You may not recognize Golden Corral after this major redesign — and that's the point

Source: Golden Corral

Buffet restaurants are a dying breed, but Golden Corral is hoping to revitalize the sector by redesigning its restaurants from the studs up.

CEO Lance Trenary told CNBC that the massive endeavor started two years ago and will come to fruition with the reopening of a completely remodeled Greensboro, North Carolina, location.

"We really felt like our segment was slowly going away," Trenary said. "If you look over the last 25 years, our buffet segment has lost about 40 percent of the total meals that have been consumed directly in that segment. So, we knew that we were going to have to explore ways to get new guests from other parts of the industry."

Buffet chains, which are often grouped into the "family casual" sector of the restaurant industry, are a small and declining segment, according to Technomic. There were about 2,800 restaurants in the category at the end of 2016, a decline of 9.5 percent from the prior year.

The privately held Golden Corral, which has nearly 500 restaurants, saw revenue fall 2.6 percent last year, a narrower dive compared with its competitors, Technomic analyst David Henkes told CNBC.

Henkes said that HomeTown Buffet and Old Country Buffet, part of Ovation Brands, saw revenue fall 31 percent during the same period, while Garden Fresh Restaurant, which owns Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, was down 8.7 percent year over year.

In a further sign of the stress in the segment, both Ovation Brands and Garden Fresh filed for bankruptcy in 2016. Garden Fresh was later purchased by Cerberus Capital Management in January.

Food Management Partners, which owns Ovation, didn't immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment. Cerberus Capital Management declined to comment.

Buffet restaurants are suffering because their core customer tends to be a lower-income diner who eats out less often, Henkes said.

He added, consumers also have been favoring food that they perceive as healthy and don't always view buffet chains in this light. As a result, rivals like Panera Bread, Five Guys and Shake Shack are gaining ground.

"We knew there had to be some improvements to the buffet dining experience itself," Trenary said.

Golden Corral's new design is centered on making guests feel like they are in a cozy, comfortable environment, Trenary said. Larger windows, new lighting fixtures, stacked stone and wooden panels are being incorporated to give the space a sophisticated, but homey quality.

Some version of Golden Corral's new design will be incorporated in 15 new restaurants in 2018 as well as at least four pre-existing locations, Trenary said. The company is using the Greensboro location as a test to see what elements of the design work best and what can be tweaked in future iterations.

Sophisticated, but homey

Mock up of new Golden Corral exterior
Golden Corral

The new building design seeks to boost Golden Corral's curb appeal. The new exterior features stacked stone towers, oversized windows, red awnings and wood accents.

Trenary said that the whole remodel will cost between $350,000 to $1.5 million depending on the restaurant's location and its building style. Golden Corral, which has been open for about 44 years, has a number of different exterior designs based on previous remodels and will have to adapt the new design to these locations.

In addition, a number of its restaurants are more than 26 years old and will need to be updated more heavily than newer buildings.

Warm and comfortable

Mock up of new Golden Corral entry
Golden Corral

Trenary told CNBC that the company built a full-scale mock-up of the new design in a warehouse and spent four to five months testing out the space. He said they identified several choke points in the initial design and altered the blueprint to make the guest experience more seamless.

On average, Trenary expects that each remodel will take about 120 days to complete. Displaced employees will have opportunities to work at other Golden Corral locations while their restaurant is under construction.

When the building is complete, Trenary said the restaurant will employee 125 to 150 workers.

Separate buffet area

Mock up of new Golden Corral buffet
Golden Corral

In traditional Golden Corral locations, the buffet area is in the center of the floor plan, with the dining area surrounding it. In this new design, the buffet is located at one end of the restaurant and guest seating is on the other.

The new buffet will feature what Trenary calls "cooking theaters." These stations, which include a carvery, smoke house and cake decorating area, are meant to showcase the brand's most visually appealing menu items.

Golden Corral also redesigned the kitchen to place the cooking equipment that guests don't want to see, like fryers, out of sight and to make the area more efficient for staff members.

Open and airy dining

Mock up of new Golden Corral dining area
Golden Corral

Trenary said one of the biggest complaints from diners was that they didn't feel like they had enough space in the dining room. In these new locations, Golden Corral has increased the space between tables and added larger windows to make the space feel more open.

A touch of local flair 

Golden Corral

Each Golden Corral location has a banquet room, meant for private functions. In these areas, Trenary said, the company will incorporate elements that reflect the community, including local art.