For a lot of people, the allure of the all-you-can-eat buffet is the idea that you're getting more than you pay for. From a business standpoint, it might seem like there's nothing about a buffet that would make it successful. There's usually a huge variety, probably a lot of wasted food, and trays of things that would cost a lot more if you were to buy them in a single meal. So what's going on?
The business side of buffets is the key. Buffets usually don't have the same number of staff other restaurants would need, as customers are usually serving themselves. In some buffets, part of the experience is cooking your own food, which also reduces staff. No one's sending their food back to the kitchen with complaints, either; you just push it to the side and get something else. While that might mean food waste, it also cuts back on kitchen workload. And menus are built around what's most efficient to make and cheapest to buy (market prices and menu offerings can change regularly), including things like cheap sacks of vegetables and cheaper cuts of meat.
There's also a balance between who's trying to break the bank. Since most people hit the buffet in groups, for every person eating more food than they actually pay for, there are several who don't overeat. (And not every group has a super-eater.) According to Ovation, the parent company of 330 buffets across the U.S., they keep on the right side of the profit lines by managing waste. They say they've lowered waste to as little as 5 percent per dish, which makes a huge difference in end-of-the-day numbers.