This Is Why You Don't See Many Old Country Buffets Anymore

Old Country Buffet has been an American strip mall staple for years. At one point the only thing Americans loved more than eating, was eating at a buffet. But in the 21st century, despite the promise of delicious cheese biscuits awaiting you behind those ubiquitous red letters, Old Country Buffet has definitely had some setbacks. And we're not just talking about broken froyo machines at the lunch rush.

Anthony Wedo, the CEO of Old Country Buffet's parent company, Buffets Inc., was even on the CBS hit show Undercover Boss in 2013 in an effort to reinvigorate the company's name after it fell on hard times. Unfortunately, despite the national spotlight, the franchise has continued to close up shops. According to the location finder on its site, today there are only a total of 17 Old Country Buffet restaurants left in the country, and sales were down more than 37 percent in 2017. That doesn't include its sister restaurants, Hometown Buffet and Ryan's. Clearly there's no shortage of carbs in this country so, what gives?

They've filed for bankruptcy three times

Before Old Country Buffet filed for bankruptcy the first time in 2008, its parent company Buffets, Inc. had merged with Ryan's Restaurant Group in 2006, and was high rolling as the country's largest buffet chain. After the 2008 Chapter 11 filing, the chain reduced some of its 626 locations and slashed debt by a whopping $700 million.  

But then Buffets, Inc. filed again in 2012, shedding more debt and cutting back more of its 494 buffets. Okay, so if at first you don't succeed, dust yourself off and try again... and again.

Then Old Country Buffet declared bankruptcy a third time in 2016 (so much for inspiration from Aaliyah). By then the parent company, Buffets, Inc. had been acquired by Ovation Brands. Per USA Today, the acquisition was a little shaky, with sales falling 22 percent below Ovations' expectations. The 2016 Chapter 11 filing primarily blamed costs associated with a lawsuit against the company, and with it brought even more store closures. 

It's hard to bounce back from salmonella poisoning

Undercooked chicken is no joke. On October 1, 2010, Nebraska couple Chris and Heather Gage dined at an Old Country Buffet in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Two days later Chris experienced renal failure and septic shock. He underwent a two-week hospital stint and multiple surgeries, and as of 2015 remained in constant chronic pain.

In 2014, The Gages sued Old Country Buffet and Ovation Brands for permanent damage to his health and medical costs associated with treating salmonella poisoning. According to a neurologist that testified at the August 2014 court hearing, Chris suffered brain damage from the salmonella, which has resulted in persistent nausea, balance issues, coordination issues, cognitive defects, emotional control issues, and speech problems.

Apparently what the Gages didn't know was that a month before they ate there, the Laramie County Health Department had fined the restaurant for 18 health violations because of others reporting sickness. Gage's salmonella poisoning was particularly severe because of a pre-existing health condition.

Representatives from Ovation didn't even show up for the first hearing. The judge granted the Gages $11.37 million when lawyers failed to respond in timely manner

More Americans are concerned about obesity

Unfortunately for businesses like Old Country Buffet, buffets are often synonymous with obesity. Anyone who's trying to shed some pounds might see images of endless bins of greasy food as a straight-up recipe for fatness, so more than likely, they're staying away. 

And any diet-conscious person who does eat at Old Country Buffet will likely cost the chain money, so that's not any better. Buffets are able to cut costs by focusing on the behavioral psychology of how we eat at a buffet. For example, more expensive protein items like fish or beef are available in smaller portion sizes and further down the line, after they give us access to huge, heaping portions of the cheap stuff like rice and potatoes. Buffets also make a point to use smaller serving utensils with the more expensive grub.

So if a healthy eater on a mission figures out their layout and makes a detour for the proteins and produce (while skipping all the filling carbs), they're going to cost a lot more to feed than other diners who paid the same entry fee for the buffet.

Today's healthier eating trends are better for us, but horrible for all-you-can eat chains like Old Country Buffet.

It can't compete with the farm-to-table craze

Farm-to-table menus full of sustainable, locally sourced ingredients are all the rage now. Since buffets tend to cut as many corners as possible when it comes to buying their food, it's safe to say they aren't exactly making eggs from local farmers their number one priority.

More people are choosing farm to table (or farm to fork) restaurants because it's arguably better for the planet. There is less environmental impact if you transport produce from the local farm instead of trucking it across the country. It also creates a sense of self-reliance and food security within communities.

Old Country Buffet doesn't advertise where it's food is sourced from, but it's probably safe to assume their cooks aren't hitting the local farmers market to stock up on veggies. 

Anyone who wants to eat local is more than likely going somewhere other than Old Country Buffet — and the number of people that applies to is steadily rising. 

They don't deliver, and no one wants to leave their house anymore

Remember when you used to have to put on pants to go pick up take-out at your favorite restaurant? Life before food delivery apps was archaic! Long gone are the days when you can only order pizza or Chinese food to your front door. Now the world (and its many cuisines) is at your lazy fingertips. Just like streaming services and at-home theater systems make you never want to leave your house to see movies anymore, delivery apps are making dining at restaurants, including Old Country Buffet, seem obsolete

Even if Old Country Buffet did start partnering with Uber Eats, it seems like something that wouldn't work well. After all, a buffet's most enticing factor is the one price, all you can eat aspect—and, of course, the endless opportunities to go for second helpings. It's not very likely you'll get your delivery driver to bring you seconds — unless, of course, you pay him a second time, too. That means 

Their range of cuisines is too wide

You know how sometimes there are so many choices of shows and movies to watch now, that you can't even make a decision and end up not watching anything? The endless scroll struggle is real. Choice overload is a thing, which is why niche restaurants are so popular in a time period when our choices are endless.

These days there's a restaurant for pretty much every kind of niche food you can think of, from chicken and waffles to Indonesian stew. If you're craving something specific, there's a place to get it. Yes, they do have a wide variety of food choices at Old Country Buffet... but they don't really specialize in any of it. 

For this reason, a couple craving steamed pork dumplings would probably prefer to get them at that specialty dumpling hole in the wall than at the local all-you-can-eat buffet. And who could blame them?

Church attendance is down

Buffets have always been a family favorite for after church so it makes sense that with the decline of church attendance in the U.S. follows the decline of buffet frequenting. Anyone who grew up going to church remembers the agonizing wait for that last processional hymn at the end, and the promise of a delicious plate of hot food on the horizon. Can you believe there was a time when you donned your Sunday best to go to Old Country Buffet?

But if more families are opting to sleep in on Sunday mornings, it's probable they're just eating lunch at home. According to Gallup polling, the 42 percent of adults polled said they attended church in 2008. By 2017, another poll indicated that the rate of weekly church attendance was down to 38 percent. 

If fewer people are making it to service on Sunday, then it makes sense that the post-church lunch at Old Country Buffet is also on the decline. 

Everyone knows buffets are gross

We've already established that Old Country Buffet isn't a great choice for anyone who's watching their diet, but the chain has a reputation for being unhealthy in a whole other way, too. All-you-can-eat buffets are ripe with chances to pick up bacteria and illnesses, and the general public is wising up to this knowledge. 

As Reader's Digest points out, it's not so much what they serve that makes it risky but more how they serve it. It's never a great idea to eat food that's been sitting out. Despite their best attempts, it's not easy to keep it warm enough or cool enough to avoid bacterial growth. Not to mention all those serving utensils that have touched about 100 hands before yours — and the fact that they probably fell into that casserole just before you got in line. 

Now that we're smarter about food-borne illnesses, fewer people are willing to eat anywhere that requires a "sneeze guard," and we can't blame them.

It can't compete with Golden Corral

While the American institution known as The Buffet may be on the decline, Golden Corral continues to ball out of control. It opened seven new locations in 2017, and sales rose 3.7 percent. One of the big differences between the chains, according to Restaurant Business, is consistency in ownership. The company is privately owned, by Investors Management Corp., a company chaired by the same man who opened the first location. There have only been three CEOs in the entire history of the chain, which was founded in 1973 in North Carolina. The leaders of Golden Corral are clearly very loyal to the brand. They're like the Kardashian/Jenner family of buffets.

Golden Corral created a new floor plan for all its restaurants a couple years ago. The kitchens are semi-open and the aisles in the dining area are wider. Overall the spaces are more efficient for a high volume of people, but staff and patrons alike have plenty of room to prepare and scarf down some legit Southern style pot roast and fried chicken. Given the choice, customers are picking Golden Corral over Old Country Buffet pretty consistently.

Real talk: People also probably feel classier eating at Golden Corral since the word "buffet" isn't in the name.

Fast casual restaurants are taking over

If the family does go to church and eat afterward, they're probably eating at Chipotle afterwards.

Fast food that's not really fast food but is still sort of fast food is taking over. Even places like Five Guys and Shake Shack (which is, after all, leading the burger revolution) are trying to make the average hamburger joint a gourmet-ish experience... but it still better be quick! The irony is, buffets are probably the fastest food to mouth option you can get outside of your home — they just don't have that "fast casual" label that's practically required for popular eateries these days.

Old Country Buffet simply can't compete with the modern vibes and fresh fare that fast casual restaurants like Qdoba and Sweetgreen deliver so effortlessly. If Old Country Buffet wants to start offering exotic grain bowls, baby kale salad, and artisanal ice cream with savory flavors, maybe it can stand a chance.