The Gateway prototype is not only improving existing customer traffic, but it is also growing engagement with customers who might not have considered dining at the brand before the renovations.
“We always want to broaden our horizons and bring in more customers,” Ingram says. “People who may have not considered Golden Corral in the past would potentially look at our new prototype and layout and say, ‘hey I want to give that place another try.’”
This proof of concept led to more and more franchisees signing on for the new look. Golden Corral franchisees must, at some point during their franchise agreement, go through a store refresh. Ingram says, “These franchisees that have to do something to upgrade their store—because if you’re not upgrading or refreshing your location it’s going to get stale for customers.” More and more franchisees are using elements of the Gateway design to update their locations.
Currently, 42 units are undergoing a Gateway refresh. When those locations come up for their renewal term, Golden Corral will complete the remodel. More franchisees are looking at doing early refreshes and complete remodels because they want locations to be as successful as the other prototype stores have shown to be.
The initial Gateway design transformed over the past year. In order for the design to be successful systemwide, the company listened to customer feedback. “We’ve gone back in and did kind of a post mortem on [the Gateway stores] and determined what’s working, what’s not working, what are some things that we can tweak to make it even better,” Ingram says.
The Gateway prototype is an important part of Golden Corral’s growth strategy. Ingram says it will help improve the success of existing franchisees and attract new operators in the future. “The function of [Gateway] is twofold,” Ingram says. “It is to bring in new entities to get new capital invested into the brand, but then convince and provide the motivation to get our existing franchisees, the people that are already out there operating, to get them to add stores to their portfolios as well.”
Golden Corral has its foot in most markets across the U.S. However, there are some areas where the brand sees opportunity to still grow. Some potential markets: Pennsylvania; Washington; Oregon; and more specifically, Des Moines, Iowa; and Northern California.
One surprising area Golden Corral has found success in is Southern California. In 2018 alone, the company signed eight new franchise entities to develop their first locations with Golden Corral and 14 other unit commitments were made by existing franchisees. With an average investment of $4 million and $5 million per unit, these commitments brought in a large amount of new capital for the company.
Ingram believes Golden Corral’s success in Southern California can be attributed to the chain’s strong value play and how that resonates. “We do well in certain populations and that population is represented in California,” he says. Since 2012, when the first Golden Corral opened in the City of Industry, there have been 19 store openings with another two slated to open in 2019.
“What I think is so strong about this story and why it’s a compelling part of what the Golden Corral growth trajectory is you look at in general most other companies aren’t going into California,” Ingram says. “They’ve looked at the area. They’ve looked at the economics. They’ve looked at the development costs, the difficulty of development, and they’ve determined as part of their strategy they don’t want to go in there. As we’ve gone into California we’ve really been able to see that we can buck that trend where a lot of people are running out of the state we’re able to go back in.”
Golden Corral’s homestyle offerings aren’t the typical menu items you might see in California-based restaurants. By offering comfort foods like pot roasts and fried chicken along with healthier offerings, the company’s menu variety attracts a broader crowd. “People can go in and get a very healthy meal if they choose to or they can get a very unhealthy meal if they choose to,” Ingram says.
Ingram says the company is seeing an increase in younger franchisees attracted to working with Golden Corral. Millennials, especially those with families, appreciate the variety of food Golden Corral’s buffet dining style offers. Having those choices makes it easier to dine out with children.
“We’re finding that the franchise prospects that are coming in are being driven to us because their kids were part of looking at Golden Corral, felt an affinity our brand, and wanted to be involved with it,” Ingram says.
Millennials are known for their philanthropic efforts and, specifically, choosing brands and products that are sustainable or have a cause attached to them, Ingram says. Having younger franchisees who care about connecting business with giving back is important for Golden Corral. Philanthropy runs deep in the company’s culture. “That’s one thing that Golden Corral is a leader in in the entire industry,” Ingram says.
The company’s two systemwide philanthropic campaigns help give back to those who have served, and those who are currently serving. Golden Corral’s annual Military Appreciation Night allows veterans to dine for free one night a year. Since beginning this night 18 years ago, “we’ve served 5.7 million meals on Military Appreciation Night,” Ingram says. “And we’ve raised $15.7 million for the disabled veterans, which is in conjunction with Military Appreciation Night.”