The untold truth of Golden Corral

Golden Corral is the all-you-can-eat restaurant chain everyone loves to hate, and yet somehow it still packs in the customers. While many people see it as a symbol of wretched excess, others just appreciate the chance to fill up on what are ordinarily high-dollar items, like steak and seafood, for a bargain price. There are even some Joey Chestnuts-in-training who view the all-you-can eat buffet as a personal challenge — and yes, you really can eat ALL you can possibly stuff in your face. That viral news story about the man kicked out of a Massachusetts Golden Corral after scarfing down a jaw-dropping 50 lbs of food turned out to be a hoax.

Undeterred by being the target of numerous rumors, memes, and less-than-flattering videos, the Golden Corral corporation keeps right on reinventing itself to keep up with contemporary dining trends. In the past few years they've introduced new menu items such as house-smoked brisket and ribs and even a new restaurant design that includes a fireplace, and they continue to open new locations throughout its 41-state territory (which even includes Alaska – no Hawaiian locations as of yet, though).

Wherever your feelings about Golden Corral lie, on the spectrum from blecchh to bring it on, there are quite a few fun facts you might never have suspected about this temple to all-American overindulgence.

They didn't always offer all-you-can-eat

The early Golden Corrals were basic family steakhouses, along the lines of Ponderosa, Bonanza, Sizzler, and Beefsteak Charlie's. Hey, it was the '70s, and cheap meat was definitely having a moment. Along with leisure suits, bell bottoms and disco, however, the moment didn't last, and by the '80s diners were clamoring for something new. Never one to stay stuck in the past, Golden Corral rebranded and expanded. The new locations seated 400, and they were designed with an open kitchen so health-conscious(ish) patrons could be assured that their food was freshly-prepared.

The real show-stopper, however, was the new buffet, offering a "Golden Choice" of 160 different hot and cold-items, including a carving station for roast beef, ham and turkey. Just like a fancy holiday brunch, only not just offered at brunch time and, well, not quite so fancy. And no mimosas or bloody marys. Still, the all-you-can-eat aspect of the new Golden Corral was quick to catch on, despite the lack of booze. 

Some unsanitary conditions have been brought to light

2013 wasn't the best year for Golden Corral, public relations-wise. The year began with the temporary closure of a Tampa restaurant due to a huge cockroach infestation, numerous food temperature violations, and employees who did not wash their hands. 

Then, in July, an employee at the Port Orange, Florida restaurant posted a vomit-inducing video that quickly went viral on YouTube. This video showed trays of uncooked burgers and ribs stacked out back by the dumpsters. The employee claimed in a second video that the food was hidden there from visiting health inspectors, but would be returned to the kitchen and cooked as soon as the inspectors left. GC management and corporate office stepped in to do some quick damage control, but the jury remains out as to just how plausible their denials were. Snopes.com rated the incident portrayed in the video as a "mixture," or a definite maybe, and there have been subsequent reports of unsanitary conditions in other Golden Corral locations. 

 As if that video wasn't bad enough, that same month photos surfaced on Reddit posted by another Golden Corral employee of the "best working conditions ever," an absolutely filthy restaurant kitchen. There may not have been as many disgusting claims as of late, but those were likely enough for most customers to remember.

Food poisoning might not be the only risk

If the germs don't get you, the other patrons just might. When dining at Golden Corral, you'd better keep an eye out for flying fists, food, and cutlery. Buffet-line brawls may not be quite as prevalent as the ones held at Walmart every Black Friday, but there have been more than a few occasions where GC patrons have been ready to rumble.

A Louisville Golden Corral parking lot was the scene of a 2016 scuffle where a stabbing occurred. That same year also saw another stabbing incident at a Golden Corral in Henrico County, Virginia when a restaurant dishwasher attacked several people with a 2 1/2-foot-long skewer used for roasting chickens. More recently, two huge fights made headlines in March of 2019 — a reported 15-person battle royale inside a Brooklyn, Ohio Golden Corral, and possible a 20-person rumble at a Syracuse, New York location. Golden Corral? More like the O.K. Corral. Better bring your brass knuckles.

The Wonderfall raises concerns

The Chocolate Wonderfall may be extremely popular with many Golden Corral patrons (particularly those under three feet tall), but others remain dubious and still others are, frankly, grossed out by the whole idea. While Golden Corral provides items for dipping such as fruit, marshmallows and cookies, some people get a little more experimental with their dipping, such as this guy who decided to see what chocolate-covered chicken would taste like. Not great, it turns out. But what's worse, far worse, are all of the shocking tales of people who insert fingers, whole (possibly unwashed!) hands, and more into the fountain. The horror!

When Golden Corral first introduced its Wonderfall in 2011, it did so with a massive PR blitz, even calling it the "8th Wonder of the World." Its TV commercials kept on hyping new and improved versions (S'mores in 2012, Triple Yum with caramel and white chocolate in 2013), but more recent commercials have downplayed the fountain in favor of promoting items like sirloin steak or wings. Maybe recycling possibly contaminated chocolate isn't as cool as it used to be?

The protein is far from lean

Even if you steer clear of Golden Corral's cheap starches and questionable pizza and head straight for the meat, you're still probably not going to get any real high-quality stuff. Okay, so it's a budget buffet, we're not really expecting Wagyu beef here. But would some actual protein be too much to ask for? Uh, yeah, seems like it would, at least if you'd like your protein unaccompanied by a heaping helping of fat.

One intrepid nutritionist ventured into Golden Corral's nutrition data, and while the chain doesn't currently provide calories from fat on their nutritional information, according to Heather Blanchette, RD, LD, in 2015, what she found was, shockingly, no bueno. Her analysis found a single slice of Golden Corral's popular meatloaf to be 45 percent fat. Eek. The beef brisket was even worse, coming in at 63 percent fat. Likewise, you should probably also skip the prime rib if it's low-fat meat you're looking for — but then, if you're into making healthy eating choices, Golden Corral's really never going to be your kind of place anyway.

They manage to ruin pizza

While there are some who claim "there is no such thing as bad pizza," anyone who makes this claim has obviously never eaten the pizza at Golden Corral. Bad, it most definitely is. As to whether it's actually pizza — well, it resembles the dish, and is labeled as such, but by some accounts it is the one pizza that makes even those long-forgotten tomato soup-topped English muffin monstrosities seem almost edible by comparison.

So how bad is Golden Corral's attempt at pizza? MassLive's reviewer compared it to something eaten at an elementary school in the late '90s, while the Syracuse Post-Standard claimed it tasted like a frozen, then re-warmed slice of Little Caesar's not-so-finest. A Pissed Consumer reviewer from Morristown, New Jersey pulled no punches, calling Golden Corral pizza soggy and doughy, and mentioning that numerous fellow diners left unfinished pizza on their plates to be thrown away. "Who doesn't eat pizza?" they asked, concluding it "had to be really nasty." Good thing all of those New Jersey diners left their pizza uneaten, though. Other diners in Charlotte, North Carolina weren't so lucky, as the pizza they consumed caused them severe pain and vomiting and an urge to post their plight to IWasPoisoned.com. Yeah, the best advice we can give in regards to Golden Corral's pizza is to echo the sentiments of the Syracuse reviewers who advised, simply, "Skip it."

They might be trying to trick you into filling up on the cheap stuff

Golden Corral's commercials tend to focus on their big ticket items, showing tables full of manly men (and just a few women) digging in to all-you-can eat ribs, sirloin, and smoked brisket. How can they possibly make any money if they are really encouraging you to fill your face with meat, meat, and more meat? If they were charging $50 like a high-end churrascaria, then sure, they wouldn't go broke, but at $12 a head, how do they do it?

Trickery, that's how. Like many buffets, the high-end items often tend to be served in smaller portions, and you may have to wait in line a while for cooked-to-order menu items like steak. Another trick Golden Corral might be using is to position heaping platters of cheap, starchy items such as rice, potatoes, and pasta toward the beginning of the buffet line, with smaller platters of the pricier specialties being less accessible. They may also play on the mindset that nobody wants to take the last piece on the plate — think about it, how many times have you gone through GC's buffet line only to find there's always just one piece of fried chicken left on that platter? Bad luck, coincidence, or deliberate strategy? Also, take a look at the utensils. Chances are, the scoop for the mashed potatoes might resemble a small backhoe, while serving tongs for the pork chops may possibly pass for tweezers. Hmm.

The most popular menu items aren't what you think

While Golden Corral's advertising tends to highlight newer and fancier offerings such as the in-house smoked meats and the lobster tail upgrade, it turns out that the most popular menu items are a little more basic. In fact, Golden Corral's chart-toppers could best be described as old-fashioned all-American comfort food. The Food Network reports that three menu items emerged in a tie for first place: fried chicken, which has been on the menu since the buffet first opened, pot roast said to be simmered for 12 full hours, and good old meatloaf.

A 2016 report by MSN confirms the popularity of the meatloaf, putting it slightly ahead of the chicken and pot roast. The MSN report does, however, still have the meatloaf coming in tied with another menu item — this time a slightly more exotic entrant from the dessert side of the buffet: the fondue fountain known as the Chocolate Wonderfall.

They were caught fat shaming

Say what? Golden Corral fat shaming? Isn't that the last place in the world that should have anything to say on the subject of body weight? After all, they lay out an endless food supply consisting of about a bazillion trillion categories and then invite anyone with the price of admission to eat until their coronary arteries scream in surrender. On top of that, how could there possibly be such a thing as too under-dressed for GC? It's the farthest thing from a black tie dress code restaurant you could possibly imagine. If you put on a new pair of sweat pants before you go, you may be considered overdressed.

And yet, a woman in Erie, Pennsylvania was kicked out of her local Golden Corral due to either violating a non-existent dress code, or, as she suspects, daring to dress sexy while overweight. She was wearing a crop top and shorts, but had seen people in the same Golden Corral wearing skimpier clothing, so was shocked when a manager told her she was dressed "too provocatively" and would have to leave. As she later posted on Facebook, she felt she'd been called out "because I'm not thin so it's not considered sexy." Once the national and international media got involved, Golden Corral issued explanations and apologies and compensated the woman with some gift cards (which she hopefully plans to use at a different location), but she still says she never wants to wear that crop top again.

It's not the safest bet as a franchise

If you want to open a Golden Corral franchise, it'll run you some serious bucks. Golden Corral estimates the cost to be between about $2.3 and $6.7 million. In fact, you need a net worth of $2.5 million even to open negotiations, with $500,000 in liquid assets — and no, they don't mean liquid as in booze, since one of the franchisee benefits they tout is "no alcohol, no liquor liability." They do disclose that the $5.3 million average annual sales figure they provide only applies to the top 20 percent earners, and, as they emphasize in all caps,"THERE IS NO ASSURANCE YOU'LL DO AS WELL. IF YOU RELY UPON OUR FIGURES, YOU MUST ACCEPT THE RISK OF NOT DOING AS WELL."

What they don't disclose is just how "not well" you might end up doing. Former franchisee Sherrance Henderson, who accepted a franchise deal on a Golden Corral location in Poughkeepsie, New York after being turned down for her first choice location in Newark, New Jersey, experienced what she described as a lack of support and even harassment and threats from a Golden Corral executive. She ended up losing the franchise, along with her entire investment, after just 51 days. The bank then foreclosed on her home, and the single mom and her two autistic kids were forced to live on food stamps. Henderson launched a GoFundMe to cover her legal fees, and is suing Golden Corral for $350 million in damages.

They're not really an equal-opportunity employer

Golden Corral has had a certain amount of legal trouble with the federal government coming from their inability or unwillingness to comply with, or perhaps just sheer failure to understand, exactly what the Americans with Disabilities Act means when it comes to governing labor relations. In case any Golden Corral executives need a reminder, the ADA is meant to protect employees from discrimination based on their disabilities, and it even requires employers to provide any reasonable accommodations necessary to allow those disabled employees to perform their jobs.

Nowhere does the ADA say that employers or managers are permitted to harass and shame employees for their disabilities, or to fire them for the same, and yet disabled Golden Corral employees have experienced both of these shameful circumstances. One Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit against Golden Corral alleged that a dishwasher with high-functioning autism was repeatedly verbally abused and subjected to unwanted sexual propositions and contact, while another EEOC lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Golden Corral employee who lost her job after she was accused of "being unwilling or unable to control her epilepsy." In the former instance, Golden Corral was fined $85,000, while in the second case the payout was $31,000. Because duh, the ADA is a federal law. You can't buy off the EEOC with a handful of 2-for-1 discount coupons.

Golden Corral might soon be the last of its kind

Times are tough all over for most buffet chains. Western Sizzlin', Furr's, Souplantation, Sweet Tomatoes, Old Country Buffet, and Ryan's have all experienced plummeting profits — Ryan's sales figures dropped some 45 percent in 2017, and Old Country Buffet's were almost as bad. What's more, most of these restaurants have filed for bankruptcy, some more than once.

By contrast, Golden Corral is still, well, golden. Their sales actually rose in 2017 and they've opened several new locations over the past few years. So how do they do it? Partly it's the way the company is organized — they're privately held, and have had remarkably little turnover in leadership over the nearly 50 years they've been in business. The real secret to their success, however, may be their willingness to keep changing with the times. New menu items, new restaurant designs, whatever it takes to stay fresh and relevant. Not to mention all of its competitors helpfully putting themselves out of business. Soon Golden Corral might be the only game in town for those who value quantity over quality.

The brass bell actually used to ring

With Golden Corral's '80s-era expansion came what remains one of its most popular features, an in-house bakery. This new addition was later named the Brass Bell Bakery, after the real bell that was supposed to be rung every 15 minutes as a way to alert customers that an angel had just got his wings….er, a fresh batch of hot rolls had just been pulled out of the oven. According to Restaurant Business, it seems that the bell ringing was still happening at least up through the mid-00s, but brass bell sightings (or soundings) have become increasingly rare over the past decade, so it seems that this may no longer be a requirement at every Golden Corral.

Never mind the bell, though. The bakery is still turning out an assortment of muffins, cookies, cakes and pies, and some of its popular newer additions include honey-glazed cornbread and Red Lobster-esque garlic-cheese biscuits. What might be everyone's favorite bakery item, however, is still those hot, fluffy yeast rolls. Should you wish to bake these at home, a copycat recipe was published in More of America's Most Wanted Recipes. If you're planning to DIY these rolls on the cheap (otherwise you could just, like, pay for the GC buffet and scarf down as many rolls as you want), the recipe claims to make rolls that are pretty similar to the original.

Holiday dinners can get exciting

Yes, Golden Corral is usually open on Thanksgiving. And Christmas. And every other day of the year. Hey, they've got turkey and all the trimmings, don't they? Plus, if you choose to have your holiday meal at GC, you never know what's going to happen.

On Thanksgiving day of 2018, 7-month-old Calli Jarvis began choking. Her family couldn't help her, the waitress at the Hendersonville, North Carolina Golden Corral also tried but could not help, and everyone was beginning to panic. The waitress shouted out to the restaurant crowd, asking if anybody knew first aid, and a woman named Deborah Rouse stepped right up and saved the baby's life. A scary start, but a happy ending, and definitely a Thanksgiving to remember for all in attendance. Except Calli, who was too young to remember much, but who will undoubtedly be hearing this Golden Corral holiday story for the rest of her life.

Christmas Eve of 2016 brought an unexpected gift for hard-working waitress Rachael Vanorden at the London, Kentucky Golden Corral. After one couple finished their meal and left the restaurant, Rachel went to clear their table and found a tip of $1000, wrapped inside of a single dollar bill. What a way to say Merry Christmas! Perhaps not quite so dramatic for the rest of the restaurant patrons, but they almost certainly got service with a smile that evening from one very happy waitress.

Some Golden Corral customers take loyalty to extremes

Cigarette maker Camel used to boast that their smokers would "walk a mile for a Camel." Ha, that's nothing. Golden Corral superfan Jason Ford of Rockville, Maryland recently decided to walked to his nearest GC — which is in Frederick, some 30 miles away. He also decided to turn his stroll into a teachable moment, or series of moments, posting photos and videos of his journey on his Facebook page and sharing tidbits of local history.

Jason started his lengthy (but certainly appetite-building) trek at 5:30 a.m. and kept on walking (and filming) for nearly 12 hours. He almost made it to his destination, but 1.4 miles short of his goal, he was picked up by some of his friends who were driving past and didn't want him to run the risk of being a pedestrian at dusk in rush hour traffic. No word on how many plates Jason emptied that night, but at least he'd burned a whole lot of calories in advance.