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What is a Cafeteria?

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1. What is a cafeteria?

A cafeteria is a self-service restaurant or institutional dining room that offers affordable basic fare and charges by the dish. The customer slides a food tray along rails and loads it up with dishes from long counters. There is little to no waitstaff, and the food is prepared in advance and ready to grab. 

At higher-end cafeterias, you may see multiple stations crewed by cooks who grill or toss to order. Pizza, burgers, stir-fries, and hot sandwiches are common comestibles, and there’s typically a separate station for soups and salads. 

But in all cases, customers take their food to tables after paying and are expected to bus their plates and return their trays when they’re done.

2. What is the history of cafeterias?

The cafeteria is a Los Angeles invention. The first one, aptly named Cafeteria, opened in 1905 with the slogans “Food That Can Be Seen” and “No Tips.” This easy way of dining, with no waiters and no wait for the food, quickly caught on. 

By the 1920s, cafeterias were grand affairs, where attendants carved roast beef and served up chicken pot pie, potatoes, green beans, and other home-style dishes. The low price point and hearty food became even more critical to diners in the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression; Clifton’s Cafeteria in Downtown Los Angeles served 10,000 free meals. 

By the 1950s, tastes had changed, and old-time cafeterias' popularity had waned. 

Today, cafeterias are found mainly in the institutional world — workplaces, schools, hospitals, and museums — a successful method of feeding many customers quickly and cheaply.

3. What is typically on a cafeteria menu?

Many modern cafeteria menus harken back to the old days of the ‘20s and ‘30, offering classic “Midwestern” style comfort food: pork cutlets, soups and stews, various potatoes, roast turkey and chicken, casseroles and pasta, and old-fashioned pies and pastries. 

Most things are made from scratch at these higher-end cafeterias, and there’s a variety of artisanal sodas, bottled beers, and canned wines to choose from. 

In a nod to its origins, institutional cafeterias stick mostly to comfort food as well, but the quality is hit or miss. Typical fare includes soups, salads, sandwiches in the cold section, burgers, melts, burritos, and hot dogs from the grill. Sodas, bottled waters, muffins, breads, and desserts round out the offerings.

4. How do you start a cafeteria?

The first step is to decide on the concept for your cafeteria. Will it be a stand-alone restaurant or an on-site dining service tucked inside a business or institution? Once you’ve decided, you can begin to plan the menu, consider your staffing and location needs, and spread the word. 

Since institutional cafeterias have a built-in audience (museum-goers or workplace employees), you should prioritize the menu, equipment, and food costs over marketing and PR. If you’re launching a cafeteria-style restaurant that’s not connected to an institution, a competitive analysis and marketing strategy will be a large part of your business plan. 

Though cafeterias don’t have waitstaff, you’ll still need a hiring strategy for cooks, cashiers, and attendants.

5. How much does it cost to start a cafeteria?

The average cost to open a restaurant is $275,000 for a leased space and $425,000 if you want to buy a location. No two cafeterias are the same, but certain aspects of cafeteria dining make it less expensive to launch than the average restaurant. 

The most significant savings will come from staffing, as there is no waitstaff, host/hostess, and fewer chefs or cooks. Additionally, cafeteria menus are often static, allowing owners to take advantage of wholesale discounts on ingredients. 

Marketing costs will also be lower if you’re opening a cafeteria inside an already established business or at a workplace with a built-in customer base.

6. Most popular types of cafeterias

The most popular cafeterias offer lighter fare and fresher ingredients than previous generations. To stand out from the sea of forgettable wraps and salads, cafeterias are putting international spins on comfort food or hosting pop-up brands to bring in authentic flavors, from Japanese and Greek cuisine to gourmet grilled cheese. 

The most successful cafeterias feel closer to upscale food halls than school lunch lines, offering a smorgasbord of healthy and full-flavored meals. Retro cafeterias are gaining in popularity, serving stick-to-your-ribs comfort with modern twists. 

The appeal of serving yourself from an open counter display is still strong, as evidenced by the countless institutional cafeterias across the country. The stand-alone cafeteria, with home-cooked food and better ingredients, has room for growth.

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