A buffet that’s called Winnipeg home for decades will permanently close its doors next month, adding to the list of self-serve restaurants turning off their lights.
Royal Fork Buffet, at 1615 Regent Ave. West, will serve its last meals on Dec. 19.
"(The pandemic) hurt us," said Alma Frankow, the restaurant’s assistant manager.
For over 30 years, people have filled their plates with sushi, waffles, salad and fried chicken at the East Kildonan eatery. There are over 100 menu items — Frankow believes it’s the last buffet of its kind in Winnipeg.
However, the turbulent 18 months of pandemic have proven too much for Royal Fork. It offered takeout while physically closed but didn’t see the sales it normally would.
Even now, when fully vaccinated folks can pile up portions of chow mein and roast beef, things are quiet. The weekends are busier, but overall, Royal Fork is seeing around 30 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels.
"Some of our regulars actually didn’t come back," Frankow said. "They (are) scared."
Many don’t wish to touch communal tongs and ladles. Some are seniors, at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Other past customers are unvaccinated and can’t enter.
Royal Fork’s owner, Dan Jie Zhao, took to social media Monday announcing the buffet’s closure. Frankow said she found out last week. Around 35 people will lose their jobs.
"I’m going to miss this place," Frankow said. "You get attached to the regulars."
Some have become so close, after coming for decades, they bring Christmas presents for the staff.
The closure hits home for Shaun Jeffrey, the executive director and CEO of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association. He said he ate at Royal Fork Buffet as a kid and later took his children (who loved the dessert bar and beelined to the sundae station).
"It’s very disheartening to hear (the news)," Jeffrey said. "It’ll be sorely missed in the community."
Of all restaurant models, buffets were closed longest and restricted most, he said. Many didn’t offer takeout and delivery pre-pandemic.
Those who pivoted didn’t necessarily receive customers’ calls.
"It’s not something you think about when you’re ordering," Jeffrey said, adding people largely order food based on habit, and choosing a buffet for delivery is uncommon.
Some self-serve restaurants transitioned to a cafeteria format or other dine-in option as public health restrictions eased. They’ve done better than those who haven’t, Jeffrey said.
"Buffets are very unpredictable, so you’re wanting to make sure you have available products for your customers," he said. "You’re preparing based on volumes that… you haven’t experienced in years."
The buffet model is only viable with many customers. Staffing remains almost the same, regardless of patron numbers.
"(It) was not created to be a single-serve operation," Jeffrey said.
He said he hasn’t heard of much apprehension surrounding buffets — everyone who enters must be fully vaccinated — but still, the numbers aren’t what they were.
Buffets are "significantly behind" the restaurant pack, Jeffrey said.
"There’s a lot of debt and a lot of lost revenue to make up," he said.
Franchisees of Golden Corral, a large buffet chain in the United States, have declared bankruptcy in the past year. Tucker’s Marketplace, an Ontario buffet-style brand, announced its permanent closure in June of 2020.
Tim Mushey was flooded with memories upon seeing the Facebook post publicizing Royal Fork’s closure. Mushey worked for the company in the late 80s and early 90s, from washing dishes to carving meat.
"It was not just a job," Mushey, 48, said. "We built a community there… So many people I stay in touch with, I met there — and to this day, some of them are very good friends."
He was a self-described shy, stuttering 15-year-old when he started.
"No busier place to come out of a shell as a shy kid than on a crazy buffet when it’s lined up out the door all weekend long," he said.
People must use or return their gift cards at Royal Fork Buffet by Dec. 19. Diners sanitize their hands before touching communal utensils and are required to stay six feet apart, Frankow said.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.