Old Country Buffet, once a strip mall staple, has closed its last restaurant in Illinois as the pandemic threatens the American tradition of communal serving tongs and endless helpings of macaroni and cheese.
VitaNova Brands, owner of several all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant concepts, on Friday permanently closed the Old Country location at 6560 W. Fullerton Ave., in Chicago’s Montclare neighborhood, as well as two Hometown Buffets in California and one Ryan’s in West Virginia.
The locations have been shuttered since March, when governments mandated the closure of dining rooms to contain the coronavirus. They had been suffering declining sales before the pandemic and the company was unable to extend expiring leases under favorable terms, so “we needed to make the tough call to redirect our resources to other locations” operating under a new concept that relies less on the buffet model, Jason Kemp, president of the San Antonio, Texas-based company, said in a news release.
The pandemic has devastated many restaurants, but it is taking a greater toll on buffet concepts that rely on in-person dining and a shared self-service environment. In May, San Diego-based Garden Fresh restaurants, which owns buffet chains Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, announced that all 97 of its restaurants would permanently close.
As of August, sales at buffets and cafeterias were 55% lower than a year before while the overall restaurant industry was down 9.5%, according to market research firm NPD Group. During the height of the dining room closures, in April, buffets and cafeteria sales were down 80%, compared with a 35% hit to restaurants overall.
At a time when restaurants are scrapping physical menus for QR codes and offering individual condiment packets rather than shared bottles, a model based on shared access to food is difficult to execute, said David Portalatin, vice president and food industry adviser for NPD.
Many buffet restaurants relied on people dining on-site and were ill-prepared for the massive shift to takeout and delivery, he said.
The buffet concept already had been struggling before the pandemic — with a sales decline of 3.3% in February — as people ate more meals at home. The pandemic has accelerated that trend, with the American consumer now making 11% more dinners at home than before, Portalatin said. Long-term, restaurants will have to focus more on takeout, delivery and other off-premise dinner solutions for families, he said.
VitaNova Brands pivoted during the pandemic to accommodate the new reality by introducing all-you-can-eat meals served directly to the table at its restaurants. It also launched takeout and delivery service at some of its restaurant brands and a marketplace where customers can buy prepared and packaged foods to go, as well as cooked sides in bulk.
Restaurants have gotten creative to keep the spirit of the buffet without the sharing.
Golden Corral, the largest buffet chain in the U.S., shifted some of its restaurants to a cafeteria model where staff serve customers the food as they go down the line, to minimize the touching of utensils.
In Chicago, the famous salad bar at R.J. Grunts is now available as the Salad Bar Salad, which allows customers to add three toppings to a house salad that is prepared in the kitchen and delivered to people’s tables. Shaw’s Crab House in September brought back its Sunday brunch in the form of a $55 four-course menu, brought to the table, in lieu of a buffet.
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