Luckily for Golden Corral and all of its buffet fans, predictions of the chain’s demise during the pandemic have proven wrong. Of course, the company was hit hard, suffering a major loss of sales due to the nature of the buffet business model, as well as the loss of dozens of restaurants caused by the bankruptcy of two of its largest franchisees.
In fact, things looked so bleak for a while that one news report called Golden Corral “zombie company it’s dead, they just don’t know it yet.” But CEO Lance Trenary now says the chain, which dates back to 1973, is back on track. And he has a message for any potential naysayers: “The sideboard is back.”
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The chain has new locations in the works as sales hit an all-time high
But the chain’s survival is no accident. Behind the scenes, the company was working hard to find solutions to its reliance on self-serve buffets during the pandemic.
“We were able to pivot quickly and move into different business models,” Trenary said, adding that guests were incredibly supportive during this time. The research told the company that people wanted their buffet back, and in the summer of 2021, when COVID-19 mandates began to ease across the country, things were already starting to look up.
Today, there are 360 Golden Corral restaurants operating in 39 states, including one in Puerto Rico. Trenary estimates that about 85 restaurants in total have been lost to the pandemic, some of which have been unable to renew leases or have been unable to come to terms with landlords.
But things are looking up for the chain’s footprint, with around 30 to 40 restaurants expected to open in 2022. “By the end of this year, we should have between 390 and 400 restaurants open.”
Currently, Trenary expects the company to achieve approximately $1.4 billion in system-wide sales, serving between 107 and 110 million meals this year. “It’s far from being a zombie business.”
Not to mention, Golden Corral hit an all-time high average unit volume (AUV) of $84,000 just a few weeks ago. The metric refers to the average annual sales across all operating restaurants. “It indicates our fleet is much healthier and customers are coming back,” says Trenary. “The record was not just a pandemic record, but a record in the company’s nearly 50-year history.”
He says the good news is that customers have been “incredibly loyal”. The chain’s most frequent customers ate at the Golden Corral about 70 times a year before the pandemic and they’re “come back in droves.”
The chain has learned from past weaknesses
Trenary says that while the pandemic has been extremely difficult, it has also been helpful in exposing weaknesses in Golden Corral’s business model, such as the sheer size of its restaurants, some of which can accommodate over 400 guests. “When COVID-19 arrived and temporarily banned our business model, it caused us to rethink things, like growing off-site businesses and ‘bolt-on’ innovation ideas.”
Some of those ideas included weighed-and-pay takeout, curbside delivery and a drive-thru model, which before the pandemic accounted for just a modest 2% of sales. Trenary says the challenge was how to increase that number, adding that the business needed to reinvent itself and get customers excited for a dining experience that wasn’t a buffet.
“Our offsite sales are now around 10%, down from 2%. Those are pretty big numbers.”
The company continues to “educate” customers that the buffet can be a take-out destination and that their main comfort foods, including fried chicken, meatloaf, burgers and yeast buns, “travel very well”.
Another area of focus, Trenary says, is group sales growth. “We use the tagline, ‘one for all,'” he says, noting that possible group segments include traveling teams and bus tours. “We are well suited to touring coaches due to our large car parks as well as our large dining areas. We have invested a lot of resources in group sales.”
And of course, a permanent commitment of the Golden Corral is the high quality of food. “We still prepare most of our food from scratch, including our grilled meats, chicken, pot roasts and buns. We want to make sure we focus on quality and not just amount.”
Here’s what customers can expect next
The chain is looking to the future by expanding the Golden Corral brand with two innovations that could see the light of day by the end of this year.
“The first is a small, fast-casual inspired restaurant serving comfort food in a 3,500 square foot building,” says Trenary, adding that the new concept will incorporate drive-thru but no buffet, and will still have all the the basic channel favorites offered. “It can give customers, who live in smaller markets, access to food from the Golden Corral, without the need for our standard restaurants in 11,000 or 12,000 square foot buildings.”
This new restaurant, however, will neither be like a TGI Friday’s nor an Applebee’s, but “unique” in that you place an order at the counter and the food is then delivered to you.
“We’re very excited because it will give customers the opportunity to experience Golden Corral at an affordable price, but not necessarily buffet style,” Trenary said.
He adds: “We defied all odds, Golden Corral not only survived, but thrived…we are excited for what the future holds.”