Cognitive Daily

Last week we asked readers how often they eat at buffet-style restaurants, where diners serve themselves unlimited portions of food from heated serving tables. The question was inspired by a post by ScienceBlogs editor Virginia Hughes, which was inspired by an innocuous comment I made as we were heading to our hotel restaurant table: “People in North Carolina are really into buffets.” So, is North Carolina the champion state for buffets?


In fact, North Carolina ranked 20th on our list. The number one state for buffets was Kansas, averaging 6 visits per month. Second on the list was New Mexico, followed by Indiana, Connecticut, and Nevada. Unfortunately, there’s one problem with this list: the results aren’t even close to statistically significant. Despite over 400 total responses, we only received two responses from Kansas. There were three responses from New Mexico, six from Indiana, and five from Connecticut — that’s not nearly enough to base any sort of generalization on, especially since there’s only one data point per respondent. It also means that my initial claim, that North Carolinians like buffets more than average, is not supported or falsified.

Another problem with the data is the fact that so few of our readers report eating at buffet-style restaurants with any sort of regularity. Here’s how the data breaks down:


Eighty-five percent of respondents ate at buffet restaurants less than once a month, and only 10 of our 409 respondents reported eating at buffet-style restaurants more than 3 times per month. Since one of those ten happened to be from Kansas, Kansas zoomed to the top of our list.

But if those results aren’t significant, maybe we can find a significant effect if we lump states together into regions, like this:


Now it’s looking like the mountain and midwest states are the hot spots for buffet dining. But yet again, these results aren’t significant — they’re skewed by the very small number of respondents who visit buffet restaurants frequently.

One difference that did rise to the level of statistical significance: Cognitive Daily readers from the U.S. visit buffet restaurants significantly more often than our readers from the rest of the world.


  1. #1 David
    January 25, 2008

    Wait, people who read this blog aren’t big buffet restaurant diners? Why am I not shocked? This is a little like the sports vs. art post. The responses you’re going to get from people who read this blog aren’t at all representative of the overall population.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    January 25, 2008

    David: I agree, to some extent. But the extreme nature of the response still surprises me (perhaps because buffet-style restaurants are practically unavoidable where I live).

    I have a vague recollection of some research that suggests fast food restaurants rely on a very small number of repeat customers for an extremely large portion of their business. I think our results here might be another dimension of that same data (if anyone can find the study, I’d appreciate it).

  3. #3 chezjake
    January 25, 2008

    I never go to buffet restaurants willingly, as I have found the food quality to always be mediocre or worse. Nonetheless, I’ve been dragged along into several in various northeastern states.

    My observation is that the clientèle of buffets is primarily made up of two groups — blue collar families and the elderly.

    In my own area (northeast NY), Chinese buffets seem to draw much bigger crowds than “American,” and their food is marginally better.

  4. #4 Corby
    January 25, 2008

    It could be that academics as a whole (a group that I assume makes up a fair portion of your readers) don’t go out to eat very often to begin with, perhaps due to financial considerations ;).

    I responded to the poll with 1-2 times a month, since we like to go to one of those make-your-own-salad places (specifically Fresh Choice and Sweet Tomatoes in California). That sort of buffet experience is a whole lot different than when I once went with family to Hometown Buffet (in New Mexico).

  5. #5 Melissa (oddharmonic)
    January 25, 2008

    When I lived in Goldsboro, North Carolina, two of the most popular restaurants in town were buffets. The Chinese buffet near the base main gate was a very popular lunch spot in town for military members; the American buffet was packed all weekend with families. We were buffet-averse Coloradans, so we never ventured into either restaurant in the three years we were there.

    (While not academics, we were well out of the norm for the area. Our experiences there involved a lot of culture shock with nearly everyone we met.)

  6. #6 Michael
    January 26, 2008

    I missed the survey, so I don’t know if you asked whether people visited a buffet restaurant in their own state. If not, you may need to adjust for anomalous behavior in Nevada. Since I live in California, visits to Nevada are not uncommon for me and I cannot recall eating in a buffet restaurant recently except in a Nevada casino. My guess is that visitors to Nevada are much more likely to eat in a buffet restaurant there than at home since casino buffets are fixture of the whole Nevada tourist experience.

  7. #7 Edwin Arneson
    January 27, 2008

    I enjoy an occasional buffet–usually Chinese. I just can’t imagine eating at a buffet twice or more a week. I think I’d explode before a year was up.

  8. #8 Greg
    January 27, 2008

    Since it takes a certain number of visits per month to sustain a restaurant, one could answer the original question by looking at the distribution of chain buffet restaurants per capita. Not quite a ‘casual Friday’ undertaking, but something a dedicated gradual student could knock out in a few hours of research.

    A follow-on question to the popularity of buffet restaurants would be ‘What is the average weight or BMI of different restaurant chains?’. From my own informal observation, it seems the ‘heaviest’ restaurants are buffet and common fast-food places, while the ‘lightest’ appears to be fancy-shamancy (expensive) places, especially SE Asian. Of the fast-food chains, the ‘lightest’ appears to be Kokoro, which serves up Japanese rice-bowls.

    I also wonder whether there is any truth to the notion that eating in a herd has a re-enforcing effect – to be skinny, eat where the skinny people eat?

  9. #9 Andrea
    January 27, 2008

    Ok, so here’s part of the problem – I’m one of those 3 New Mexicans, and I probably answered that I visited MANY times per month….

    …but those visits are 100% composed of lunch trips to Souper Salad, wherein I eat a truckload of veggies and relatively few total calories. So it doesn’t fit the usual “buffet model” of wanton gluttony and starchy fatty consumption.

  10. #10 Dave Munger
    January 28, 2008

    This is a test. If this is crossed out, you may now use the strike HTML tag in comments. Have fun with it!

New comments have been disabled.