationwide advertising to help propel your success.
How and when to build a team
Building a strong team should be done as soon as possible. Management staff will need time to learn the various tricks and strategies you plan to employ for your restaurant so they can impart the plans to employees.
- Golden Corral (franchise opportunity)
- Western Sizzlin’s Wood Grill Buffet (franchise opportunity)
- Cici’s Pizza (franchise opportunity)