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When did America’s heart turn cold on buffet chains?

Buffet chains have fallen out of favor in the United States.

Potentially around the same time that the term “fried rice syndrome” entered the lexicon.

Chicken wings aren’t good, yet the ones at Ponderosa Steakhouse in 1999 were delicious. The chain of buffets was founded in 1963 by Dan Blocker, who played Eric “Hoss” Cartwright on Bonanza,and enjoyed its peak popularity when TV Westerns were still big. Ponderosa was the name of the ranch on Bonanza. When I was 5, as I was in 1999, I did not care about these facts — I had no concerns at all, personally, and Wikipedia did not exist, generally — but I deeply cared about Ponderosa Steakhouse. I begged to go there.

Most of this love affair was actually with the ability to play grown-up and select my own food and carry my own stuff — and serve my own ice cream! — but I stand by it. A buffet is a glamorous idea; it provides you with the otherwise difficult-to-accomplish joy of eating many small servings of many different delicious things all at the same time, regardless of whether they are meant to be served together. Yet the Ponderosa Steakhouse in Canandaigua, New York, is now a parking lot for a Starbucks.

There were, at one point, 305 Ponderosas (and sister buffet Bonanzas) in the US, and today there are 75 locations total — including 19 in Puerto Rico and a handful scattered in Egypt, Qatar, Taiwan, and the UAE. The Ponderosa parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2008, the same year as the company that owns Old Country Buffet (and four other buffet chains).

That company, Ovation Brands. filed for bankruptcy twice more by 2016, at which point USA Today noted that it had “the dubious and relatively rare distinction” of entering what finance guys like to “jokingly refer to as Chapter 33 — that is, Chapter 11 bankruptcy for a third time.” The same year, Garden Fresh Restaurants, which owns Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, filed for bankruptcy as well, citing $175 million in debt.

 Mel Melcon/Getty Images
Salad bar-goers at a Souplantation in 2003.

In 2016, Eater’s Dana Hatic blamed the fall of the buffet on America’s “newfound focus on fast casual dining [and] farm-to-table menus,” as well as “widespread attention on the health effects of obesity and overconsumption.” This makes some sense, and at the same time, it does not.The buffet is a good idea. The buffet is a symbol of the American dream. The buffet is delicious. The buffet is affordable, and a lot of us love a deal. When did our hearts grow cold toward buffets, and why?

Obviously, since I have written an article about it, I know the answer. I have to say, this is the first time in my career in which I’ve felt a real temptation to withhold information from readers, in hopes of helping them lead a less informed but ultimately more enjoyable life. But you’re an adult and you can make your own choices. You may wish you were a child at Ponderosa who can make her own choices, but this is not the case. You should know up front that this is not going to be fun, and I’m sorry.

The first possible problem with buffets is that “all you can eat” is not an economically viable business model. What if people eat too much?

Buffets save a lot of money on overhead because they can make large batches of cheap foods and you ultimately do most of the service part yourself. They can easily change their menu based on what’s cheap and in season, and they can lightly trick you with tiny plates (dishware manufacturers make “buffet lines,” with half-size plates and bowls). I would posit that where this business model falls apart is in the way it makes people feel: that they are being manipulated in strange ways.

Conspiracy theories about buffets abound. In 2010, in the forums of BodyBuilding.com, the question was posed: “Do buffets have a special ingredient that makes you full? Like those all-you-can-eat buffets, do they put in some [type] of ingredient in all the foods which makes you full quicker?” Most of the responses to the question are quite rude, but a few of them are “yes.”

Of course, a secret get-full-quick ingredient does not exist. But buffets really do provide a bunch of bread and starchy, filling side dishes up front in hopes that you don’t quite make it to the carving station. They really do hope you don’t eat too much.

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything session last year, a buffet owner fielded questions about how old the crab legs are (old) and how bad the oysters are (bad), assuring readers that actually, the sushi is fine to eat if the place is busy, and that they are right to assume that leftover food gets recycled into soups and casseroles. His business, he says, depends on the fact that “No one can really eat more than two pounds [of food at once],” and “not many people can eat one-and-a-half days’ worth of protein or seafood in one sitting.” People really have been kicked out of buffets for eating too much: Famously, in 2004, a Utah couple following the Atkins diet was asked to leave a Chuck-a-Rama after going back to the carved roast beef station for the 12th time.

In 2014, Kerry Kramp, CEO of the restaurant chain Sizzler (which has since eliminated its buffet in many locations), told the Atlantic that her company specifically does not use the term “all you can eat.” Instead, Sizzler used “all you care to eat” because, as Kramp put it, “Sometimes guests misperceive these types of promotions and they take it as a challenge to potentially overconsume. That is not what we hope for.”

Buffets, according to Aaron Allen, chief strategist at the Aaron Allen & Associates restaurant consultancy, have “razor-thin” margins under the best conditions. They’re also targeting a consumer who is value- and price-conscious, which means the two parties are just tug-of-warring a 50-cent or $1 price change in one direction or the other for all of time, or until one gives up.

There are also some obvious problems with leaving huge mounds of food out in the open for extended periods of time and letting lots of people touch them. The buffet restaurant is like the Seattle Grace Hospital of the food industry: So many terrible things have happened in it, it’s hard to believe it isn’t cursed — and it’s hard to believe that anyone would want to keep going there.

In 1995, two waitresses at a Hoss’s Steak and Sea House sued the company after a coworker mutilated and deep-fried a Barbie doll in front of them as part of either a Satanic ritual or sexual harassment. In November 2003, afterChi-Chi’s, the Tex-Mex buffet chain founded by former Green Bay Packers player Max McGee, filed for bankruptcy, it became the site of the worst hepatitis A outbreak in US history. Some bad green onions in a Chi-Chi’s at a mall in a suburb of Pittsburgh infected 660 people and killed four.

In 2000, contaminated meat at a Sizzler buffet in Milwaukee infected the entire salad bar and thereby 60 people with E. coli. This wasn’t the first time — the same thing had happened at multiple Sizzler restaurants in 1993 — but this time, the company pulled the plug on all its remaining locations in the Midwest. A few years later, the chain removed the salad bars from all of its restaurants in Australia because someone put rat poison in two of them.

Souplantation hosted an E. coli outbreak in California in 2007. A Nebraska man who was awarded $11.37 million in damages after contracting salmonella at an Old Country Buffet in 2010 had to battle the company for years, namely because it kept going bankrupt and its legal team kept changing and the restaurant the man had eaten at closed before he could even file the suit. Souper Salad went bankrupt in 2011, blaming the recession.

In 2012, Pancho’s Mexican Buffet shut down almost all of its 40 locations, its corporate offices, its website, and all of its phone lines without any explanation. Bad things happen in buffets, and sometimes we don’t even know what they are.

 Charles Bertram/Getty Images
A veterans appreciation dinner at a Golden Corral in Kentucky in 2011.

But unfortunately, sometimes, we do know.

The existence of “fried rice syndrome,” is, I think, the factoid that eviscerated my innate human curiosity, probably forever. Brought to my attention by Laurel Dunn, a microbiologist and assistant professor of food science at the University of Georgia, “fried rice syndrome” is actually just a colloquial term for vomiting and diarrhea brought on by consuming Bacillus cereus, a “Gram-positive, rod-shaped, aerobic, facultatively anaerobic, motile, beta-hemolytic bacterium,” which can survive, as a spore, being boiled and fried, then come out the other side ready to germinate and grow when left at room temperature.

Food safety experts consider the range between 41 degrees and 135 degrees Fahrenheit the “danger zone.” Keep food cold or keep it hot; there is no in between — or there is, but that’s where foodborne pathogens grow best, replicating, getting ready to hurt you, Dunn explains.

Lukewarm food is where foodborne pathogens grow best, replicating, getting ready to hurt you

B. cereus is one of the most common causes of food poisoning, and its presence in fried rice was first studied in 1974. Yet “fried rice syndrome” had its first big spike in Google search interest in 2007. I cannot deduce why! But then it had another in 2015, when the USDA issued a warning about preventing foodborne illnesses, specifically fried rice-borne illnesses. And then another last year, when a 62-year-old Texas woman sued her local Chinese buffet for $1 million in damages after she contracted “fried rice syndrome” that put her in the ICU for eight days.

Professor Dunn taught me lots of things, actually, in our brief phone call. Undercooked poultry can carry salmonella, or campylobacter, or E. coli, and Clostridium perfringens grows in things like gravy and thick soups because it hates oxygen. Fresh-cut fruit is very dangerous, particularly melons, which have a neutral pH and provide beautiful homes in which bacteria can “thrive and grow.” Worst of all is the cursed cantaloupe, which grows on the ground and has a skin that is basically “thick netting,” which bacteria go absolutely crazy for. And when someone cuts into one, they just spread all that bacteria into the interior of the cantaloupe.

“If you cut up cantaloupe and you get E. coli on it and you put it in the refrigerator, that will keep the E.coli from getting to really high levels,” Dunn explained. “However, if you put it out at room temperature for several hours, that’s a perfect place for it to grow.”

She also disclosed that she regularly eats at buffets because there is “something liberating” about having the option to put “lasagna and fried rice and fried catfish all on one plate.” Excuse me! “Food microbiologists as a rule usually don’t [eat at buffets],” she acknowledged. “However, you’re probably talking to the food microbiologist who eats at more buffets than any, ever. I eat at them all the time.”

Our expertise does not necessarily protect us from the terrible things we want.

I’m stalking buffets across the internet like a particularly gruesome crush. The Golden Corral nearest to me, located on Highway 9 in Freehold, New Jersey, has 195 reviews on Yelp and an average of two stars. It would be impossible to summarize them in any useful way so as to inform your decision about whether you should eat at the Golden Corral in Freehold, New Jersey, as the posts veer wildly between comments like, “Best restaurant,” and, “We found a hair in my grandmother’s baked chicken.” “The food is pretty amazing. My husband and I love the steak,” and, “Substituted oyster crackers when they ‘ran out’ of tacos and tortillas!” (Explain?) “Cotton candy was made in front of [you] and put in a bag, we took that for the ride home,” (Five stars!) and, “This place is gruesome, trading in pure slop.” (This review also quoted the Old Testament.)

Dunn suggests to me that Yelp and Google Reviews and TripAdvisor and all of their ilk could be partially responsible for the demise of buffets. When things go awry — be it food poisoning or oyster crackers — a record is online instantly. There are no secrets. Yelp was founded in 2004 and had 1 million monthly visitors by 2006, and 16.5 million by 2008. TripAdvisor was founded in 2000, initially as an official guidebook populated by journalists’ opinions, not a social platform. But once the option for anyone to write reviews was added, it exploded — 5 million monthly visitors by 2004 and 50 million by 2011. It is hard to ignore the fact that their growth intertwined so tightly with the years of the buffet’s worst misfortunes.

When things go awry — be it food poisoning or bad oyster crackers — a record is online instantly. There are no secrets.

I am not going to drive to the Golden Corral on Highway 9 in Freehold, New Jersey, knowing what I know. But now that Yelp is potentially dying, maybe buffets can come back? To have a personal serving of cotton candy handed to me while at dinner is a delight I have not yet experienced and can hardly imagine, and I feel as though I might wholeheartedly pursue it if weren’t for the fact that I have also seen photos of a Golden Corral bus tray.

Google has integrated reviews directly into Google Maps, though, and so we are not really going to pull out of this one.

Allen, the restaurant analyst, tells me is he is aware of the problem of the internet, and restaurants are too. There’s been a lot of attention around foodborne illnesses, and the internet has made it easier for that attention to multiply in hours and corrode a reputation overnight. Before, he says, a customer would tell 10 people if they were upset about something they saw in a restaurant. “Now they shoot a Vine and send it to 10,000 people before they’ve even left.” I do not tell him that Vine, specifically, does not exist anymore because I think his point still stands. The internet is very powerful, and kids are filming stuff and putting it there. There are already 171,00 videos under the #GoldenCorral hashtag on TikTok.

Somehow, Golden Corral is the sole remaining successful buffet chain in the United States. I say “somehow” because Golden Corral declined the chance to comment on its staying power, but it’s demonstrably true.

There are still close to 500 Golden Corral restaurants in the US, which is not more than it had in 1987 but also not significantly less. Old Country Buffet’s sales dropped 37.5 percent in 2017, but Golden Corral is instituting a “100-year plan,” according to CEO Lance Trenary, who provided vague details of this plan to Restaurant Business magazine in 2018.

“We’re constantly making decisions that are consistent with us being around 100 years,” he added. He is the third CEO ever, and the company is still privately owned. He has overseen the addition of “cooking theaters” to many Golden Corral locations — areas where customers can watch their meat get smoked or their baked goods get frosted. The restaurants are getting expensive redesigns to make them look more like the glamorous and trendy dining halls taking over American cities, and to make the seating areas bigger and prettier. The goal is to have a buffet without any of the physical or cultural connotations of the American buffet. The goal is to make the word buffet meaningless.

Golden Corral is the exception that proves the rule, and it is also the winner of the buffet battle royal

How did Golden Corral weather its 2003 salmonella outbreak in Georgia, or its 2012 salmonella outbreak in Florida and norovirus outbreak in Wyoming, or its 2013 employee rebellion, which included the posting of a YouTube video in which trays of raw baby back ribs are shown sitting next to a dumpster?

Allen tells me part of it is just sheer luck and a strict vetting process when licensing the franchise to new people. “They were very selective about who they would allow in,” he tells me. “The franchisee for parts of Florida a few years back had his 50th birthday party and had, like, a half-million-dollar fireworks show. He’s got two planes, several Bentleys — that’s a guy who started with a single Golden Corral franchise.”

Some locations have been torn down and rebuilt from scratch — nowhere in any of them a long stretch of serving trays or a winding line — and have seen a 50 to 70 percent increase in sales, Allen says. “We really felt like our segment was slowly going away,” Trenary said. And it was.

“Buffets took a real hit during the recession and were one of the most bankrupted categories in the restaurant business,” Allen says. “When you look at what went away, buffets and steakhouses were the two that got hit, primarily.”

Golden Corral is the exception that proves the rule, and it is also the winner of the buffet battle royal. Allen tells me the recession was a “double whammy” because fewer people were eating in restaurants and food prices shot up. Many buffets collapsed, and others survived only because they took on tons of debt — later, they collapsed. Golden Corral, then, survived not just because of its superior franchise managers and tight corporate control but because many of its competitors died. “[The recession] thinned out the crowd,” Allen says. “That helps.”

To me, it’s a little weird that buffets haven’t been adopted by hipsters and hypebeasts the way almost every other chain restaurant and fast-food brand has at this point. These boys who love Supreme can find room in their hearts for White Castle capsule collections, yet they don’t want to be caught waiting in line for macaroni and cheese served in a trough? My guess is that it’s just not expensive enough. Or perhaps not internet-y enough.

This inkling is how I ended up looking at buffets on Instagram for three hours. The Golden Corral in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, recently posted a black square that says “9:30 AM” in the middle of it in green text, to indicate that it would be open the following day at 9:30 am. On March 3, the Golden Corral in Brownsville, Texas, posted a photo of a field overlaid with a diagram explaining how daylight saving time works, giving its followers a full week’s warning that they would need to figure out how to set their clocks one hour ahead.

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A post shared by Ponderosa Steakhouse of Hazard (@ponderosasteakhouseofhazard) on

I don’t even know where to stop. The Ponderosa Steakhouse in Hazard, Kentucky, on January 17 posted a pink-and-blue gradient with the message “All of our employees have been vaccinated for Hep A.” The bio section for the Golden Corral in Syracuse, New York says “TURN ON POST NOTIFICATIONS. TAG US FOR A CHANCE TO BE FEATURED.” The Ponderosa Steakhouse in Warren, Ohio, sometimes posts photos of printouts of its buffet layouts, so you can see exactly where the cheese sauce and beef stew will be placed before you arrive. (Why ruin the surprise?) Multiple Golden Corral Instagram accounts were affiliated with email accounts that, unfortunately, turned out to not actually exist. None of the direct messages I sent to Ponderosa Instagram accounts elicited a response.

“You know, millennials are kind of blamed for everything these days,” Allen says, but buffets really were hurt by my generation’s interest in putting healthy food in our bodies and spending our money in cooler places. “People buy brands that reflect how they see themselves,” Allen adds. “The cool vibe of a food hall” is hard to pass up, even if nobody there will give you a list of their vaccinations.

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