Throughout 2021, the brand leveraged multiple models, such as cafeteria style, tableside service, and even off-premises only in some circumstances. While implementing these adjustments, the chain closely listened to customer feedback. Trenary says it became “overwhelmingly” evident that buffet was the desired form of service.
Golden Corral leadership spent numerous hours speaking with state sanitary officials, health departments, secretaries of commerce, and governors to ensure they understood touchable and shareable services have proven not to be a spreader of COVID.
Restaurants still conduct temperature checks for employees, and customers may use disposable gloves. In a big step forward, the chain recently announced it was removing mask mandates for employees in jurisdictions where it’s allowed.
“We had to really make sure that we followed the science, if you will,” Trenary says. “I know that's an overused term these days. But we wanted to make sure that our restaurants were safe and sanitary and that we were going to be in a good place. But once we were thoroughly convinced of that and it was backed up by the science, then we put a full-court press on going back to the buffet, and our customers have appreciated it and loved it.”
The extreme headwinds facing buffet at the start of COVID—including whether it would be allowed to exist in the future—pushed Golden Corral to explore new prototypes.
However, since customers chose buffet as their No. 1 option, the work on store designs has switched from an immediate urgency to completely transform Golden Corral’s platform into how can the company enhance its brand and increase customer access. This means Golden Corral's primary innovation project will be maintaining its status as America's top buffet choice.
The second initiative is a nod to the chain’s roots, which is a value-based steakhouse with a salad bar and comfort foods in the form of an entrée. It will be called GC Grill House and debut in Inverness, Florida. The prototype—a second-generation conversion—will be opened by an operator who’s worked with Golden Corral for nearly 40 years.
The other prototype is a 3,500-square-foot fast-casual concept that will have a drive-thru pickup window. The brand is in the final stages of completing the menu and cementing designs. Trenary says construction is likely to begin sometime later this year.
“We fully believe that our franchisees will want to come out of the gate and do these and test them, along with our support, but we are also committed to doing them from the company's standpoint," Trenary says. "We're operating some company restaurants now, and we fully intend to help move these innovation projects along."