Food by the Numbers – A La Carte Food Column, January 2011

Written by Rebecca VanderMeulen | Dec 20, 2010 3:13 PM

At 11:15am,queues of hungry customers are forming in the lobby of the Shady Maple Smorgasbord. Breakfast items have disappeared from the 200 feet of buffet lines, and since it's a federal holiday, the full dinner menu will be served during the lunch hour.

"People travel," general manager Herb Noll explains. "They want to eat dinner early."

If any dining establishment knows how people like to eat, it's the Shady Maple. The massive Shady Maple complex in East Earl, Lancaster County, houses a gift shop, a small restaurant called the Dutchette, a grocery store and an RV dealership. But the smorgasbord is what draws school field trips, retirement-village outings and buses full of Amish Country tourists.

Vicki Shafer, executive director of group tours at Shafer's Tour & Charter in Endicott, New York, says most people who take its 56-passenger Lancaster County bus tours have visited the Shady Maple before, so it's a popular stop.

"It doesn't matter how many people you have," Shafer says. "It doesn't feel crowded. And they have the best fried chicken I've ever had."

The Pennsylvania Dutch institution fed 1.36 million people in 2009, up 8 percent from the year before. Its regular dining room seats 1,200. On Saturdays and holidays it's not unusual for the lines to pour out the doors of a lobby filled with a crush of people. On this day, management will open an extra dining room at 1pm to accommodate another 700 customers.

"I've been here eight years and this place still amazes me," says Les Stark, one of 300 smorgasbord employees.

Shady Maple President Elwood Martin says people are drawn by the sheer abundance of quality food.

"It's nice enough, with the carpets and stuff, to be a five-star restaurant, but it's for the common person to come eat," Martin says. "You can get a sugar high if you want. You can go skinny if you want."

New York strip steaks sizzle on the grill. Hundreds of diners line up at the meat-carving stations, the salad bars, the ice cream dispensers. Buffet attendants in white shirts and maroon aprons scurry between the serving areas and the windows — called pass-throughs — providing glimpses into the kitchen, replacing diminishing trays of broccoli and potato filling.

"I think this is the only place in Lancaster County where you can eat," employee Stark muses, eyes glued to the buffet and thinking about it being a holiday when many other eateries are closed.

The Shady Maple prides itself on old-fashioned food, but its operations rely heavily on technology — workers punch in on time clocks that read fingerprints. Dirty dishes are fed through a machine that looks a bit like the conveyor belts your carry-on luggage goes through at the airport, along with being washed by hand.

Buffet attendants such as Stark constantly scan the serving areas to monitor supplies on two 46-item salad bars, 27 desserts plus a sundae bar, 14 vegetables and eight flavors of bread. It might come as a surprise that most diners take the same size of each helping: one spoonful at a time. What workers have to watch is how many people take each thing. Roast beef, mashed potatoes, French fries, roasted chicken and macaroni and cheese disappear the fastest.

When attendants see items getting low, they punch in codes on a computer that automatically prints out a ticket on receipt paper in the part of the kitchen where that item is made. To keep things orderly, restaurant workers refer to the east bar and the west bar — two sections of the smorgasbord that mirror each other — and the south bar when the extra dining room is open.

In most cases, once the ticket is printed, cooks have 10 minutes to get the refill from the kitchen to the buffet. Some dishes take longer, like 20 minutes for roasted chicken. Food runners work the length of the kitchen, carrying refills of steamed vegetables from the cooks to spots next to the pass-through windows so buffet attendants can grab them as needed. And Stark says it's not enough for the trays to have food in them, but they have to look nice, too.

Customers don't see workers darting around the 15,000-square-foot kitchen, but they'd be wrong to picture the chaotic, profanity-laced scenes of reality-TV restaurants. The smorgasbord kitchen, as one 10-year veteran puts it, is more like a three-ring circus.

Another employee removes trays of dried corn and stewed tomatoes from the vegetable steamers and sets them aside for a runner to place in the window. Pieces of chicken are fed into a contraption that covers them in breading as they spin in a circle, removed and put onto a tray to go into the fryer. Baskets of breaded eggplant and shrimp gradually descend into hot oil, guided by machinery that flashes a message when it's time to take them out. Two workers remove the stems from boxes of mushrooms — later the caps will be filled with crabmeat, and the stems are destined for the grill.

With thousands of meals served a week, the kitchen goes through food at a mind-boggling pace. Customers consume 27,000 eggs a week, not counting the scrambled eggs served at breakfast, which are a liquid substitute, and 2,000 pounds of home fries. A single breakfast shift on Saturday, the busiest day of the week, requires 400 trays of bacon, as most diners take two to three pieces on an average day.

"It's all about the numbers here," six-year employee Jess MacAdams says.

The smorgasbord has one distinct advantage over most eateries: The Shady Maple Farm Market is a 10-minute walk away. The grocery store is the smorgasbord's supplier of meats, baked goods and produce, so Martin says the restaurant can't run out. Cookies, cakes and shoofly pies are baked a day or two before they're needed and stored in walk-in coolers in preparation for the dessert buffet. They come from a Farm Market bakery that employs 70 workers and operates nearly around the clock.

Managers at the grocery store and the buffet keep in continual contact throughout the day, by phone, e-mail or just stopping by. "Quite often they'll come to the store and say, We need a carton of this or a skid of that,' " says Farm Market manager Lin Weaver.

They keep tabs on how much food is consumed or purchased each day of the week, so patterns quickly emerge, and those in charge know how much to order. Besides, Weaver says, the Shady Maple has a large network of local suppliers — produce usually comes from Philadelphia, for example — who can deliver every day. Occasionally a warehouse sends the wrong amount of an item, but Weaver says that's rare.

Back at the smorgasbord, keeping the buffets full means doing much of the work ahead of time. Even during the bustling lunch hour, MacAdams and a co-worker stand at industrial-size sinks, swishing clams in water and placing them on trays for the next day. Trays of bacon lie in freezers a few days in advance. Reserves are stocked in freezers on the main floor and the basement. Downstairs coolers hold meat, frozen vegetables and baked goods, ready to be carried to the kitchen on a freight elevator. A bank of cardboard boxes of soft-drink concentrate feeds into beverage dispensers next to the buffets.

Noll adds that management monitors the weather, too. Customers trek as long as 90 minutes to get to the smorgasbord, so heavy snow and ice drive them away. Dinner is also slow for the first couple of weeks after everyone sets their clocks back an hour for the end of Daylight Saving Time, as diners are less excited about going out to eat when they're not yet used to early darkness.

If you ask any of the kitchen workers, they'll probably be able to tell you how many customers came in the day before. That tidbit is shared with the staff, partially as a motivational tactic. The day before last Mother's Day — the Shady Maple is closed Sundays — a record 11,072 meals were served.

"Usually at the end of the day we're curious about how many," Stark says. Employees are rewarded for days of record-breaking attendance with treats such as sweatshirts and mini-cheesecakes. Like anyone, they appreciate their efforts being recognized.

"Feeding over 9,000 people means you worked hard," MacAdams says.

Published in A La Carte

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