- Garden Fresh Restaurants, parent company of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last week after closing all of its 97 restaurants. It will surrender its assets, between $50 million and $100 million, and close permanently, according to QSR Magazine.
- The restaurant company's self-service chains, centered around salad bars, pasta and dessert stations, couldn't survive COVID-19 dining room restrictions that included the FDA's recommendation to discontinue "salad bars, buffets and beverage service stations." CEO John Haywood told QSR Magazine that takeout wasn't a feasible option and that Garden Fresh was hemorrhaging more than $1 million per week during dining room closures.
- Golden Corral, however, is slowly reopening its restaurants without its signature buffet. Instead, roughly 100 locations are transitioning to a family-style table-service model, according to Restaurant Business.
Buffet-style restaurants were already on the decline, but the novel coronavirus pandemic could prove fatal for the segment.
But these chains aren't going down without a fight. HomeTown Buffet and Old Country Buffet have opened some locations for takeout. Golden Corral has already experimented with new service formats in the past, giving it a leg up over restaurants that are slower to evolve. The 484-unit chain says it has seen strong demand for Golden Corral To Go, which offers menu items in individual or family portions for delivery, and for its catering services.
This focus on off-premise opportunity may be what is driving Golden Corral sales higher than its competitors. Last year, the company's sales grew 0.8% compared to 3.8% declines for rival buffet chains, according to Technomic data. Between 2015 and 2020, Golden Corral sustained an average sales growth of 0.1% while the segment experienced an average 3.8% decline.
Golden Corral also has 15 restaurants, which includes 12 in Florida, that are currently open and operating the old buffet model. But given current levels of diner unease over dining room reopenings, it seems unlikely that the chain and other restaurants in the buffet segment will be able to revive their self-service models across their entire segments. Fifty percent of respondents in a Market Research Answers survey of 1,000 consumers said they were concerned about a restaurant's ability to ensure employee and diner safety, and 43% predict they will purchase less at restaurants than what they purchased before the pandemic.
Pivoting to family meals for both takeout and dine-in service could help traditional buffets weather this storm and prepare for a future that will be much more heavily weighted toward off-premise orders. This shift could help capture the valuable millennial demographic — before coronavirus impacted the U.S., 80% of millennial parents visited restaurants at least once a week.
Still, as the industry has seen with Garden Fresh's bankruptcy, moving toward off-premise may not be possible for every restaurant. Though the company didn't disclose why takeout wasn't in the cards for its future, this chain's closure simply reflects how hard it can be for restaurants to quickly adapt to the current, constantly evolving environment.