Would-be patrons of Old Country Buffet in Onalaska found the doors locked Tuesday, with most voicing surprise as the chain’s closure of nearly 100 restaurants this year hit home.

“I’m shocked,” Joan Nelson of La Crosse said when she saw the “CLOSED” sign on the front door shortly after 12:30 p.m.

“Friends were coming here for a birthday party, and I was going to meet them,” Nelson said, scanning the lot for any signs of the other part-goers, who were driving about 40 miles from Ferryville for the 1 p.m. celebration.

Nelson said she had enjoyed Old Country because she could choose what she wanted. Byron Richason, also of La Crosse, who was with Nelson, said he had relished the variety.

Nelson and Richason were not alone in being left with hunger pangs.

Nearly 20 would-be customers dropped by within a 15-minute period during the lunch hour, finding all the lights on but nobody home, the door locked and the sign posted. The 10,850-square-foot restaurant, known for its variety of offerings at several self-serve stations, opened at 9417 Hwy. 16 in 1996.

In full, the sign said: “To our valued guests, this location is now CLOSED. Thank you for your business and we hope to serve you at another location very soon. Please visit oldcountrybuffet.com to find your nearest location.”

The website lists Eau Claire, at 63.29 miles, as the closest, with Greenfield, Wis., at 206.5 miles, as the only other one in Wisconsin. The closest in Minnesota is in the Twin Cities suburb of Burnsville, 147 miles away.

“That’s a shame,” said an older man who asked not to be named as he walked away from the Onalaska buffet. “I’ve been coming here since ’97. It’s a nice place to eat and take what you want.”

It could not be determined whether workers had much more notice than the customers, although they probably didn’t, if the parent company followed the pattern it set in closing nearly 100 of the all-you-can-eat restaurants nationwide this year.

The company is getting pushback, as four former employees of an Illinois Old Country recently sued Food Management Partners, alleging violation of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act because it did not give workers 60 days’ notice. Texas-based Food Management acquired Old Country’s South Carolina-based parent company of Ovation Brands last year.

The Onalaska restaurant’s vendor door, posted with a sign declaring that it was closed and not accepting deliveries, was unlocked, and a few workers appeared to be removing and/or dismantling kitchen equipment and loading it onto a truck.

Asked the restaurant’s status, a worker said he would summon someone to talk, and a woman came into the kitchen.

Asked whether the restaurant had closed, she said, “Closed — out of business.” Asked for comment about why, she snapped, “That was my comment: Closed — out of business.”

Parent company officials could not be reached for comment.

The Onalaska facility joined the list of eight Old Country closings in the Twin Cities area, one in Green Bay and one each in Rochester, Minn., and St. Cloud, Minn., this year.

Old Country, which was founded in Minnesota in 1983 and was based in the Twin Cities suburb of Eagan until 2012, had shuttered more than 400 buffets during the past eight years before the wave of closings began in February.

Buffets in general — and Buffets LLC in particular, with three Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings under its belt — have fallen on hard times in recent years. Restructuring experts jokingly refer to the relatively rare record of three Chapter 11 filings as Chapter 33.

Industry observers cite changes in eating habits are one of the main reasons buffet businesses have faltered. The trend toward fresh, healthier fare and smaller portions rather than exercises in gorging also has siphoned off buffet fans, analysts say.

Other brands in the Old Country chain are Country Buffet, HomeTown Buffet, Ryan’s, Ryan’s Family Steakhouse, Granny’s, Tahoe Joe’s, Tahoe Joe’s Famous Steakhouse, Soup ’N Salad Unlimited and Roadhouse Grill, among others.

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