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Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Monday, 26 October 2009

Rise of the all-you-can-eat restaurant

Pay at the door. Then, "grab a plate, help yourself, help yourself again"

By Tamsyn Kent
BBC News Magazine

In just 12 months the all-you-can-eat restaurant chain Taybarns has taken the catering industry by storm - and there are plans to open 30 new branches. But does it encourage unhealthy eating?

With a "34-metre long food counter" Taybarns is all about quantity. It offers an array of food. Choose from a chip shop, carvery, pizza, pasta, even what appears to be a new hybrid-cuisine, Texican.

Its menu boasts: "Enjoy as much as you like, as many times as you like. All for one fixed price!"

While other restaurants are closing at an estimated rate of 100 a month, Whitbread which owns Taybarns, has recorded a 3% increase in sales in the last six months to £703.3m.

Once you're in, you're in. And you've got the opportunity to try as many different food types as you like
Simon Ewins,
Taybarns Operations Director

It is serving almost 10,000 people a week in its most popular branches and there are plans to expand next year, turning 30 Brewers Fayre pubs into Taybarns.

"We offer quality family food at a really good price and it's helped Taybarns succeed where others have failed," says Taybarns operations director and the man behind the concept, Simon Ewins.

"We're doing volumes that are eye watering for the industry. Our Wigan branch, which has been open for a year, has served more meals than the population of the town - 300,000."

Taybarns food
312kg of tomatoes used
6000kg of potatoes roasted
12,800 chickens cooked
122,200 sausages grilled
588,000 items cutlery washed

Ewins says the company has, unashamedly, based itself in the working-class heart of Britain.

There are Taybarns branches in Newcastle upon Tyne, South Shields, Barnsley, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Coventry, Swansea and Wigan.

Help yourself

It is not yet 6pm on a Friday night in the Coventry branch of Taybarns and already the eaterie is full of people queuing along that famously lengthy food counter.

Customers pay £5.99 - or £7.99 in the evenings - at the door. Then, as the sign says, "grab a plate, help yourself, help yourself again".

"We come here because of the choice of the food and the price, it's really good value" says one woman whose plate holds a burger, chips, sausage and a lamb skewer. "We can all go out as a family. We're all different, but there are no arguments about I don't like this or I don't like that."

The union jack bunting strung across the chip shop, the flames leaping up from the wok and the sweet smell wafting from the dessert counter add to the buzz of excitement among customers. The treacle tart and chocolate sponge are going down well.


'Grab a plate, help yourself, help yourself again'

Spicy dishes, like the chilli con carne and tikka masala sauce, are popular on Friday nights, but on Sundays people go for a traditional roast dinner.

US concept

Taybarns is modelled on the American all-you-can-eat chain, Golden Corral, which opened in 1973 and now turns over more than $1bn a year. It claims its focus on freshness differentiates it from other steakhouses, featuring a large hot and cold buffet, grill, carving station and bakery.

The all-you-can-eat concept originated in the US's working areas in the 1930s. Golden Corral has capitalised on that trend, focusing on small-town America, it now has more than 450 restaurants across 41 states.

But with warnings that the UK is following the US with rising levels of obesity, isn't this sort of dining experience a cause for concern?

Mr Ewins is adamant that offering variety, as well as value, is the key to Taybarns success too. It is not about encouraging overindulgence he says. It is about offering the opportunity to experiment with food in a non-risky way.

"People want to try new things. But if you go out on a Friday night and you try a new main course in a traditional restaurant and you don't like it, that's a disaster. At Taybarns you can just try something else or go back to your favourites."

So it could be that in cash-strapped times Taybarns offers a safe way to eat out. You know exactly how much it costs and what you get for the price.

When I come here I pig out. I feel like I have to because there's such a selection and I don't want to miss out
Heidi, Taybarns regular

But some believe the all-you-can-eat concept promotes poor dietary habits. And, that contrary to the suggestion that more choice encourages experimentation, it actually stifles it.

"The irony is that if you give people complete and unadulterated choice they eat a narrower range of food simply because they can - you can eat burgers every day if you like" says Professor Martin Caraher, professor of food and health policy at City University London.

He is concerned about all-you-can-eat restaurants. "It encourages greed. There is a sense of getting value for your money. And we've moved away from the notion of stopping when we feel full. People think I'll just have another bit, I'm not paying for it."

The recorded average number of platefuls eaten by Taybarns' customers is 3.37. In the Coventry branch, Heidi, who is celebrating a family birthday is already on her way to surpassing that.

2.6m customers visited Taybarns in the past year

"When I come here I pig out. I've had two puddings already. I'll be regretting it when I go on the scales next week."

Profit margins

So how, if people are piling up plates several times, does Taybarns make money?

Its food does not claim to be organic or free-range, but it does emphasise the freshness of its ingredients. Industry experts argue that it is down to the high volume of customers. Margins may be low, but the figures add up because of the footfall.

"It's perfectly feasible to create decent food without spending a fortune," says Paul Wootton, editor of Restaurant magazine.

"At Taybarns, a large part of its offer focuses on salads, pizza and pasta, where ingredient costs will be at the lower end of the scale."

Many operators in the restaurant industry this year have been working to tighter margins than Taybarns, offering 2-for-1s and 50% off, to get customers through the doors, he says. They know that low margins are better than no margins.

"If you're buying spuds and chicken on an industrial scale you're going to get them cheap," says Richard Harden, of Hardens restaurant guide.

"Even if people are eating half a chicken each, which might only cost Taybarns £1 - they might be producing a whole meal for £2.50 per head."

Credit crunch

Taybarns appears to be going from strength to strength while top-end restaurants suffer.

But, not everyone is convinced it is around for the long haul. Some argue that they are akin to fast food outlets. A sector predicted to grow in the next three-to-five years, but then stabilise.

"My suspicion is that Taybarns will come and go - that it's a phenomenon related to the credit crunch. They'll reinvent themselves in three or four years time as something else," says Mr Caraher.

"The American model bothers me. We want big portions, rubbish food. What we actually need is higher quality and people eating less."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I have been to several all-you-can-eat restaurants in different States during my 20 years of living in the US. People have plates piled high and then they leave a lot of the food but go back for another plate! I think it promotes greed and definitely obesity.
Sue Groom, Canton MI USA

Hey just a heads up. What you are calling Texican has been around for decades. It's normally called Tex-Mex though. I've only heard someone use Texican for food a few times. Usually a Texican would be a person from Texas of Mexican descent.
Eric, Knoxville, US

To me this looks low priced and low quality. I certainly won't be queuing to get in, I'd rather pay a few pounds more for something of higher quality, freshly prepared using local in season ingredients. Food will soon be a scarce commodity, and wasteful practices such as this won't help matters.
Tom Clarke, Ipswich

At last - Golden Corral for the UK (well sort of) - hope it's as good. I thought we were doing well when we got Krispy Kreme but this is better.
Carolyn, Manchester, UK

These places are here to stay, and if you go you will learn quickly whether or not you have good eating habits. We have seen what gluttony produces and have developed some safety guidelines: Portioning and Choice are everything. Choose to use a smaller plate so it will look like more and try healthy foods. I use my ability to go back, to work my way through the sections of a meal; soup or salad first, the main course, and a Sweet course at the end. Culture, common sense, and manners are still applicable. You can enjoy the wonderful variety, without letting your eyes decide how big your stomach will stretch; Enjoy!
Linn Crescentia, Ada, USA

Been to a few all-you-can-eat places in the States and seeing people go for cake / ice-cream etc more than eight times, perhaps 12 main courses full plates and washed down with more fizzy drinks than I could imagine, I really hope for the UK's health it never goes that far. Still, the buffets offer a chance to try a whole range of food but it is easy to get carried away and lose track of the calories / quantity of food. Personally I now prefer the French approach, more quality and smaller portions and going to a buffet now is just limiting it to one plate for the main and one small one for dessert (in particular a very good local Indian and Chinese buffet). Just don't go very often, not because of the cost but for the waistline.
Andrew Buckle, Maidstone, UK

It is not the all-you-can-eat restaurants that encourage greed, its the greed that produces all-you-can-eat restaurants! Yet again another naive notion that people are not responsible for their own poor lifestyle choices. I live next to a very cheap and tasty chippy, does that mean I am unable to resist eating there every day? Don't be ridiculous.
Fiona D, Edinburgh

These places are fine if people are sensible or don't go too often. I've seen people at similar places loading their plates up to the point where just looking at them makes me feel ill. I eat what I want then stop when I'm satisfied. What I do like about them is the opportunity to try something I might not have otherwise ordered.
Eileen, Guildford, UK

On an all inclusive holiday people tend to eat at least twice what they need daily, their senses bowled over by the choice, smells and look of all the food on offer. We do it because it's there and you have paid for it. I hope these don't become common place.
Tracey P, East Yorkshire

Having just returned from the States we have enjoyed some superb meals in fixed price restaurants (in Utah, Arizona & Nevada - namely Las Vegas). The choice has been fantastic: huge displays of every fresh fruit imaginable, every style of cuisine and of course the desserts! BUT you don't have to 'pig out' - it is just lovely to have food cooked to order and to have such a wide choice of the freshest ingredients. A similar attitude exists in France with the wine included in a 'menu' price - it is NOT necessary to drink the whole litre of red that stands on the table - the French don't!
Chris Hadden, Limousin, France

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