The sudden shutdown of seven Old Country Buffet restaurants in the Twin Cities marks the latest grim chapter in the long decline of the buffet business and the Old Country brand in particular.
Only three Old Country Buffet restaurants now remain open in the Twin Cities. The other seven were closed Thursday evening as part of national restructuring by Old Country Buffet’s parent company, South Carolina-based Ovation Brands. Ovation shuttered 74 underperforming outlets across several brands, or 30 percent of its 243 restaurants nationally.
The privately held company said the closures are needed for the “continued viability” of its brands, which also include Hometown Buffet, Ryan’s and Fire Mountain restaurants. Old Country Buffet is Ovation’s biggest chain.
The Old Country Buffet restaurants that were closed in the metro are in Richfield, Fridley, Crystal, Roseville, Maplewood, West St. Paul and Woodbury. Outlets in Maple Grove, Coon Rapids and Burnsville will remain open, as will those in Duluth, St. Cloud, Rochester and Mankato.
Old Country Buffet, once based in Minnesota, has closed more than 400 stores over the past eight years, even before this week’s shutdowns.
“The [buffets] segment has been in a secular decline for over a decade,” said Bob Goldin, vice chairman of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant consultancy. “It over-appeals to older customers. And its service system — cafeteria style — runs totally counter to all current menu trends like fresh, customized and made-to-order.”
Old Country Buffet was founded in Minnesota in 1983 and made its headquarters in Eagan until 2012, when it moved to Greer, S.C., after its second bankruptcy filing in less than five years. Re-christened as Ovation Brands, the company has maintained a back office in Eagan, which had 125 employees in 2014.
Ovation declined to comment on how many employees currently work in Eagan, and if any of them were laid off because of the restaurant shutdowns. The company said in a statement that the “overall number of employees affected by the closures is large,” without giving details. Workers at closed restaurants will be able to apply for jobs at restaurants that remain open.
Many Old Country Buffet employees were blindsided by Thursday’s news and took to social media to decry the closure that came without notice.
“The OCB in Fridley has abruptly closed today. Thanks so much for giving your employees notice!!” wrote Laurie Peterson Buck on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
Ovation was purchased in August by Food Management Partners, a San Antonio-based restaurant company.
“Since that time, we have continued to execute former management’s operating plan to stabilize and enhance the performance of [Ovation Brands],” Peter Donbavand, an Ovation vice president, said in a statement. “However, based on ongoing assessments of individual restaurants, it is necessary to shutter locations for the continued viability of the brands and our employees.”
Old Country Buffet had 626 restaurants nationwide in 2008, the year it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the first time. But that number had fallen to 193 by the end of 2014, according to Technomic.
Old Country Buffet’s sales in 2014 were $526 million, down 3 percent from the year before; the chain’s annual sales fell 8.5 percent on average from 2009 through 2014, according to Technomic.
After the chain’s second bankruptcy in 2012, Ovation Brands hired restaurant industry executive and consultant Anthony Wedo as its CEO. Under Wedo, the company retooled its restaurants, from recipes to decor, spending about $300,000 per store.
Wedo exited Ovation not long before it was purchased by Food Management Partners. Nation’s Restaurant News, a trade publication, reported last summer that soon after Food Management took over Ovation, it laid off some corporate employees in both Eagan and Greer.