The buffet restaurant segment was especially hard hit by the COVID pandemic, but Golden Corral Corp. is looking to keep its business pivots in place and considering new brand extensions — such as a smaller fast-casual version and a possible steakhouse — that would fit into the Vaccine Era.
The Raleigh, N.C.-based buffet brand currently has about 360 buffet units open. About 40 remain closed with remodeling and reopening plans, said Lance Trenary, president and CEO of Golden Corral.
“As all the dust settle, we've probably have lost 80 restaurants at a minimum,” said Trenary. “Some of them were at the end of their lease and just chose not to renew. … We didn't lose many franchisees, we just lost individual restaurants and we had some reorganization.”
“COVID just devastated our business, as it did the entire industry,” said Trenary, who in 2022 will take over as chair of the National Restaurant Association.
The nearly 49-year-old Golden Corral buffet brand, founded in 1973 in Fayetteville, N.C., has made several pivots during the pandemic, with one of the main ones an increase in off-premises sales, increasing that from just 2% to nearly 10% of sales, Trenary said.
He likened it to being 50-year-old company that had to act as a start-up. The company has added adult beverage service in some locations, has tested a drive-thru and put new emphasis on retails sales, such as for its popular yeast rolls and cakes.
Golden Corral is also designing a fast-casual version of its brand.
“We've got two other concepts that we're in the process of developing,” Trenary said. “One would be more along the lines of a smaller footprint fast-casual.
“When COVID hit, a 12,000-square-foot building is not always your best friend,” he said of the traditional Golden Corral unit. “It's a lot of overhead for our franchisees and our company operators. So we're looking at a 3,500- to 4,000-square-foot endcap with the drive-thru window and a limited menu but still centered around comfort foods.”
Trenary said the brand’s culinary team was developing variations off core items and testing some items in the company’s Homeward virtual brand.
Another possible test would be a value-oriented steakhouse. “We’re not going to compete with the Texas Roadhouses or LongHorns or Outback,” Trenary said, “but we believe that there might be a segment under them.”
The tests would roll out in 2022, he added, with a target of mid- to late-summer of next year.
Trenary added that the Golden Corral guests are dedicated, with that loyal cohort making up about 15% to 16% of total guests but about 70% of traffic.
“When we started being able to serve buffets again across the nation, which wasn't really until this past summer, our guests responded very well,” he said. “So that, coupled with all the innovation that we did and all the pivots we had to make, really has put us in a position going forward to be even a much stronger brand than what we went into it.”
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