As the nation’s largest all-you-can-eat buffet chain continues to evolve, Golden Corral is leveraging the vision of president and CEO Lance Trenary who’s mantra is, “The comeback is greater than the setback.” Only the third CEO in Golden Corral’s 49-year history, Trenary is a stalwart industry advocate and is currently the Chair of the National Restaurant Association Board of Directors. Trenary spoke with Franchise Update about the state of Golden Corral, the role innovation has played in the brand’s expansion as well as why the buffet is here to stay.
Q. The pandemic devastated the restaurant industry, hitting the buffet restaurant sector especially hard. How did Golden Corral respond?
Trenary: We were very much the tip of the spear when it came to COVID-19 impacting restaurants, forcing us to make significant changes in our business model. When the pandemic first hit, we had to adjust our mindset and quickly pivot. We implemented new technology like a loyalty program for guests to earn reward points. We also added a mobile ordering platform and curbside pickup, to make to-go access easier and maintain the health and safety of customers and employees. With that change, we worked hard to preserve who we are as a brand and didn’t allow ourselves to do anything that would significantly take away from the guest experience of value, abundance and variety—those are our strengths.
Q. How did that thought process play out?
Trenary: We developed a complete off-premise platform from the ground up. Before COVID-19, off-premise sales were a little over 2%, so we had to rethink how our kitchens were set up for delivery, takeout and curbside to make ordering as convenient and seamless as possible for our guests. Now, off-premise sales are up to about 9% on a sustainable basis, with some of our restaurants approaching 20%. There is still growth to be had in absolute numbers, but our operators are embracing off-premise and the good news is that our food travels well, and it’s a little more unique than the typical burgers and pizza. We have also experimented with several drive-thrus with successful results. It is something that we’re building into our future models, along with a unique menu featuring our most popular comfort foods. In addition, we have been testing alcohol beverages in about a dozen markets and have seen success. We continue to scope out even more ways to innovate.
Q. You have talked about the importance of working shoulder to shoulder with your franchisees, not nose to nose? Can you expand on that notion?
Trenary: Early on in the pandemic, we knew we had to do everything humanly possible to help our franchisees succeed. We took unprecedented steps to provide immediate financial relief as we worked together to navigate the significant business impact of COVID-19. We have an inclusive culture, and as a business with nearly 50 years of experience, we make decisions that see beyond just this quarter’s P&L or this year’s earnings. We’re still rebuilding, but it’s paid off. We went from 480 restaurants literally shut down overnight to now getting to 360 fully opened and roughly 20 more in the pipeline that are either being remodeled or in the process of finalizing renegotiated leases. We will continue to look for opportunities to build back our unit count. Our system average unit volume sales and meals are at a record high demonstrating the resilience of the brand and the incredible loyalty of our guest base. We have also begun selling new entities and have multiple new locations in the pipeline because potential franchisees have seen the resilience of Golden Corral in the toughest environment.
Q. The economic environment is still challenging. How do you keep your financial partners future-focused?
Trenary: All of our efforts now are built around how to best support our franchisees in every section of their P&L, whether it’s growing sales, mitigating rising inflation and food costs, or labor issues. In addition, we’re working on controllable matters like helping them renegotiate insurance premiums – nothing is left untouched. We are staying in close communication with our franchisees, offering support center resources to ensure their top and bottom lines are healthy and providing guidance with their overall business plan. Our franchisees are smart operators, but it never hurts to have someone help with the heavy lifting.
Q. What bolt-on ideas do you think are here to stay?
Trenary: We are letting the guests tell us. We are big believers in research and listening to our guests. It was clear that it was what our guests wanted was to return to buffet service as soon as possible (even though it required new protocol to execute). There is great evidence that the buffet is here to stay…the consumer has a warm spot in their heart for it. In our case, our most loyal guests eat with Golden Corral 70 times a year. We want to make sure that we take great care of them while also finding ways to expand our reach to pick up more frequency from our light users. We are testing two new concept evolutions that play off some of our brand strengths that guests love most about Golden Corral – a smaller footprint focused on comfort foods with a twist and a value steakhouse. As a brand, we have a history of evolving and innovation will always be a top priority, as we constantly respond to changes in consumer and market dynamics.
Ready to be part of a winning franchise? Visit goldencorral.com/golden-corral-franchising/.