The tyranny of the breakfast buffet

In North America and Europe there is a growing focus on health, and in particular on significantly reducing consumers’ sugar intake and a more thoughtful approach to diet and exercise. This is because of the spiralling health care costs associated with obesity and the growing global prevalence of diabetes, a condition that unfortunately is particularly common in the Caribbean.

It is therefore surprising that in so many hotels in the region, in comparison to those in the countries from which most of the region’s visitors arrive, how difficult it is to find genuinely healthy, low fat, low sugar alternatives on hotels’ menus, particularly when it comes to the now ubiquitous breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet.

I recently had the opportunity to explore this issue at first hand while travelling in the US and the Caribbean and trying to lose weight by eating more healthily.

What I found was that in Caribbean properties appealing to a mid-market demographic, their interest in maximising revenue and reducing costs appears to be leading to a situation where the range of healthy eating choice is declining.

Particularly striking in this regard were a Jamaican North Coast Hotel where I was speaking at a conference, and a Barbados beach hotel of the same brand that doubles as a business hotel. In both cases it proved surprisingly difficult, short of placing a special off-menu order, to find what I wanted. For example, it was far from clear why it was impossible to obtain natural yogurt on the stays in question, or even a good selection of fruit.
In contrast, the US hotels I stayed in, including one from the same chain, all took their client’s health and well-being seriously. They offered on their menus and buffets a wide choice of options, and seemed aware that in particular millennials and many senior travellers – the higher spending demographics that most Caribbean destinations are now trying to attract – have become very particular about what they eat.

This is not to be critical of the quality of what was available in the Caribbean, which met the requirements of many vacationers and especially those with children, but to observe that tastes are changing and diet and health consciousness are also coming to define the type of target traveller the region is seeking, who the marketers say want from a Caribbean vacation the authentic, the genuine experience, the natural, and a sense of well-being.
The issue seems to be particularly problematic when it comes to buffets, which as the industry knows, but few guests recognise, offer a near scientific way to control costs, while seemingly offering something extravagant.

Buffets are particularly popular with chain hotels as they offer lower labour costs as fewer kitchen and waiting staff are required and tables turn over more rapidly. More specifically they encourage guests to select low cost foodstuffs over more expensive proteins by the way dishes are placed, through the relative sizes of the serving cutlery, and for example by providing chefs with the option to use cold cuts from earlier roasts.

This may be good for the hotelier’s bottom line, but as consumers become more discerning, likely to require further thought.

In an indication of how important healthy eating trends are becoming in the Caribbean’s key markets one only has to look at an announcements made recently by Nestlé, the world’s biggest food group, and Mars, another global food giant.

Nestlé, in what may be a first in retailing, is now encouraging consumers of one of its pizzas to eat one slice only, and to ensure their plates are otherwise filled with salad. In a similar move Mars is suggesting that those eating its high-calorie pesto and lasagne sauces do so only occasionally. Seeing their market share fall for high starch and processed products, these and other companies are also reformulating their products, for example removing artificial flavours, preservatives, and high fructose corn syrup.

In doing so the companies say they are responding to advice for example from the World Health Organisation, which has said people should eat less sugar, and the US Food and Drug Administration, which is about to issue guidelines on salt intake. At another more potent level they are taking notice of the effect that the thinking of nutritionists, the medical profession and activists is having on consumers.

At the top end of the Caribbean visitor market, hoteliers long ago responded to the trend towards foodstuffs that are simpler, natural, have a clear origin, may be organic and are fresh, and as a part of their marketing approach, stress these aspects of their cuisine.

Other hoteliers should expect this trend to take hold increasingly in the mid-market segment of Caribbean visitors. It provides an opportunity, ideally with Caribbean agriculture, to think long and hard about how to address the growing desire for healthy eating.