Even today, there are still 16 states and municipalities that don’t allow the buffet. Trenary says 290 restaurants reopened and 250 are operating as buffets. The other 40 are using alternatives, such as cafeteria-style, which the CEO sees as inefficient and not as profitable—there’s roughly a 20 percent difference in revenue between a cafeteria-style and buffet location. Guests don’t like it as much, either. Some locations wouldn’t even allow cafeteria-style, so the chain implemented “buffet-to-your-table”—another challenged mode of operation, Trenary says. Another handful of restaurants are operating as curbside-only.
Golden Corral entered the pandemic with 490 stores, which means roughly 200 have yet to reopen. Trenary knows the chain will lose some of those permanently, especially the ones where the franchise agreement expired or they’ve simply run out of cash. But the CEO says it’s a small figure. Thirty to 40 restaurants are in various stages of ramping back up, so Trenary believes Golden Corral will return to 350 open venues soon. That includes the chain’s largest franchisee, 1069 Restaurant Group, which declared bankruptcy in October. The operator has since emerged and reopened two-thirds of its 33 restaurants.
AUV is returning as well. In the past 60 days, it’s approached $70,000 per week. More than 30 restaurants are earning more than $100,000 per week. Ten units have opened during COVID in places like Florida, New York, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Puerto Rico. Trenary says despite limited capacity, many of the new restaurants are on pace to reach close to $6 million in annualized sales.
“So what that tells us is that the guest is absolutely embracing the buffet again,” Trenary says. “They missed us. Our most loyal guests, before the pandemic ate with us 70 times a year. Very few concepts have that kind of guest loyalty. They're coming back as quickly as we can get them in the door, and that’s great news. Unfortunately, we've still got these markets that we’re not even allowed to serve buffets. We're working with state governments and the health departments and trying to make sure that they understand our protocol.”
Turning to Drive-Thru and Fast Casual
Throughout the pandemic, Golden Corral devised “bolt-on” ideas, or strategies the chain can apply in addition to its pivots.
The most notable is a drive-thru. Customers drive up to a remote ordering board and are directed to a space where an employee will bring out food. Trenary says it’s not as efficient as a traditional drive-thru, but it does give an access point for customers to enjoy Golden Corral products if they don’t want to leave their cars. The amenity is not in many restaurants and different styles are being tested, so it remains a learning process. Golden is targeting a 3-minute delivery time, and for the most part, restaurants have met that goal, Trenary says.
“Most of our recipes are made-from-scratch products,” he says. “So it's not as easy as putting the sandwich together. But we've built our facilities to be able to accomplish this, and we're still testing it, still expanding it.”
Trenary refers to off-premises as an Achilles heel for buffet concepts because the channel isn’t inherent to how they operate. Before COVID, Golden Corral’s off-premises mixed about 2.9 percent, and the brand knew that had to change. The company partnered with Olo to develop a new online ordering platform, and the chain is using Punchh to roll out a loyalty program. Consequently, off-premises now mixes nearly 11 percent.