What are the economics of all-you-can-eat buffets?
Did you ever go visit a Brazilian Steakhouse? The one where men and women dressed as gauchos bring you skewers and plates of meat to your table until you cry uncle? Have you ever wondered what this huge buffet that sits between you and the food when you come in is for?
Money. Fact of the matter is that buffets are cheap. Buffets remove a lot of the cost of running a restaurant. Trained waiters? Elaborate plating? Complicated concoctions to hold food? All that isn't needed. All it takes are mass producible dishes such as a gallon of corn or a drum of mashed potatoes. Stuff that holds well in a water bath or under a heat lamp. Things that come in portions so the diner can get their own, plate it, and walk back to their table.
Vegetables are cheap. Really, really, cheap. Here, have a look that the Raleigh Farmer's Market wholesale list (http://www.ncagr.gov/markets/mkt...). Divide by three and you have the prices Sysco and others charge for their food. A 50lbs carton of Red Size A potatoes costs $14 on that market. I can get it, from the cheapest purveyor, for $6. Six bucks for 50lbs - you'll have to eat an awful lot of potatoes to arrive at the three bucks or so you pay me for the food on the buffet line (assuming a $9 buffet like Hometown, Furr's, or Golden Corral).
Meat? This isn't my steak house. Again, have a look at this PDF (http://beefretail.org/CMDocs/Bee...) for the average per-lbs cost of meat. At $2.19 for a lbs of Bottom Butt Sirloin (what you generally get as "steaks" in buffets) I guarantee you you'll be ill before you eat $5 worth of meat, especially since there are veggies around it the operator wants you to take as well.
Chicken is below $1 per lbs and pork (http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/...) is somewhere in the $1.40 (see http://jluster.org/historical-pr... for a table I maintain about meat prices through the ages).
On average people eat less than $4 worth of food. Given our old calculation (food prices are 1/3 of the restaurant's prices) we'd have to charge $12 per person. Of course they don't, they charge $10 and reduce cost elsewhere in the other 2/3rd. Simple as that.