Old Country Buffet’s corporate parent descended into bankruptcy twice between 2008 and 2012. Its corner of the restaurant industry, the all-you-can-eat buffet, has been a backwater.
But Buffets Inc., re-christened Ovation Brands last fall, is mounting a comeback.
The company, which has $900 million in revenue, is retooling its restaurants in a major way, from recipes to decor. The makeover has already occurred at about 40 Old Country Buffets, including all 14 in Minnesota, as well as in Denver and San Diego.
Ovation’s 337 restaurants, which operate under six brands including Old Country, are all eventually slated for renovation.
Since it exited bankruptcy in July 2012, Buffets — now owned by its former creditors — has moved its headquarters from Eagan to Greer, S.C. But it still employs 125 back office workers in Eagan.
The effort to revive the company has been led by Anthony Wedo, a veteran restaurant industry executive and consultant who signed on in December 2012. He spoke recently at the Old Country Buffet in Maplewood.
Q: What drove the changes at Old Country Buffet?
A: I believed that if we could create a new, contemporary offering that matched the needs of today’s young families, there would be a stampede to the door. Think about it, if you didn’t change your clothing style for 30 years, you’d look a little out of date. This brand hadn’t changed its style and approach with guests for 30 years. It didn’t remain contemporary with food offerings. It didn’t remain contemporary with hospitality levels.
Q: So, what’s changed?
A: You will see all the food up now on a flat surface, on what we call the “blue bars” [rather than in containers extending below the counter]. If you were going to host a dinner party at your house and you were going to use your own pots and pans, you would set them on a platform like I am doing. Then, there are individual portions. Customers are now getting sit-down-quality portions in individual stainless steel containers [along with the traditional scoop-it-out-of-the-pan food].
Q: Why do that?
A: It is me presenting to you your own portion. It’s plated for you, so it is certainly more sanitary. No one else has sort of eaten out of that container. It is certainly more eye-appealing, and I can now give you recipes that are more contemporary like asiago ravioli and shrimp and grits.
Q: What else is new?
A: We have added a job called hospitality manager. This person’s sole role in the dining room is to ensure that the guest is completely satisfied. They are my make-it-right ambassadors. New decor is an important part, too. We look more modern. We have added game rooms, which is incredibly important for families. I think Mom and Dad need a break. Also, we have branded, individual serving stations now. So you see Fire Mountain Roasters Coffee. You see Maple Street Bakery. You see Anthony’s Pizza and Pasta.
Q: How much do the store conversions cost?
A: We’ve spent about $300,000 per store [about $12 million so far].
Q: When did you start the new store rollout in the Twin Cities?
A: We started in late 2013 with construction. I had originally targeted to go on television with advertising in March. We actually went on television in May, due to sustained bad weather (which can keep people from dining out).
Q: Are sales growing again, and is the company profitable?
A: The company is very profitable. Sales in markets where stores have been converted are all up double digits. The old concept — that market is flat to declining.
Q: You were on the TV show “Undercover Boss,” the one where CEOs in disguise work low-level jobs at their own companies. How did that go, and what did you learn?
A: I was a laid-off construction worker and had a long blond wig that was glued to my head for two weeks. You couldn’t take it off when you slept, you couldn’t take it off when you showered. It was very uncomfortable, but necessary. The show allowed me to understand what was broken in a way that a CEO doesn’t often experience. I’ve fixed a lot of things since then. I just invested about $4 million in a brand new point of sale cash register system for our entire company because I realized how bad it was. One of the jobs I did was cashier, and I couldn’t ring up a doggone transaction.