Like their national counterparts, Chattanooga-area buffet restaurants are riding a post-pandemic high, according to local managers.
For long months during the pandemic, customers at the Buffet King in Hixson were required to wear masks when they approached the buffet tables "and we grabbed food for them," said Sandy Shi, a cashier and hostess.
"Now things are back to normal," she said of the restaurant, which specializes in Chinese cuisine.
At the Golden Corral in Fort Oglethorpe, "we're busier than we've ever been," said Scott Adkison, general manager and co-owner. "We definitely took a hit, just like everyone else, returning from lockdown, but our guest counts are growing every year."
At Home Folks in Soddy-Daisy, owners dropped "buffet" from the name and changed the business model in 2020 to increase the restaurant's chances of surviving the pandemic. Customers can still have all they can eat for a set price, but instead of lining up to dip their own plates at the buffet tables, they tell their server what they want from the menu and the servers deliver bowls of entrees and sides from the kitchen.
"We switched over to serving all-you-can-eat family style," said assistant manager Lauren Gaddis. "We don't really have any plans of going back to a traditional buffet. We call ourselves a buffet at your table. There's not a lot of people that do it this way, but it's really worked out well for us."
Gaddis said the menu is larger than the typical buffet because there's more room in the kitchen than what the old buffet tables could accommodate.
"We weren't sure how well this model would work, but a lot of customers actually like it better and we're able to save a little bit on food costs," she said.
Among the national chains, Golden Corral, known for its "endless buffet," not only survived but thrived during the pandemic. According to foodie website mashed.com, the chain's sales were double-digit percentages higher in 2022 than prepandemic in 2019. Much of its strategy focused on finding "unique and safe ways to keep offering food at a value," such as adding take-home family-style meals and drive-thru pickup.
Considering that the standard business model had customers handling the same serving utensils and filling their plates elbow to elbow, Golden Corral's corporate leaders knew the chain's 360 restaurants "would have to go above and beyond what everyone else was doing to make people feel safe," said Adkison at the Fort Oglethorpe location. "We're the one type of restaurant people were really fearful of."
Many of the safety protocols put in place during COVID-19 have been left intact in Fort Oglethorpe, including swapping out serving utensils every 15 minutes and leaving up the acrylic dividers between booths.
"A lot of what we learned from (the pandemic) taught us to be more proactive anyway," he said of the restaurant, where cleanliness has long been noted by customers in reviews. "We thought, 'You know what? There's no reason not to be doing this all the time.' We just kept a lot of it in place."
Adkison, a co-owner for the past 13 years, said he tries not to obsess over sales figures since food prices and other market forces can affect the bottom line.
"My concern is guest counts," he said. "Our location is one of the busiest in the country."
The Fort Oglethorpe restaurant, which sits amid a bustling commercial district on Battlefield Parkway, is among the Top 7 producers nationally, he said, outpacing Golden Corrals in tourist meccas in Florida and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. "We're serving more guests than most," he said.
Contact Lisa Denton at 423-757-6281 or [email protected].