Arlene Potter knows what 3:30 p.m. means. Inside HomeTown Buffet, an expansive, neon-adorned building sitting in a sea of strip mall parking lots along Redwood Road, the cashier watches the clock as it slips toward the hour when the lunch buffet switches over to the dinner buffet. It may seem like an insignificant change to the uninitiated, but to HomeTown’s customers, it signals a two-dollar rise in the price of admission. Consequently, while most of the chain eateries along Redwood Road sit in a lull this time of day, HomeTown doors swing to a full-on stampede of its value-conscious regulars.
“Everybody races to get in here by 3:29,” Arlene sighs, eyeing the line that has formed behind her register, mostly elderly folks that are in turn eyeing the steaming tables on the other side of the room, “so they can pay for lunch and eat dinner.”
Arlene is a veteran of all-you-can-eat buffets. She has been working at this HomeTown since it opened a decade ago. She wears her floral-print vest so well the outfit looks classy. She stands, arms straddled over the register, the guardian of the loot behind. She is unfazed by the line growing behind her and only periodically glances at the crowd, managing to watch over the rest of HomeTown’s employees scurrying around the buffet tables and shuttling in trays of hot fried fish and steamed carrots.
Arlene’s customers know her well. Most give polite greetings, but one elderly woman pulls her aside to ask if the kitchen could get her some food to take home. Desperation bulges in her eyes. “Do you have ribs for dinner so Frank can take some with him?” the woman whispers. “You know he loves them.”
The woman’s name is Louise Macchione, and she and Frank, her husband, visit HomeTown five or six times a week. Louise returns to her table where she and Frank have already been eating for two hours. Frank, a small, stooped man wearing a taxi driver’s cap, sits at the table and appears to be completely uninterested in his half-eaten plate of food. Instead, he seems bent on selling me a car wax.
“I useta be a car waxer,” he wheezes, straining his wrinkled neck to see me standing behind him. “You got a car? You want me to wax your car?”
The others smile politely. The Macchiones are today lunching with Bill and Geri Garietz, another elderly couple who, likewise, spend the better part of their week at the buffet. And not just any buffet, Geri Garietz emphasizes. “We rarely go to Chuck-A-Rama,” she huffs. “Rarely.”
Geri tells me that on the way from their home in Murray, she and Bill pass up “numerous restaurants” on their way to HomeTown. Once here, they normally stay two-and-a-half or three hours, sometimes showing their friends vacation photos or trading family stories.
The reason for their commitment? Geri enjoys the soups. Her favorite is the corn chowder.
Meanwhile, Bill, a lively old guy who sits with good posture in a wheelchair, says he likes the company. Hanging out at the buffet is always more interesting than hanging out at home in Murray. “The camaraderie is as important as the food,” Bill declares. “We’re slow eaters.”
But the food is also pretty important. “We’ve gotten them to cook it how we like it,” Louise says, and the others harumph in agreement.
“But only when John’s cooking,” Geri breaks in, her eyes narrowing. She explains that when John is for some reason not available to oversee the kitchen operations, the chowder appears on the line without any potatoes. “As long as John is the head cook, we like it,” she concludes, nodding.
Frank is still trying to talk me into letting him wax my car. Somehow, Arlene Potter is able to finagle some ribs for Frank, even though he didn’t pay the dinner price. She drops by the table, a center stage of familiar characters in the HomeTown dining room, to give the gang the good news. It’s a small victory amid the everyday drama of the buffet. Soon, the Macchiones and Garietzes will leave, and Arlene Potter will have to turn her attention to the prime-time dinner crowds. She points to the large entrance area with goosenecks like a Disneyland ride and tells me it’s not uncommon for the line to snake out the door on weekends or nights with popular menus. On holidays like Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day, they say, many people happily wait an hour to get their hands on endless roast beef, meat loaf, scones, spaghetti, cake and ice-cream sundaes.
All-you-can eat buffets differ from most other types of American restaurants in just about every way. You serve yourself, you can eat as much as you want, the food is made in large batches and dessert is a vital part of the meal. These days, all-you-can-eats practically lie in the same realm as porno theaters—their exteriors are part of the landscape, but what’s inside somehow eludes people for most of, if not their entire, lives. Many have never set foot in an all-you-can-eat or else recall dim childhood memories, but picture overweight people squeezing into worn vinyl booths under windows impenetrable to outside light, surrounded by half-a-dozen dirty plates.
Yet there is something in the freedom of the all-you-can-eat, in the possibilities of the portions and the ability to waste, that is undeniably American. And these buffets attract Americans in every size, age and economic class. While most restaurants feature burgers, fries, pizza and ethnic food, the buffets offer a trip back to when dinner at a restaurant was more or less like dinner at home without the work (Chuck-A-Rama restaurants pride themselves on making nearly everything from scratch). Buffets were popular with post-Great Depression families because of their value—a friend of mine’s grandfather would take the family to Howard Johnson’s buffet as a thrifty way to feed his eight children. The children were all very close in age and their father would pay for one child while the kids sneaked in one-by-one from the station wagon to take their turn. Now, for those same parents, the food at home-style buffets like HomeTown and Chuck-A-Rama remains frozen in time—as Louise Macchione says, “The way we like it.”
There are few networks through which fans of buffets commiserate. One of them, “Hugh’s Review of St. Lou,” reviews the St. Louis area’s 22 Chinese buffets. “Some believe in fine dining,” says Hugh, who rates buffets based on qualities like class, size of the spread and desserts, “and some of the rest of us believe in mass dining!”
Mass dining, however, is not on Joan Unger’s mind as she eases into a booth at one of Utah Valley’s Chuck-A-Ramas. When Unger comes to Chuck-A-Rama, as she does regularly in the afternoon, she is content to eat only a small plate of food and one dessert. Today, after about 10 minutes of careful consideration of today’s items, she returns to her booth with an array of delicately selected and arranged fried chicken and salad.
That doesn’t mean Unger dislikes the all-you-can-eat concept of the buffets—just the opposite. The spry woman with silver-white hair cut in bangs over her forehead, large glasses and red lipstick puts her fork down to wax enthusiastic about the concept of all-you-can-eat.
“Oh yes,” she asserts matter-of-factly. “Buffets are the best way of eating in the world.”
Exhibit A is a horror story about a recent visit to a regular restaurant, a nearby Frontier Pies in Orem. It wasn’t her idea; a boyfriend had taken her there on a date. Everything had been OK until the food came with several things wrong. The situation angered her. If she had been at Chuck-A-Rama, she could have just pushed the plate to the side and returned to a different buffet item.
“If you don’t like something, you just get something else,” Unger says of the buffet logic. “It’s the only way to go.”
Unger says she has been eating at Chuck-A-Rama for 35 years. She keeps coming back because she likes the control she has with her food. “I can’t eat certain things, and here I can pick them out,” Unger says. She explains that with her 90-year-old mother, that control is even more vital. “She’s very finicky. But here, she can get exactly what she can eat with her medicines.”
Joan Unger also likes to take in the décor of the place as she enjoys her chicken. About two years ago, Chuck-A-Ramas statewide underwent massive remodels, making them less dreary and perhaps more attractive to the masses. But Unger liked the old look. “It was a warm atmosphere,” she says. “I was worried it was going to change to something more modern.”
Fortunately, the restaurants somehow kept the warmth. Unger points to the little wooden arches over the windows that survived Chuck-A-Rama’s sprucing up. She likes how there is no music, only the loud chatter and cries of babies in adjacent rooms. “I love to hear the talking,” she muses.
The reasons people come to all-you-can-eats are as numerous as the buffet items they seek. On the other side of the dining room, Steve and Lori Bird sit across from each other in a booth, their plates scattered with bones and licks of several different kinds of sauce in front of them. Steve is contemplating another trip to the line. Lori is done.
“I’m into quantity,” says Steve Bird, a trim man a few years from middle age. “I’ve been kicked out of certain places.” He looks at his wife. “But I’m trying to change my ways.”
Lori’s reasons are more complex. The prim blonde is making a moral statement when she takes her family to the buffet line. She explains that many families, like hers, who take their kids to home-style buffets, want their restaurant experiences to resemble the meals they eat at home.
“You’re hoping that they’ll have more of a home-cooked meal,” Lori says. She notes that her brother consciously takes his kids to Chuck-A-Rama in order to avoid weaning them on fast food.
But several aspects of all-you-can-eat buffets rub the Birds the wrong way. The crowds, for instance. Experienced customers of the Las Vegas buffets, they say they have learned to steer clear of the notorious evening and holiday crowds by avoiding certain hours.
“One time we came on Thanksgiving,” says Lori. The couple thought they’d just save themselves the work of preparing the traditional meal and opted for the buffet, where Steve could eat all the turkey and stuffing he wanted. But they waited for an hour in line. Finally in, they found themselves elbow-to-elbow with hundreds of their un-closest friends. The food was OK, but it didn’t seem like a holiday at all. Shaking her head, Lori says, “It was too bizarre for us.”
At Chuck-A-Rama in Salt Lake, the Hale family occupies a large booth in the corner. The family members, Bob, his wife Ruth, her mother Helen, their daughter Cindy and their grandson Josh all admit liking the all-you-can-eat buffet—but for different reasons. Helen likes the choice of fruits and vegetables, while Josh, a professional body builder, can eat protein galore. On a typical visit, he consumes three or four chicken breasts, a steak and a salad.
Bob, however, is the reason the Hales end up at the buffet. Known as “The Chuck-A-Rama King,” Bob says the mere fact that he can eat dessert first causes him to drag the family to the all-you-can-eat whenever he and his wife are visiting from their home in Kanab. “My motto is, eat dessert first,” Bob declares proudly.
A different kind of person
Glenn Howard is HomeTown Buffet’s service manager, responsible for bringing the food to the people. He sports a crew cut with a mustache and sideburns, and a slight paunch protrudes beneath his white short-sleeved Oxford shirt and rectangular tie, a getup reminiscent of a 1960s factory manager. In the world of HomeTown, he fills the role of a powerful politician who is always trying to deliver the pork to different factions of his constituency.
Howard is showing me HomeTown’s kitchen setup, which, he explains, is different than your average restaurant. “It’s more institutional or military,” he says, pointing to large steamers, fryers and ovens. Noticeably missing are grills, which HomeTown seldom uses. In many ways, cooking for a buffet is much simpler than a normal restaurant because it’s the cooks, not the customers, who decide what to serve. Howard says the kitchen bases its quantities on its customer counts from past weeks.
Though not a buffet devotee himself, Howard lives in the world of his regulars like the Macchiones and the Garietzes. “I see these guys more than I see my family,” Howard says. “But it’s almost like a big family. We take care of ’em and we treat ’em good.”
Taking care of his customers, about 60 percent of whom he says he knows by name, means satiating them when the kitchen runs out of something. When there are no more trays of a popular item like barbecue ribs or meat loaf, Howard explains, all hell breaks loose in the dining room.
“People get irate,” he says. “They really do.”
As Howard explains, his regular customers, especially elderly ones, depend on the buffet items to provide the backbone of a weekly routine. “They’re my biggest critics. They let me know what’s going on,” he says. “They almost plan their lives around what we have to eat.”
Consequently, “sorry, we’re out” is rarely an acceptable answer. When the crowd turns unruly, the kitchen cooks start to scrap around the kitchen for a comparable substitute for the missing dish. “You have to get creative once and a while,” Howard says with a smile. “It’s like taking care of a big bunch of kids.”
And although he spends the majority of his waking hours in HomeTown’s world, Howard still doesn’t completely identify with the all-you-can-eat ethos. “It’s a different type of person,” he says warily. “It’s a value-oriented person, who believes that $8 a plate means they can waste all they want.”
Waste may be the least of buffet managers’ headaches. At a Chuck-A-Rama near downtown Salt Lake City, Amanda Cole says buffet theft is a real issue. Cole, a young blonde who rotates between taking customers’ plates and working the cash register at the front, is candid about the amount of thievery she has seen in her nine months of employment at Chuck-A-Rama. Every day it seems, the restaurant has customers who conveniently ignore the “please do not remove food from the premises” plaque near the exit.
“We get people caught stealing food all the time,” she says, explaining that those pilfering from the buffet are often the same senior citizens that are the restaurant’s regulars. “They busted two people the other day who were 80 years old. They called the sheriff and everything.”
And for some reason, Cole adds, these extra-thrifty customers always steal chicken. Strangely, it’s the same at HomeTown Buffet. Arlene Potter says she notices elderly women lining their purses with large, zip-loc bags to stash chicken for later. Cookies, Potter says, are also popular.
Customers also try to push the value of the buffet up front, at the register. HomeTown, like at Chuck-A-Rama, charges children by the year, and kids two and under are free. Families are always attempting to pass off five children as being the same young age. “You can’t believe how many kids are under two,” Potter mutters.
Joan Unger, meanwhile, has her own little secret. At Chuck-A-Rama, she explains, the lunch menu switches over to the dinner menu at 4 p.m., raising the price a few dollars. But about fifteen minutes before, the kitchen sets out the roast beef, hams or turkeys that are responsible for the price increase. Consequently, arriving in that window allows Unger truly to eat dinner at the lunch price.
“At 3:45 they already have the roast beef out,” she says with a wry smile. “That’s the trick.”
Amid all the stealing, scheming and lying, however, perhaps the most unsettling part of the buffet business is the obesity in front of restaurant workers’ eyes every day. Most buffet customers are not fat people, but at any one time in an all-you-can eat there is someone pushing 300 or 400 pounds crammed into a booth with several plates in front of them. For some, obesity is a medical condition, but for others, it is directly related to life at the buffet.
“I have some people who, I swear, are trying to kill themselves,” Glenn Howard says matter-of-factly.
Potter agrees. “You wouldn’t believe the size of some of the people who eat here,” she says, describing one man who regularly eats an entire pan of veal patties and a dozen of each kind of cookie. “Sometimes you watch it and it makes you sick to see how much people can put away.”
It gets worse. Potter says because of the weight of some of its customers, HomeTown sees “a lot of wear and tear” on chairs. “It’s not unusual,” she says, “to see people sit down and chairs collapse.”
Meanwhile, restaurant workers stand by and watch, and the young, pretty hostesses keep asking their customers if they would like anything else, more dessert, a refill on soda. As painful as it is to watch people push the limits of their digestive systems, he can’t say or do anything, the way a bartender can cut off a drunk after one too many.
“Can’t do it,” Howard says warily. “All you can eat means all you can eat.”
St. George, Chuck-A-Rama, Mother’s Day: It’s all but impossible to find a parking spot within a hundred yards of Chuck-A-Rama’s southernmost restaurant, like its northern brethren set amid a strip of blacktop and chain eateries. Soon, it’s apparent why the lot is packed—the line at Chuck-A-Rama is pushing out the door. True to legend, this holiday has pulled buffet fans all over the area out of the sun and through the tinted windows to all-you-can-eat Sunday dinner bliss.
Inside, it’s so crowded that it’s hard to find someone to talk to. A tandem of cashier and maitre d’s efficiently take customers’ money, seat them and reconfigure the line to accommodate the constant rush. Eventually, Martin Lundquist, the restaurant’s general manager, pulls me into his office where he monitors the crowds through a four-screen video surveillance system. One of his workers shares his desk, snarfing down a plate piled high with butternut squash, roast beef and mashed potatoes.
“Mother’s Day is very big,” Lundquist says. “One of the top two. Mother’s Day we rock.”
The St. George Chuck-A-Rama’s other biggest day is, unsurprisingly, Thanksgiving. “Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day are two family days,” explains Lundquist, who has the same shirtsleeves-and-tie look as Glenn Howard, and taps his fingers impatiently on the desk while scanning the screens. “We’re always pulling together a lot of large tables.”
While Lundquist’s restaurant does about 1,000 customers on a normal weekday and 1,200 on a normal weekend, it sees an average of about 1,800 people on Mother’s Day. “Most of the day we’re filled to capacity,” he says, adding that the Mother’s Day menu is the same except for the addition of strawberry shortcake.
Out in the dining room, the restaurant has a bustle unlike the doldrums of the weekdays, when all-you-can-eats are asylums for the faithful senior citizens, thrift-seekers and heavy hitters. With long tables filled by extended families and young couples in the booths, the place almost seems like a normal restaurant. Almost normal, I think, as the families stumble out, grabbing toothpicks by the dozen, shrinking from the harsh sunlight and telling dad to go get the car. Almost normal, but not quite.