Did you know that less than 30% of customers eat their money’s worth at buffets in Singapore?
Let’s start with a caveat: this is being written by someone who has worked in the Food & Beverage industry. There may be some inherent bias, as all “serious” restaurants tend to deride the buffet.
Then again, there is also observable truth as to how buffets in Singapore don’t actually save money. In fact, they can cost more than eating ala carte at restaurants. Here’s why.
1. The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility
Buffets are based on an economic concept called the law of diminishing marginal utility. This law states that when you increase consumption of a product, the marginal utility of each additional product consumed beyond the first (assuming all other factors are constant) will decrease.
In short, each plate at a buffet has less value to you than the one that came before it. The first plate might be very satisfying. The second plate a little less so.
Beyond the third plate, the marginal utility value drops to zero or even negative – you are simply forcing yourself to eat because you want to eat your money’s worth.
And this is one of the key problems of buffets – most people cannot eat their money’s worth without finding great displeasure in the process. If it’s not comfortable and you’ll feel sick afterward, why are you paying to do this to yourself?
“Beat the buffet” is a ridiculous and unhealthy game to spend money on. What do you get even if you push yourself to the point of almost puking?
And if you only eat to the point where you are satisfied (marginal utility = zero), then you would generally be overpaying for what you do eat (see point 2).
2. Less Than 30% of Customers Eat Their Money’s Worth
To understand how much you can really consume, let’s consider fast food prices. We use fast food prices because these outlets use cheap cuts of meat and low-cost vegetables (precisely the type you find at buffets).
Now, the price of a typical fast food meal is just under S$10. That’s about as low as you can go, and it’s reflective of “real” food prices. The price of a buffet is about S$40 per head. Given that we’re talking about the same quality of food, ask yourself this:
Could you eat S$40 worth in one sitting, at a fast food outlet?
Imagine how much food you’d get if you blow S$40 at Kentucky Fried Chicken, or at a hawker centre. That’s the quantity of food you’re actually buying.
Less than 30% of the customers in a restaurant actually eat as much as the buffet costs them. If that wasn’t the case, buffets wouldn’t be profitable. Restaurants wouldn’t do them anymore.
3. Food Should Be About Quality, Not Quantity
If you just want quantity, find an economy rice stall and stuff yourself.
You can get one meat and two vegetables, plus rice, for S$2.50 at a typical economy rice stall. It’s doubtful that anyone can eat even S$25 worth at these outlets (ten portions of the aforementioned meal) and not require immediate medical attention. You don’t need to fork out S$40 if the sole purpose is to feel full.
If you want quality, buffets are a terrible choice. Restaurants often hold buffets to clear out old food or buy the cheapest cuts of meat for buffets. Restaurants are especially coy about their food sources when it comes expensive shellfish, like oysters and crab.
Suffice it to say there must be a good reason why buffets get them at low cost, and those reasons are not things you’d welcome. For instance, there are such things as mussels that are literally scraped off the bottom of shipping vessels, or illegally sourced shellfish.
If you want quality but find restaurant prices too steep, you can easily offset the costs with the right dining credit card. Look for one that gives rebates for dining, like the CIMB Visa Signature, which gives 10% cashback on local dining.
Alternately, pick a credit card that offers straight-up restaurant discounts. The American Express Platinum Card comes with the Love Dining programme, which offers to 50% off restaurants like TungLok Signatures, Dancing Crab, and The Marmalade Pantry.
4. Look at the Ultimate Dollar Cost
You are still spending S$40 per head, even if it’s all you can eat. Most of your meals (unless you are rich) cost far less than that. Don’t fool yourself – a buffet is an expensive meal choice, and you are not being prudent.
It doesn’t matter that you “get more food”. The human body cannot eat three days worth of food in one buffet, and then skip meals and save money for the next three days. You’re still going to have to eat again tomorrow, however much you cram in tonight’s buffet.
So in terms of the ultimate dollar cost, a buffet just means you bought a budget-busting S$40 meal. You haven’t “saved” any money with your dining choice. If a buffet did somehow save money, everyone in Singapore would be lining up outside buffet restaurants all the time.
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By Ryan Ong
Ryan has been writing about finance for the last 10 years. He also has his fingers in a lot of other pies, having written for publications such as Men’s Health, Her World, Esquire, and Yahoo! Finance.