One of Auckland's most iconic all-you-can-eat restaurants, Paradise Buffet, has permanently shut as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic - and it could be the start of a slow death of buffets in the city.
Eight Restaurant, Cordis Hotel's flagship restaurant, will also re-open next Friday with just table service and not the buffet from eight kitchens it is famous for.
The Restaurant Association says with continuing community spread of the virus, it is expecting some buffet operators to focus on a la carte service instead.
Salah Mohammed, who owns four Paradise Indian Restaurant outlets on Sandringham Road - one dine-in, a takeaway outlet and a fusion pizza store - said they made the "painful decision" to close its buffet restaurant as a result of the pandemic.
"We tried to hang on as long as we could, but with Covid spreading and daily cases still in the hundreds, we decided it was not possible to keep the buffet going," Mohammed said.
He said the very nature of a buffet meant food would be left exposed and it would be very difficult to maintain safe distancing for diners going up for food.
"It was a painful decision but a necessary one because if we had just one case of coronavirus spreading from the buffet, our entire brand and all our other outlets will be damaged," he said.
Mohammed said he would be consolidating his chefs and staff to focus on a la carte dining and takeaways at the three remaining outlets on the street.
Marisa Bidois, chief executive of the Restaurant Association, said when the association spoke to buffet operators this time last year, most of them resumed buffet dining when New Zealand returned to alert level 1.
"However, this time we are resuming operations at a time when there is continued community spread of the virus so we do expect that some operators will choose to focus on a la carte," she said.
"Buffets are still a popular choice and for some establishments this is integral to their offer so we would expect these to continue but with stricter guidelines such as mask use and distancing between patrons maintained."
Cordis Auckland director of food and beverage Lucas Gougeon said when Eight reopens on Friday December 3, it will be operating a table service.
"Meaning the self-service buffet option will not be available in line with the New Zealand Food Safety guidelines," he said.
Buffet service will only resume when Auckland moves to the orange light system.
"Under the red light system, all guests will be seated for the duration of their dining session and tables will be spaced a metre or more apart, to allow for social distancing requirements," Gougeon said.
"Dining areas will also be limited to less than 100 guests at all times and only 10 people can be seated at one table, as per the Government guidelines."
Face coverings are required for staff and guests, and sneeze guards have been installed throughout the restaurant.
"We will also be having a smaller quantity of food on display so it's more frequently replenished," Gougeon said.
"We want our guests at the restaurant and the hotel to feel reassured when dining with us, and we are doing everything we can to ensure this."
Buffets have not been able to operate at alert level 3 and many remain closed.
Paradise Buffet had a cult customer base. For $20, they could eat as much curry, naans and lollipop chicken they could stomach.
The outlet was serving 400 to 500 diners every day.
Mohammed said he also faced staffing issues and had been struggling to get experienced chefs and waiting staff because of the border closures.
"We were finding it impossible to bring in chefs from India because borders are closed and there are no international students around for us to hire as waiting staff," he said.
The Paradise Buffet premises has been taken over by Indian-Arabian fast food restaurant chain ChicKing, which specialises in fried chicken.
However, Azeem Mohammed, owner of Bawarchi Indian Restaurant which also runs a 40-seater buffet operation just a few doors up from Paradise, said the buffet service there would resume next Friday "as normal".
"Unlike Paradise, ours is a smaller operation and I'm confident we can run it in a safe way in maintaining safe distancing and ensuring customers going up to get their food one by one," he said.