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Old Country closed sign

This sign, taped today to the front door of the Old Country Buffet in Onalaska, greets would-be patrons. Following the sign's advice to check the website to the nearest OCB lists Eau Claire, at 63.29 miles, as the closest within 100 miles, with Greenfield, Wis., at 206.5 miles, as the only other one in Wisconsin.

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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Reporter

Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

(25) comments

The Last Word

it was all the people who gorged themselves

Badgerocker

Sad for the employees, you need a Golden Corral up here they are awesome in addition to a Sonic Drive In being from Milwaukee I miss those up here when Arby's came back you thought the POPE came to town ....Long John Silvers also.

Condor Kid

It's always sad to see employees fired without notice through no fault of their own. I was never a fan of OCB, the salad bar at North Country Steak Buffet is always great.

DustoMan

Besides the former employees suing, there's another outstanding lawsuit out west by an old couple suing OCB for giving them food poisoning. The closings started right when this was scheduled to go to trial.

sylvester

Where is Jillian Bradley going to call home?

Pettyfogger

First of all, best wishes for the employees who no doubt got shafted twice, getting fired and no warning.
I too have not been at OCB for years, after finding a great place to dine with friends and family at North Country Steak Buffet. The comparisons were stark and have only become more apparent.
North Country is a hands-on, owner/operator establishment versus a joint that is operated strictly out of a board room where bottom line is the only consideration, not part of an overall plan. It is obvious that with a motivated owner on site, the employees have to either reflect the ethics of the boss or find employment elsewhere. My impression is that the folks at North Country probably treat their staff more like family than a number on a time card. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I really didn't give much thought about tipping at a buffett, but the service and friendly efficiency of the staff has changed that habit. To a person, they give me and my friends the feeling that while this might be their job, they work at making a "buffett" dinner more than smug joke it often represents. The food is great, varied and there is constant attention to cleanliness. A recent update of the entire building very well done and appealing-in keeping with the 'step above and more' experience we find there. Sorry again, OCB former employees; but the place you worked at has been in a death spiral since about 2004-5.

Greengate

Yes, by all means..shop locally and STAY away from Kmart, Walmart and places of a similar bent. "But how can I do this when it comes to filling my gas tank?" you ask Do what I did..I bought an all electric car, (Nissan Leaf,) and haven't been to a gas station in 3+ years. There is NO reason the majority of the populace should not be driving all electric cars. If you drive one, you will not go back. (Would you want to return to the days of the gasoline powered washing machine?)

capedcrusader

These types of places that do this kind of thing have no business being in business. Employees should have the right to have a reasonable notice of job loss. Lets pass a law to make it happen and if these business people cant abide by it put THEM out of a job.

Greengate

I agree completely..who do you think is going to pay for their food stamps, SS payments, housing assistance, school lunches and so forth. Not OCB..you. This is called "corporate welfare." Walmart and other chains rely upon this, so DON't shop there!!

YellowBee

I hope they gave the employees a heads up...and I also hope they donated all the food that was left to some of the local places. [ohmy]

Greengate

Employees got NO notice at the Chicago place, They showed up for work to find the doors locked with the sign on the door "OUT OF BUSINESS..CLOSED." Highly unlikely it was any different here and for the food..probably was within a day or two of being to old to serve, so it went into the dumpster. This corporate mind set is only concerned about the bottom line or they would have given notice to the employees and the customers..they simply don't care, so this is the energy one takes in when eating food from a place like this.

Clarification

OCB's are closing elsewhere too. Glad we have some decent Chinese buffets. Although it was fun at OCB to see the binge eaters staggering in to load up on 8000 calories per plate.

Greengate

Buffets bring out and "feed" the greed in people..it's best to avoid the buffets if one is not aware of this principle.

Greengate

Romney and the like..corporate raiders.. in action who don't give a hoot about the employees or the customers. Shocking to think that many want people of this ilk to be the leader of the free world and Trump..oh my God.

Lulubelle

Did you just blame Trump for closing your Old Country Buffet?

Greengate

It's a "mindset" that he represents that is destructive to humanity. To take pride in "your'e fired" is not worthy of being the leader of the free world.

raw54603

I laugh when I read peoples comments, they can't even show their face or real name when bashing a business or other people!

Bill Payer

But it's apparently just fine when you're bashing others, raw54603?

peeg

well after reading all the comments, i see i'm not the only one who didn't care for the place...alot of their main dishes seemed to be "filled" with green peppers to make it look like alot...

gbpackfan

last time I was there, BBQ night, was horrible. The roast beef was dry and full of gristle, same for the Brisket. Fried chicken was dry also. I often wondered why it was never very busy. North Country Steak buffet is always busy. OCB also charged a ridiculous price for drinks. The only good thing was the salad bar and the dessert bar. Going to miss the bread pudding. Nothing else.

let it go

It is not the first buffet to go probably the last. You use to be able to go and get salad bar only, but not anymore. The cost included a beverage as well. I ate there very rarely because I didn't get my money' worth.

Frangel45

Country Buffet???? Where, what? Food? Won't miss it - maybe we could be lucky to get a FRESHII in its place.

HonestAbe

Oh, and if you want to impress people with freshly cut beef ... the cut of beef can't be the cheapest cut of beef. Last time I had a slab cut, had to cut away over half the piece of gristle and fat. That cut comes from the cows sternum area ... seems as though their quality was not important.
I realize buffets are not fine dining, but when there is a steak buffet in the same region, beef cuts matter. Oh well, hope another tax paying business moves in. We don't need more hospital off-shoots, churches or colleges.

HonestAbe

They've been great over the years, for the variety. Then they started charging for drinks ... and left me wondering why they would do that. Now I know. They have healthy food offerings, so their explanation is bull in my book.
As they raise prices, people find other variety buffets, simple math.
Only thing I'll miss is their weekend breakfast buffet, again, there are others around ... but don't tell us the sky is green please.

JustSayin'

We will not miss it. For the past few years, the quality has deteriorated dramatically and it was dirty. Seems like a poor business model for staying in business.

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