Is Old Country Buffet Closing?

You may have noticed the restaurant market has changed somewhat following the COVID-19 pandemic. As dining rooms across the United States closed, it seemed that many restaurants, whose main focus was usually on attracting customers to go into their establishments, have now begun a shift toward more of a take-out style of service. Many have become less like your usual sit-down restaurants and more like a large fast-food operation.

Take, for example, Applebee's. As Eater tells us, the "neighborhood bar and grill" has begun to add "drive-thrus," or rather designated pick-up lanes for online orders, across 15 of its restaurants as a test run. This shift from the sit-down business model towards online orders, delivery, and carside service is a by-product of the COVID-19 response. After all, when your customers can't even enter the restaurant to sit down and eat food, what other choice does a restaurant have than to bring the food to the customer (via QSR Magazine)? In a time where shifting preferences and government regulations interfere with your business, sometimes the only choice is the rather Darwinian approach of "adapt or die." 

But what about restaurants that couldn't offer take-out or delivery? Buffet-style restaurants, such as Old Country Buffet, obviously can't offer customers mobile deals or take-out services, considering their style of "all-you-can-eat" smorgasbord dining. If the market shifts away from sitting down in a dining room in favor of eating restaurant food at home, how can a place like Old Country Buffet survive?

Old Country Buffet took some hits from the lockdowns

Depending on who you talk to, Old Country Buffet is dead — or has, at least, seen far better days. In fact, some say that the pandemic isn't what's killing Old Country Buffet, but instead, that it's simply an ancient relic that just hasn't adapted to modern times yet.

Restaurant Business Online gives an example of Old Country Buffet and other such buffet-style brands are treated in the modern world. When purchasing the company that owned both Old Country Buffet and the steakhouse chain Tahoe Joe's, the purchaser, Famous Dave's, admitted that it was only interested in Tahoe Joe's. They described Old Country Buffet and the other buffet restaurants it had acquired were simply just "throw-ins" — useless baubles tossed in with a bankruptcy purchase. The reason for the collapse of the buffet-style market, Restaurant Business explains, is a lack of care, neglect, and poor operation choices. 

RestaurantClicks elaborates, noting that Old Country Buffet simply didn't catch up with what the modern customer wanted. While huge portions of cheap food may have appealed to an older generation, modern diners have different expectations. High-end food experiences have begun to attract people far more than the promise of eating huge amounts of food for relatively cheap.

Yet wouldn't the idea of more food for less money still be an attractive option, especially with food prices hitting their peak? Could Old Country Buffet and other buffet restaurants still manage to save themselves?

Can the buffet survive in 2022?

In today's world of inflation and high prices, the idea of being able to eat as much as you want for very little money would be met with open arms. But if that's the case, why aren't people beating down the doors to Golden Corral and Old Country Buffet to get their grub on? How can a buffet survive in 2022, and what can it do to attract more customers?

According to the Boston Globe, many people are willing to shed fears of COVID-19 if it meant going back to the buffet, considering the wide variety of choices and cheap prices. In fact, Boston Globe reports that many people, perhaps influenced by fear and stress relating to COVID-19 and the response to it, were actually turning to comfort foods such as macaroni and cheese and fried chicken — all things that can be found at a buffet-style eatery. The promise of cheap comfort food would no doubt be attractive to many hungry Americans.

Nation's Restaurant News also lauds Golden Corral for managing to avoid the worst of the COVID-19 response, managing to not only "evolve" its restaurant to better adapt to the consumer but maintain its core concept. FSR Magazine notes that, although the buffet chain did take a few unavoidable hits, the company managed to carefully explore new innovations and adopt new methods of serving its customers — while keeping the main idea of value and endless buffet options in its model.