At Goghism we are driven to ask the deep, profound, universal questions that humanity has been grappling with for centuries. So we geared up and charged into the age old war between the AYCE Belt Bustas and the A la Carte Beltway Bourgeoisie. After countless hours of research, several bottles of soju, and innumerable vein popping shouting matches we can conclusively claim that… it really depends on you. Come take a look with us and join the fight.
If it hasn’t been completely clear up to this point, we love Korean BBQ. However, things aren’t all milk and honey in the Goghism world. Although we’ve spent countless nights seated around a piping hot grill pan, copious amounts of meat, and too many (or too few?) bottles of soju the divide runs deep through the Goghism team. So we’re airing our most ubiquitous grievances and arguments publicly for all to see, so everyone can join in with our neurotic, obsessive need to resolve this debate. We’re more concerned with the philosophy behind an AYCE or a la Carte menu and will be dealing with huge generalizations. Obviously, there are bound to be a few unicorns out there, AYCE restaurants with exceptionally high quality food, A la Carte menus that are cheaper than an AYCE place, etc, but we’ll be focusing primarily on the broad strokes and trends in the food world. (But definitely let us know if you happened to have come across one of these elusive unicorn restaurants.
Table of Contents:
It’s literally in the name… ALL YOU CAN EAT. There’s no greater pro than that.
Convenient Decision Making:
No decision making, no price to portion size calculation, no discussion. There’s always one person in the group that can’t make up their mind and takes forever to order. If you’re into a no muss, no fuss, as few barriers as possible between yourself and your meat, AYCE is the way to go. There’s also a general order in which meats you eat for the full Korean BBQ experience, and I have yet to see a Korean BBQ establishment not include all of the standard meats within their AYCE package. A lot of places I’ve been to actually just automatically bring the meat out in the right order (it’s more work for them to bring out the marinated meats earlier on and consequently have to switch out the grills).
Let’s not forget the most important, stress reducing factor — the meat keeps coming until YOU want it to stop. Never worry again whether you’ve ordered enough or whether you should prioritize your stomach or your wallet. Knowing the flat rate price beforehand, as well as that you are in total control, allows you to focus entirely on why you came: to eat… and hang out with your friends.
The most controversial, contentious, and yet most ubiquitous pro. This depends hugely on you, the restaurant, as well as the situation. Growing up in Atlanta and hanging out with mostly other trenchers like myself, AYCE was the way to go, you can’t really beat $23 (before tax and gratuity) for a full Korean BBQ dinner. Even in New York and LA you can find AYCE Korean BBQ for roughly the same price. Most detractors might point to the low price of pork belly to invalidate any claims that AYCE saves you money, but if you consider all the production that comes with Korean BBQ (the banchan, the samjang, wraps, rice, the grill, etc) rest assured that your money is getting you much more than just some pork. Throw in the huge variety of meats that many Korean BBQ places throw in with their package (looking at you Breakers) and you can be confident that pork belly is just one of many delectable cuts you’ll see on your grill.
Two reasons: Quality and Control, not quality control… which I guess is somewhat related, but I digress.
Now obviously this is theoretical, a restaurant can charge any price they want for a crappy piece of meat, but assuming that all is fair in the world, all restaurant owners are ethical, moral human beings, and the public would not stand for being cheated on their meal it is pretty safe to assume that the quality of an a la Carte option is higher than an AYCE package. The two major factors behind this are:
- It is easy to hide mediocrity in a crowd. One of the most difficult factors in high end cooking is that the standards are astronomically high for every single component of the dish. When the portion size is smaller and the focus is higher a chef needs to assume that every single, tiny morsel on a dish from protein, to garnish, to plate design will be overanalyzed and criticized. I will forever be impressed by the level of attention that the head chefs I worked for placed on everything leaving the kitchen. If you’re piling a mountain of meat onto a plate you’re not really going to care if one of those pieces isn’t at peak quality.Not only is it easier to hide, but there’s less incentive to increase the quality of an ingredient for an AYCE menu item, if you have great (and more expensive) quality ingredients in a dish, customers will naturally gravitate towards it and order more, while not actually spending more money (what’s to stop you from ordering ten plates of kalbi and completely ignoring the more profitable chicken?). You could increase the price of your AYCE package but that might ruffle the feathers of anyone who doesn’t see the connection between the increased price and the higher quality of one of the ingredients.
- Pricing. This might seem a little counterintuitive but we aren’t arguing that a la Carte options are actually cheaper, but it is a hell of a lot easier to price for high quality ingredients than it is to price for AYCE buffets. The reason being that a restaurant has a much better idea what the price they are setting is actually for… just the one item itself. Ideally, cost of ingredients comprises about 30% of the eventual price of the dish, so if a restaurant wants to offer high quality ingredients they can just increase their prices accordingly. However, costing for an AYCE item is much more difficult, one because if you have a really high quality item customers will naturally gravitate towards it, and two because you have no idea how much a customer is actually going to eat. So the ultimate ‘dish’ could be a 1/4 lb of pork belly or 20 lbs.
This is one of the issues with cable packages, what if you only watch Food Network? Or ESPN? Do I really need to pay for all of the channels together? The same works with Korean BBQ AYCE packages, what if you only want chicken? What if you had a big lunch and just want to munch on your own pace while your friends go all out. A la Carte allows you to take a sniper shot at a menu as opposed to carpet bombing your entire meal. If you have a specific intentionality behind your meal (with amount or item) you can actually come out with a lower check total and a happier stomach.
This has been a hard learned lesson that took years to fully realize… and in all honesty I haven’t fully accepted it yet. I know that it is only because I am blessed and fortunate to be born in an age that values my historically useless skills enough to where I don’t need to worry about my next meal… really my next meal in perpetuity. But this was something high school, even college me, could not understand… you will eat again.
Getting Your Money’s Worth:
Problem number one with the AYCE model, the emotional and mental stress of eating your money’s worth leads to misery. Or just a lack of self control leads to the same as well. Either way the end result is unhappiness and pain throughout the rest of the night. Ask Michael and Shinhee to find the video of me after a pizza eating competition and you will stare into the eyes of death. Food is food, if you’re going out of your way to put on some pants, leave the house, and pay for someone else’s cooking you’re really paying for an experience. If again and again are going in to an AYCE establishment happy but leaving miserable and sick, you might want to rethink your priorities.
I am not knocking AYCE establishments in the least, but it is simply more difficult to have higher quality ingredients or dishes in an AYCE package or buffet than it is to have in an a la carte option. Not only is there less incentive to increase your quality, but it is essentially riskier to do so as well. At the end of the day they need to be making a profit, or else they would be out of business. So the better the deal seems the more you might want to ask yourself where they are making their money. Pricing an a la carte menu is essentially a math equation you can apply again and again (30% food cost + X% labor + X% operating cost +X% waste you get the idea).
I’m trying really hard not to just repeat the AYCE Pros here, so in true college student fasion I’ll just flip a few words so I’m not plagiarizing myself too much :).
Now I have a lot of love for the front of the house: they are consummate professionals that have a huge impact on the overall dining experience, horrible customers dramatically outnumber horrible servers (whoever invented ‘the customer is always right’ should burn in hell), and the job can be incredibly difficult, nuanced, and thankless. However… we can’t deny that bad service exists, and in this instance AYCE wins out as server interaction, while not nonexistent, is minimized. Customer service is still a contributing factor to your Korean BBQ experience but it’s much more straight forward in this scenario, generally limited to getting more meat, rice, soju, and banchan. No chatty server spending five minutes going over the specials you already know you’re not going to take a look at, no attempts at up-selling, no gentle nudges to order dessert. An AYCE establishment knows why you’re there and what the main focus is, shoveling their food into your mouth. Bad service can definitely still impact your AYCE experience but in two equal scenarios I would choose the more straightforward relationship every time.
You might consider this to be a cop out, or anticlimactic in the least, but it really depends on you and what you’re looking for. At the moment, I would rather pay more for less of something that tastes great as opposed to paying less for more of something that tastes good. Not everyone has the luxury of looking at dinner as a source of entertainment, and there are many people whose appetites completely justify an All You Can Eat option. What’s important is being honest with what your priorities, needs, and expectations are and having the knowledge and confidence to decide accordingly. Let us know what you think and definitely send any arguments you have our way! We would love to be proven wrong here… at least some of us :).
We will keep updating this post as our journey through this wonderful battle continues (it’s nice that rehashing all of our arguments while actually eating Korean BBQ is our favorite past time).