Lucky for Golden Corral and all its buffet-loving fans, the predictions of the chain's demise during the pandemic proved to be wrong. Sure, the company was hit hard, suffering a major loss in sales due to the nature of the buffet business model, as well as a loss of dozens of restaurant locations caused by the bankruptcy filings of two of its largest franchisees.
In fact, things seemed so grim for a while that one news report called Golden Corral a "zombie company that's dead, they just don't know it yet." But CEO Lance Trenary now says the chain, which dates all the way back to 1973, is on track again. And he has a message for any potential naysayers: "The buffet is back."
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The chain has new locations in the works as sales hit a record high
But the chain's survival isn't a fluke. Behind the scenes, the company was working hard to find solutions to its dependence on self-serve buffets during the pandemic.
"We were able to pivot quickly and shift to some different business models," Trenary says, adding that guests were incredibly supportive during this time. Research told the company that people wanted their buffet back and, in the summer of 2021, when COVID-19 mandates began to relax across the country, things were already starting to improve.
Today, there are 360 Golden Corral restaurants operating in 39 states, including one in Puerto Rico. Trenary estimates that about 85 total restaurants were lost to the pandemic, including some that were unable to renew leases or couldn't come to terms with landlords.
But things are on the upswing for the chain's footprint, with about 30 to 40 restaurants slated to open in 2022. "By the end of this year, we should have between 390 to 400 restaurants open."
Currently, Trenary projects the company will do about $1.4 billion in systemwide sales, serving between 107 and 110 million meals this year. "That's a long way from a zombie company."
Not to mention, Golden Corral reached an all-time Average Unit Volume (AUV) record of $84,000 just a few weeks ago. The measure refers to average annual sales across all restaurants in operation. "That indicates that our fleet is much healthier and that guests are returning," says Trenary. "The record was not just a pandemic-time record but a record in the company's nearly 50-year history."
He says that the great news is that customers have been "incredibly loyal." The chain's most frequent guests were eating at Golden Corral about 70 times per year before the pandemic and they're "coming back in droves."
The chain has learned from past weaknesses
Trenary says that while the pandemic was extremely challenging, it was also valuable in exposing weaknesses in Golden Corral's business model, such as the sheer size of its restaurants, some of which are able to accommodate 400-plus guests. "When COVID-19 came and temporarily outlawed our business model, it caused us to rethink things, like growing off-premise businesses and 'bolt-on' innovation ideas."
Some of those ideas included weigh-and-pay takeout, curbside delivery, and a drive-thru model, which before the pandemic accounted for a modest 2% of sales. Trenary says the challenge was how to get this number up, adding that the company had to reinvent itself and get customers excited about a dining experience that wasn't a buffet.
"Our off-premise sales are now about 10%, up from 2%. Those are pretty significant numbers."
The company continues to "educate" guests that the buffet can be a takeout destination and that their core comfort foods including fried chicken, meatloaf, burgers, and yeast rolls "travel very well."
Another area of focus, says Trenary, is growing group sales. "We use the tag line, 'the only one for everyone,'" he says, noting that possible group segments include traveling teams and bus tours. "We are well-suited for tour buses due to our large parking lots as well as large dining rooms. We've put lots of resources into group sales."
And of course, an abiding Golden Corral commitment is to high food quality. "We still make most of our food from scratch including our grilled meats, chicken, slow-roast pot roast, and rolls. We want to make sure we're stressing high-quality and not just quantity."
Here's what customers can expect next
The chain is looking to the future by extending the Golden Corral brand with two innovations that may be rolled out by the end of this year.
"The first is a smaller, fast-casual-inspired restaurant serving comfort food within a 3,500-square-foot building," says Trenary, adding that the new concept will incorporate a drive-thru yet no buffet, and will still have all the chain's core favorites on offer. "This may give guests, who live in smaller markets, access to Golden Corral foods, without the need for our standard restaurants in 11,000- or 12,000-square-foot buildings."
This new restaurant, however, will not be like either a TGI Friday's nor Applebee's, but "unique" in that you place an order at a counter and then food is delivered to you.
"We're very excited because this will give customers the opportunity to experience Golden Corral at an affordable price, but not necessarily a buffet," Trenary says.
He adds, "We've defied the odds, Golden Corral has not only survived but thrived . . . we're excited for what the future holds."