On the other side of COVID-19: Golden Corral’s buffet is back, but challenges remain

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Lenny Abreu, right, confers with Rose Lord, one of his longtime staffers, over the dessert display as they prepare for the lunch crowd last week. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – You might think getting through a pandemic while running a buffet restaurant when buffet-style dining is off the menu would be the hardest part of what he’s had to do since opening his doors in August of 2020. But Lenny Abreu says finding enough staff to keep his Golden Corral Buffet Restaurant at full tilt is the biggest challenge he’s encountered in 30 years of foodservice.

“We’re thrilled that the buffet is back, and so are our guests,” says Abreu. “I understood why we had to do it, but opening in August as a cafeteria-style restaurant instead of buffet meant we were spending as much as $1,000 a day to have enough staff to serve at every station.”

And now that the buffet is back, there are other challenges for Abreu – one that restaurant owners across the country are experiencing.

“Never in all my years have I seen this many problems hiring,” he says.

It’s not untypical for someone to call and ask if they’re hiring and then say “no thanks” when they find out they can’t get $20 an hour, or report for work one day and ghost him the next. But Abreu says he’s been blessed with a solid and dedicated group of employees who’ve stuck with him since the beginning, and he’d like to give them all a shout-out.

Starting this week the Golden Corral on South Willow Street will feature rotating food-theme nights, from Taco Tuesdays to Fish Fry Fridays. Photo/Carol Robidoux

“I know I’m going to miss someone, but there’s Matt Provencher at the front of the house, Diamond Bruso, Rose Lord, Jen Dupont, Eric Whitten, Richard Therrien, Gregory Hicks, Nancy Sweeney, Amy Rivera, and my managers, Steve Alemida, Gerry Hamel, Samantha Shepard, Dan Durocher, and Donald Dumont. We have such a great team, and yes, we’re hiring in every department,” Abreu says.

Now that he’s settled into his buffet groove, Abreu has come up with some daily promotions to make sure his guests – a term he prefers to customers – can get their fill of the foods they crave.

Starting this week he’ll be featuring in addition to the full buffet some themed offerings: Taco Tuesdays with more Mexican selections including burritos and enchiladas; Wednesdays will be “A taste of Italy”; Back-yard barbecue Thursdays and Fish Fry Fridays, including the usual fresh catch of the day plus whole-belly clams, shrimp, haddock and more, round out the week. Breakfast buffet is a solid draw on weekends, he says.

Twice-a-month kid-theme nights are now on the calendar at Golden Corral.

He’s also building in twice-a-month kids’ theme nights – the first one featured a life-sized living, breathing Woody from Toy Story to greet his guests, which the kids adored, says Abreau. This month it will be “Dinner with Mickey & Minnie” on June 30 from 4:30-7:30 p.m.

He takes great pride in bringing Golden Corral to New Hampshire and feels like opening in the middle of the pandemic was nearly impossible.

“I wouldn’t recommend it. If I knew then what I know now I wouldn’t have opened when I did, but once you start rolling that ball you just have to keep rolling it,” says Abreu, who poured himself into the training and construction project long before the word COVID existed in anyone’s vocabulary.

Nancy Abreu, right, talks with Mayor Joyce Craig in Nov. of 2020 about an alternate plan she and husband Lenny Abreu were submitting to the governor’s office to allow for buffet service during the pandemic due to the high cost of staffing up to have food served cafeteria-style. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Another challenge has been the post-pandemic spike in food costs, which has hit hard for consumers in the supermarket aisles as well as across the restaurant industry as a whole, according to the USDA, due to labor and supply issues.

For example, chicken has gone up from 45 cents a pound to over $1 per pound. Restaurants are a “penny industry,” meaning you watch every penny you spend, says Abreu.

“It’s been frustrating, exhilarating, challenging, and rewarding all at the same time. A lot of work and stress, but it will pay off in the end. We just have to make it past these last few trials,” says Abreu, referring to rebuilding his customer base, post-COVID, increased costs for wholesale food purchasing and growing his team.

Manchester, NH’s Golden Corral is the newest in the buffet restaurant chain and will be featured in a national TV ad campaign to let diners know “the buffet is back!” following last year’s pandemic. Photo/Carol Robidoux

“Every bit of this place is ours. Nancy and I talk about it all the time, it’s like our baby.  It’s a part of us and, this might sound strange, but you want what’s best for your child which means making sure we’re doing everything we can to keep it running smoothly so that the experience for our guests is the best it can be,” he says. Because he opened during the pandemic Abreu didn’t qualify for the federal EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) or the Paycheck Protection Program, but he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to recover some of what was lost through the SBA’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

And his efforts have not gone unnoticed. He’s also proud to announce that Golden Corral’s corporate offices have selected his Manchester location to film a national commercial officially welcoming diners back to the buffet that helped put the restaurant chain on the map.

“They’ll be here filming July 6 and 7 – which means we’ll be closed those two days, but coming right off the Fourth of July a lot of restaurants are slow with so many people going away for the holiday. It’s an honor for us, and we’re really excited about it,” Abreu said.

Golden Corral Buffet Restaurant is located at 655 S Willow St. in Manchester. Hours are Mon. – Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.  Check out the online menu here.