Old Country Buffet has been an American strip mall staple for years. But 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. In 2006, Old Country Buffet’s parent company merged with Ryan’s Restaurant Group to create the country’s largest buffet chain. But it turned out their eyes were bigger than their stomach.
Just two years later, Old Country Buffet declared bankruptcy, leading to the closure of many of their locations. It wasn’t enough. In 2012, they declared bankruptcy again, and were forced to close more restaurants in an attempt to right the ship. But the ship sank anyway, as the chain declared bankruptcy yet again in 2016. By February, 2019, the official Old Country Buffet website listed just 17 open locations, compared to a peak of more than 350 less than a decade ago. “Old Country Buffet was forced to close 90 stores nationwide. That company is set to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy.” So why did Old Country Buffet suddenly drop off a cliff? The basic answer is that tastes have changed.
First, fast casual dining is in. And while it’s hard to imagine a dining experience faster and more casual than a buffet, the notion of fast casual has become associated with chains like Qdoba and Sweetgreen, which are more upscale and modern.
Second, those places also tend to offer options that are healthier. Though it’s possible to find healthy options at a buffet, it also just feels pointless: you go to a buffet because it’s all you can eat, but if you aren’t planning on eating that much, what’s the point?
You might as well go somewhere that prioritizes quality over quantity. And along those lines is the third factor, which is the farm-to-table craze. Supplying a chain with bulk ingredients is difficult enough to do; trying to make sure those ingredients come from sustainable, local farms is difficult. Yet for environmentally conscious consumers, that’s a growing consideration.
Finally, more and more folks are choosing to stay home and enjoy a little “Netflix and chili” rather than dine out. That’s providing a boom for restaurants that deliver, or offer takeout. But you can’t really do either of those things with a buffet, meaning Old Country Buffets might just be on the wrong side of history.