Tina French will experience the new home of the Minnesota Vikings for the first time Thursday evening, but it’s her pregame plan that has her positively giddy.
The Columbia Heights resident will be sampling seafood, smoked brisket, salad fixings and the legendary chocolate fountain at the Golden Corral in Maple Grove that opens Thursday morning.
It’s the first reappearance of the giant North Carolina-based buffet chain in Minnesota, which had a small presence here years ago. It’s happening in one of the former locations of Old Country Buffet, a chain that started in Minnesota and became a regional force but lost direction and customers amid several ownership changes. And it’s made possible by a former Old Country Buffet executive.
“I’m thrilled to see the new stadium, but I definitely give the edge to Golden Corral,” French said. “I ate at one in Indianapolis that was 99 percent better than Old Country Buffet. Nicer atmosphere, nice people, fresher food and a better layout.”
Dale Maxfield, who was vice president of operations for Old Country Buffet for 16 years until he left in 2006, announced plans to open seven Golden Corral locations in the Twin Cities and a few more around the state. Since then, he said he has been fielding as many as 100 calls a day.
On Wednesday, he gathered trainers, employees, plumbers and electricians for a test run during the lunch hour. They also put finishing touches on the dining room, which Maxfield expects will serve 8,000 people in its first week.
“I know from my history at Old Country Buffet that there is a large number of customers looking for quality and variety,” Maxfield said. “If we can deliver on those with great service, we can be successful.”
After Maple Grove, Maxfield will open a Golden Corral in Maplewood on Nov. 1. Beyond the metro area, he is considering locations in Mankato, Duluth and Rochester.
The Maple Grove and Maplewood restaurants will be in former Old Country Buffet properties. But Maxfield said he plans to evaluate each prospective site based on size and parking. He is considering new buildings in some places. “I know how the locations were doing when I worked there, and I still have a connection with many of the OCB managers and employees,” he said.
The former Old Country Buffet in Fridley is now a Green Valley Buffet and the St. Cloud location became St. Cloud Family Restaurant. Other former OCBs in Richfield, Crystal, Roseville, West St. Paul, Woodbury and Coon Rapids remain closed.
How can Maxfield make a go of an all-you-can-eat concept that arguably seems dated and less than healthy? He said he gets that question a lot. The company has 28 rotating veggie choices, salmon and basa whitefish as entrees, sugar-free and no-sugar-added desserts and gluten-free options. “We provide options for every member of the family so they can all get their favorite choices,” he said.
The fall of Old Country Buffet, which was based in Eagan until 2012 when a series of transactions began that left it in the hands of a San Antonio firm called Food Management Partners, resulted from changes in its menu, Maxfield said.
“It was about fewer protein choices, raising the price and lowering the quality,” he said. “Our customers say ‘Don’t lower the quality if prices have to be raised. Don’t give us more breading and less chicken.’ ”
Maxfield said OCB was a good company that lost its way after being bought and sold too many times. “Golden Corral is 45 years old, the founder is still on board, and we’ve had a common vision that hasn’t changed with new CEOs,” he said.
Raleigh, N.C.-based Golden Corral has a reputation among customers as a provider of good value, said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant consultancy. The chain had outlets in Rochester and Faribault but closed them years ago and largely ceded the Upper Midwest to Old Country Buffet and others.
Tristano said it helps that the Twin Cities locations are former buffet restaurants, but Golden Corral always refreshes the interiors with a new look. The company requires franchisees to remodel every seven years.
“Golden Corral has done a good job of updating the interiors and the food to engage younger audiences,” he said. “Old Country Buffet was struggling financially and didn’t do that.”
Jerry and Louise Catt of Burnsville ate lunch on Monday at Old Country Buffet in Burnsville, the last surviving location in Minnesota. Despite the $5.99 Military Day special, the Catts said OCB’s quality has deteriorated. “They’ve lessened the value with fewer meat and fish choices,” Jerry Catt said. “We used to do family meals here, but the kids won’t eat here anymore.”
They said they will try Golden Corral when it arrives in the Twin Cities.
“We search for a Golden Corral when we travel. We’ve eaten there in Phoenix and Kissimmee. It’s 125 percent better than Old Country Buffet,” said Louise Catt.
Maxfield has sent a letter of intent to the owners to take over the Burnsville location, although it is still operating as an Old Country Buffet. He hasn’t received a response yet. Rob Anderson, a manager at OCB in Burnsville, said that he hasn’t been told of any changes in ownership.
The new Maple Grove restaurant will have one of Golden Corral’s latest features — a smoker on the premises for turkey, brisket, sausage and ribs.
What it doesn’t have is alcohol or late-night hours.
Only a few of Corral’s nearly 500 restaurants serve alcohol and nearly all close at 9 p.m. to maintain the family vibe.