Eat Out at the OK Corral

by Mike Corrigan & amp; Michael Bowen

There's dining and then there's consuming mass quantities of edibles. The differences between these two methods of satisfying a basic human need may appear slight but are, in fact, profound. How one perceives those differences -- and which side of the line you find yourself on -- boils down to your answer to this question: How much do you ask of mealtime? To put a finer point on it: Is eating for you an event to be savored or just another pesky bodily function that demands attention on a daily basis in between intervals of sleeping, working and watching TV?

Buffet-cruising. Hog-troughing. Grazing. Apparently, for a lot of us here in the Inland Northwest -- judging by the packed parking lots around local buffet restaurants -- when it comes to dining out, less is definitely not more. More is more. And more for less is really where it's at. At a typical buffet, you pay one price for as much grub as you can ingest. All you can eat. For one low price. It almost sounds like a challenge doesn't it? ("All you can eat, huh? You bastards better get ready, cuz I can eat a $!%@ load!")

According to Donn Brouhard, manager at Granny's Old Country Buffet at Northpointe, for some out there, "all you can eat" never seems to be quite enough.

"Some people, this is pretty regular, will stay for a couple of hours," he says. "But there's a big difference between somebody who's in here for two hours, eating steadily but cleaning off their plates, and somebody who's here for two hours, going back several times and taking huge plates and then leaving most of it behind, wasting it. At that point, I have to talk to them. I mean, it's just common sense."

Occasionally, he also has to deal with the campers -- those who try to turn a good food deal into an all-day fling.

"It's rare to have someone who will stay in here, eating, for five or six hours," he says. "But that happens probably three or four times a year."

America's bounty is staggering. The variety and sheer quantity of foodstuffs available to the average American consumer at any time of the day or night borders on the obscene. Yet those extra calories provide us just the energy we need to hoist our flabby butts into our towering SUVs so we can gas guzzle our way to Nordstrom for that new pair of shoes or into the wilds to lay waste to natural habitats. The buffets -- filling stations fueling Manifest Destiny -- are out there. So giddy up.

Traditionally, American favorites fill the feedbags at Golden Corral and Granny's Old Country Buffet ("Buses Welcome"). Locally, high-tech warmer technology has crept into the Asian food (Top o' China Buffet) and pizza (Eatza Pizza: "All you can eat. All the time.") categories as well. In Spokane, representative samples from each of these restaurants can be found along that mainline to piggy paradise, North Division.

And that includes Golden Corral, the king daddy of buffet dining in Spokane [cor*ral n. an enclosure for holding or capturing horses, cattle, or other animals; pen]. There are over 465 restaurants nationwide in the Golden Corral system. Last year alone, the company reported sales in excess of $1 billion, the culmination of 10 straight years of record-breaking growth. Nation's Restaurant News has ranked Golden Corral No. 1 in the highly competitive "grill-buffet" category for six consecutive years, and Entrepreneur named Golden Corral the No. 1 franchiser in the family steakhouse category for seven straight years.

How does Golden Corral do it? Unlike many of its competitors, which offer a paltry 90-100 menu items, the Corral (according to the company's Web site) offers a whopping 140 hot and cold items -- including cooked-to-order charbroiled steak. Guests "may take as many second helpings as they wish."

When you enter the Golden Corral, you immediately notice just how like a corral it really is. You are herded through a stockyard calf chute up to the cashier who sends you on through to the feeding area where you are shown to your pen -- uh, table -- by an earpiece-wearing ranch hand. Once you've got a place to park it, it's time to belly up to the trough -- a trough kept remarkably clean and tidy in spite of the demands placed upon it by fellow feeders. The big daily hog rush occurs around here just before 3:30 pm. Why? Well, 3:30 pm is when Golden Corral switches from its lunch prices ($5.95) to its dinner prices ($8.95). If you get there on the cusp, you have access to both menus -- for the lunch price.

Golden Corral's menu changes daily. The day myself and Inlander comrade Michael Bowen decided to drop in, it was fish day, with an assortment of fried fishy delicacies, baked salmon and broiled whitefish in addition to the more standard roasted beef, chicken and grilled steak offerings. We ate a lot -- meats, salads, starches and desserts. While we were generally impressed with the variety of dishes and the lock-step efficiency of the operation as a whole (especially our friendly, attentive server), we were less than dazzled with the quality of the food. We found it, overall, to be bland, too salty and overcooked -- shortfalls common with food produced industrially in such vast quantities.

Over at Brouhard's Granny's Old Country Buffet, the fodder fared better. And the restaurant seemed less of a frenzied feeding factory than a sprawling cafeteria populated by seniors and families.

"Obviously, we're not like the full-service restaurants," Brouhard says, adding that he estimates 80 percent of his clientele are repeat customers. "We have buffet lines, and it's all you can eat."

Despite the fun I've had here comparing high-volume buffet restaurants to veal-fattening pens, the truth is, it is possible to eat healthy and light at these places. It's just that hardly anyone -- with an "all you can eat" mandate staring them in the face -- is going to take it easy on the portions.

Brouhard, who has spent the last 27 years in the business, says, "I'd say that people actually take smaller portions these days. But then they take a lot of portions. Their eyes are still bigger than their stomachs -- that clich & eacute; definitely fits here."