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Q&A: Greg Buchanan of Buffet Partners L.P.

Chief exec discusses latest Furr’s Cafeteria iteration

Buffet Partners L.P. last month opened its 12th Furr’s Fresh Buffet in San Antonio, an evolution of the 65-year-old Furr’s Cafeteria chain.

The Plano, Texas-based company, which has 35 straight-line cafeterias as well, has focused its expansion on the buffet format over the past several years, offering such Furr’s signature dishes as Millionaire Pie and Skillet-Grilled Chicken Fried Steak in the scatter-bar concept.

Like its regional competitor Luby’s Cafeterias Inc. of Houston, Furr’s has select locations that offer a breakfast buffet on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

In the past year, Furr’s opened three of the Fresh Buffets, the most recent a 11,600-square-foot, 450-seat unit in San Antonio last month and in the Houston area in May and Arlington, Texas, last October.

VIDEO: Buffet Partners expands Furr's Fresh Buffet

Greg Buchanan, chief executive of Buffet Partners Holding Co. LLC, talked about the Buffet units and the cafeteria segment with Nation’s Restaurant News:

What is the idea behind the Buffet concept?

It’s really a brand repositioning for the 65-year-old concept. We’ve determined that Furr’s has some really good brand strength. Putting it into the buffet format has really resonated with the guest.

What advantages does the buffet format have over the straight-line cafeteria?

There are a couple of things. In the buffet format, you come in the door and pay immediately. I believe that’s more convenient for the buffet guest and quicker than the cafeteria. And then, [guests] are immediately into the dining experience. They can control the [serving] spoon and customize their experience, even more than in a full-service restaurant. For example, you can sample three different entrées and your choice of sides.

You do offer some table service?

We do. It’s not full-service, but we take their drink order and keep the plates cleared off the table.

How do you enhance variety?

We have nine buffet bars. That offers more variety than the cafeteria. The new décor and the freshness also makes it more comfortable.

What are the biggest changes in buffet vs. traditional cafeteria?

We’ve progressed as we’ve developed the buffet. The recent changes include upscaling the building and the overall décor and environment with tiles and moldings. We’ve popped out a display-cooking grill, where we’ll prepare grilled chicken, fresh vegetables and steaks every night after 4 p.m. We also carve roast beef, turkey and ham in that area as well. … That’s a nice custom touch and a service for the guest. We have the bumped out grills in three units.

What consumer trends are you capitalizing on?

Convenience, depending on the meal period, is really critical. The fact that we can get you through the line quickly is an advantage. The buffet bars are arranged in the center of the restaurant, so it’s a convenient process. It’s also a great value. We charge $7.69 for lunch plus drink, which is $1.99. And then $9.99 for dinner plus drink.

What about flexibility in reacting to trends?

We can take one of the bars and turn it into a burger bar. You can have a good customized burger as a good value with interesting sides. In our latest three units, we have frozen yogurt with 10 different toppings. We can slip in food trends, and it’s a great value.

How about health trends?

We don’t like to call it “all you can eat.” I like to call it “all you care to enjoy.” If you want to come in, you can eat healthy. That really helps with groups. We have two big salad bars as well as grilled fish and chicken.

How about private dining?

A dining room off the side seats 80 to 90 people.

How about the size of your newer units?

Cafeterias tend to traditionally be about 10,600 square feet. With our latest units, we’re at about 11,600. That seats about 450 people. We’re obviously going into markets that support that size.

What are those markets?

We’re really targeting Middle America as our guest. We want, obviously for a building of this size, a pretty dense daytime population for lunch. We also wanted to stay in our core market, which is South-Central United States. We’re in seven states now. We’re really focusing on Texas — the Dallas, Houston, San Antonio markets.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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