The table is glorious, like a potluck at a Southern family's reunion, but bigger. It's all there, as much as you want, gorgeous and glistening: Okra. Fried green tomatoes. Collard greens. Rutabagas. Piles of mashed potatoes and two kinds of gravy. Fried chicken and catfish and meatloaf. Corn casserole, sweet potato casserole, macaroni and cheese. Corn bread. Biscuits. Soups and salads. Warm peach cobbler, pecan pie, bread pudding, banana pudding. At night they have barbecue. On weekends, ribs.
Self control is difficult.
But that is exactly what Fred's Market Restaurant expects, for diners to enjoy themselves but with some discipline.
The local restaurant chain might be trailblazing a new path for restaurants nationally by being an anti-buffet buffet — a place of plenty where moderation and shunning wastefulness are praised. The restaurants have a "waste not, want not" policy where buffet diners get up to a $2 discount on their meals if they clean their plates.
Industry experts have not heard of any other all-you-can-eat establishments with the same policy. The restaurant company, with five buffets and one barbecue joint, said the policy has reduced waste by a whopping 80 percent.
But some health officials, such as Dr. Denise Edwards, worry this could force people to over-stuff themselves just to get the discount. This is especially worrisome, she said, in a climate where two-thirds of Americans are overweight.
"If your goal is to finish what's on your plate, you are not going to be paying attention to see if you are still hungry," said Edwards, director of the University of South Florida's Healthy Weight Clinic. "It's the opposite of mindful eating."
But Fred's Market manager Michael Johnson said the philosophy is opposite of that. The idea is to offer variety, where people moderate themselves and take what they can eat. They want the restaurants to harken back to a simpler time, where friends and family gather to enjoy real, unprocessed food together. You wouldn't take a plate of Grandma's cooking, throw most of it away, and get more.
"It's a huge value statement," he said. "It's about people taking responsibility for their own actions and not being greedy."
But greed and excess are in our genes, with buffets of the all-you-can-stuff-your-face-with-and-go-back-for-more sort embedded within that, culinary historians said.
"It's an entirely, utterly American phenomenon," said Ken Albala, professor of history at the University of the Pacific in California. He said our notion of a buffet is strange to Europeans and others in the world.
"That's the one thing that perplexes them the most — along with peanut butter and jelly," Albala said. "It's a quintessentially disgusting American way to eat."
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But the idea of a spread of food is centuries old, dating back at least to medieval times, he said. Cold dishes were laid out on a sideboard — or buffet — for guests. In Scandinavia it was called a smorgasbord. But America was the innovator of the modern buffet, taking it out of homes and into the public, where diners pay a flat price for as much self-service food as they want.
"It's deeply embedded in the American way of thinking," Albala said. "What's good is more."
Culinary historian Bruce Kraig said buffets gained popularity in America in the 19th century in hotels and on steamboats. He said European visitors wrote descriptions of scenes; the steamboats' doors flung open and passengers rushing in to gobble meats and starches.
"Food is integral to culture. It expresses what a culture is," Kraig said. "They ate fast so they could get back to business ... Americans are speed eaters.
"We always have been."
Kraig, an author whose most recent book is Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America, said we have always wanted a large quantity of food — and we also traditionally waste much food, more than other countries. Americans send 33 million tons of food waste to landfills each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Buffets held strong during the economic downtown, said Nima Samadi, senior tourism and hospitality analyst with the research firm IBISWorld.
And the Southeast, especially, is fond of them, he said, with the region claiming 35.1 percent of all buffets and cafeterias, but only having 25.4 percent of the population. Florida also craves buffets, with 7.7 percent of the industry catering to 6.1 percent of the population.
"For a lot of consumers, it's an opportunity to get a lot of food for relatively little money," Samadi said.
And Fred's Market is thriving. At the helm of the company is Fred Johnson, the restaurant namesake and leader of the family's mini-empire. It began in the 1950s with Johnson's hard-working parents, Elton and Evelyn, selling food at their gas station in Plant City. Now the company employs 500 people and includes a catering business. There are Fred's restaurants in Plant City, Lakeland, Bartow, Winter Haven and Riverview, which opened in December and is the newest location. The Riverview restaurant, run by Johnson's son Michael, is an experiment in the business; still Southern but with more trendy decor. On Thursday, the location became the first Fred's restaurant to serve alcohol, with wine and a beer selection that ranges from Budweiser and Pabst Blue Ribbon to local craft brews like Cigar City Brewing and Florida Avenue Ales.
Another son of Johnson's, Owen, runs the popular Johnson Barbeque in Plant City. Johnson said the company is exploring options to open a second barbecue location in downtown Tampa, which also would serve craft beer, and a Fred's buffet restaurant in North Tampa.
The family's umbrella company that oversees all of the businesses is called 1Box Hospitality. Johnson said they picked that name because it showcases their ideals: They aren't living by one set of values and then using a different set in business. They are themselves all the time, living inside "one box," he said. Straightforward. Kind. Trying to live a balanced life. This is why the business has grown in a time of recession, Johnson said.
"We're not pretentious," he said. "We just put out good food and hospitality and try to do it like we treat our family. That's really how we look at it."
Nearly all the recipes used in the restaurants have been passed down in his family. Johnson prides himself on serving real, unprocessed food of high quality. This is the food his father ate, and he lived to be 95, Johnson said.
He offers a buffet so people can have variety, but he hates the word buffet. He likes the term "market table" and tries to make the buffet not look like a typical, industrial one. Dishes are served from pots and casserole pans. He wants customers to feel like they are eating at a family potluck.
"Buffet says buffet — it says eat all you want," Johnson said. "It's not just cheap food that we throw out there. It's great fresh food."
He thought of the "waste not, want not" policy two years ago after being disgusted by how much good food — and money — was wasted in his restaurants.
"We had people go up and take a bite out of a piece of chicken and go get another piece of chicken," Johnson said.
He said the secret is that nearly everyone gets the discount.
"There are very few people that don't," Johnson said.
Servers explain to customers that only taking what you will eat helps keep prices low and quality high. A few diners have tried to hide food so they can get the discount, Johnson said, but most people don't. He said he just wants people to be mindful.
"We don't make them eat their chicken bones," he said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.