Rosenblum: Jolly Troll: The all-you-can-eat served dinner, made memories

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 27, 2012 - 1:01 PM
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Carole Jean Anderson, with her parents Ray and Alice Anderson. “Customers would line up outside,” Carole recalled.

Of many intriguing food trends predicted for 2012 -- (artisan chocolate, yes!) -- the most interesting was found in a tiny blurb on our business pages.

Expect more gluten-free options and ethnic selections, especially Korean food. There's growth in food trucks and a renaissance of butchers, too. Chef Devin Alexander, author of "The Biggest Loser" cookbooks, adds "fun-size" sweets to the list, including tempting cupcake pops.

But it's what we'll be seeing less of that surprises me: the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Buffets Inc. has filed for bankruptcy protection for the second time in four years, and is closing 81 Old Country Buffet restaurants. The economy plays a role, but restaurant analyst Dennis Lombardi of WD Partners said the all-you-can-eat concept is waning in our weight-conscious culture.

This made me curious about the birth of the buffet. I asked Star Tribune restaurant reviewer Rick Nelson, who told me about something I missed by not growing up in the Twin Cities.

Two words: Jolly Troll.

Fellow transplants, Jolly Troll was the original Twin Cities' smorgasbord, first located in Golden Valley where the Metropolitan is now, and featuring enough Swedish meatballs, pickled herring and cranberry fluff to feed 500 people at once.

To native Minnesotans whose heartfelt blog entries urge a return of the Jolly Troll, or who have created Jolly Troll Facebook pages, or whose dreams are filled with odd little mechanical bearded men in chef's hats stirring soup, I bring heartening news. The "Jolly Troll heiress" still lives in the Twin Cities.

Carole Jean Anderson is the daughter of Ray A. Anderson, who created the Jolly Troll chain in 1964 after an inspiring trip to Scandinavia with his wife, Alice. One of the few living family members, Anderson is a still-reliable keeper of this nod to nostalgia.”

"When I was a kid, I hated it," a laughing Anderson said of the all-you-can-eat mecca. "We went every day. Every stinkin' day! Then I went to college, and I could bring my friends."

Ray was a "driven" man, she said, who dropped out of school after eighth grade and worked in restaurant sales, bringing home doilies and hair nets. Ray and Alice, who married in 1936, traveled to Sweden in the early 1960s, where they were treated to their first smorgasbord. Ray decided to bring the concept home as "something you will remember."

What his daughter remembers is lines out the door. "Customers would line up outside," she said. "You'd go into the kitchen and someone would yell, 'Busload! All hands on deck!' It would be insane."

The big draw, though, wasn't the price (about $3 a plate). It was the cavernous restaurant's trolls, hammering and stirring, and the magical sets recreated around them, including a workshop and a barn "pretty close to what my Grandma's house looked like in Sweden." Kids loved to come to Jolly Troll for their birthdays, Anderson said, often lured there by TV personality Roundhouse Rodney (I was bereft of that icon, too).

Anderson, who was 10 when the first Jolly Troll opened, helped the "salad ladies," then moved on to serving coffee, working the cash register, busing tables and carving beef.

Even then, Anderson (eating a low-fat yogurt as we visited) found the all-you-can-eat concept puzzling. "People were just gorging themselves," she said. "I'd say, 'Gosh, Dad.' I called it the Jolly Trough."

Customers not only gorged. Some stuffed chickens in their purses and filled up brown bags.

Ray died in 1982 at 68. Heart attack. Anderson threw a big party to remember her father, at the Jolly Troll of course. The chain, which had expanded to Wisconsin, Illinois, Florida and Washington state, shut down shortly after he died. Alice died in 2004 at 91. She never remarried.

Anderson graduated from Bethel College with a degree in theater and music, then studied in her twenties at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. The equity actor has performed with the Minnesota History Theatre, Chanhassen Dinner Theatre and Illusion Theater, among others. A few years ago, she performed in the Fringe Festival, taking over the part originated by Holly Davis, titled "All You Can Eat Spiritual Buffet."

On another audition, she was asked to read from the Coen Brothers "Fargo" script. Perusing the pages, she found a line referring to, what else? The Jolly Troll. (The restaurant had a cameo in the movie, thanks to the kitsch-adoring native sons).

Anderson now sells cars at Westside Volkswagen and is a fashion consultant. But her favorite hat is "Jolly Troll heiress," she said. "Anytime it comes up, people say, 'Oh, my gosh. We loved going there as a family.'"

But with more people concerned about their health, and the cost of providing spectacular spreads such as those her father offered, she isn't surprised that the heyday of buffet is over.

Well, maybe over. More than 400 Old Country Buffet restaurants remain open.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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