Many thought that COVID-19 would have signaled the end of the buffet-style restaurant as we know it, especially as the pandemic made both operators and consumers rethink food safety issues. But even though not all buffet brands survived these past difficult few years, Golden Corral has been proving early pandemic trends wrong, ending 2022 with 14% same-store sales growth over 2019.
“The press kept asking, ‘will the buffet segment even survive?’ and to their credit we are the only national family dining buffet that survived,” Golden Corral CEO Lance Trenary told Nation’s Restaurant News. “[…] We did the research on [customer sentiment] and it was just overwhelming that people wanted the buffet back. That gave us the courage and enthusiasm to start growing and make this the absolute best buffet the U.S. has to offer.”
The two key elements to Golden Corral’s durability were and continue to be value (not taking too much pricing) and versatility (leaning into Golden Corral experiences beyond the buffet table). Trenary said that the company knows who their key demographic is and has not lost sight of their reputation for offering a plethora of food options for a relatively low price, even as they have had to carefully take pricing increases like the rest of the restaurant industry (14% over a three-year period).
“People are always telling us, ‘We appreciate your value’ and we kept the lid on pricing and worked hard to maintain that value without cutting quality or variety of buffet options,” Trenary said. “[…] That value equation of maintaining quality, value, and then and doing everything we could to take great care of our people proved to be a winning formula for us.”
Whereas the focus on value was all about maintaining the status quo, the other part of the Golden Corral’s recipe to success was about letting go of the past and not being resistant to change. For example, during lockdowns and dining room restrictions though 2022, Trenary said they had to get creative with bringing the buffet home, by creating family value meals and a digital presence that the brand didn’t really have before 2020. Even today with buffets back open for business, off-premises sales constitute 9% of all sales (whereas they used to be just 2%).
This shift has made Golden Corral pivot toward updating their technology and omnichannel offerings more than ever before, including trying new things like smaller store footprints to keep up with changing consumer needs.
“At 47 years old going into the pandemic, you do get a little bit set in your ways,” Trenary said. “The pandemic opened up so many new avenues for us that we didn’t think of before […] we were able to take off those blinders and say, ‘what else can we be?’”
It turns out that the answer to “what else can we be?” is a fast-casual offshoot marketed toward younger customers. Homeward Kitchen is one of two Golden Corral spinoffs (alongside the quick-service steak concept, Grill House by GC), which will be opening its first location in North Carolina this fall.
“Some of Golden Corral’s biggest strengths are our comfort food like fried chicken, meatloaf and pot roast,” Trenary said. “There won’t be a buffet in this restaurant—it will strictly be order at the counter and we’ll come bring the curated comfort food to your table. [...] this will give our franchise community options: if they want to grow the buffet, they can do that, but if they want to grow with a smaller footprint and a slightly different clientele, they can do that too.”
Moving forward, Trenary said they will be mostly focused on expanding their flagship concept, as well as the new Homeward Kitchen, whereas the Grill House by GC concept — which has been slow to succeed — will take a bit more of a backseat. The long-term goal is to add 200-250 more Golden Corral buffets around the U.S., alongside the prospect of adding Homeward Kitchen to 500+ new markets across the country, with international growth possibilities in the future.
“There's a lot of blue sky ahead for our brand,” he said. “We always like to say that we have a 100-year plan at Golden Corral, so since we just celebrated 50 years, we’re only at halftime. We’ve got a long runway ahead of us.”
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