I come not to bury the Golden Corral nor to praise it, but merely to reconcile myself to its existence. I worked there on weekends for the entirety of my undergraduate career at the University of North Carolina, stretching from late 1998 to early 2002. For three years, I overcooked sirloin steaks, burnt omelets to order, and kneaded yesterday's uneaten dinner rolls into tomorrow's bread pudding. And I watched, and I smelled, and I couldn't believe it then and I still can't believe it now.
After quitting to manage an Abercrombie & Fitch, I never set foot in the restaurant again.
A couple weeks ago, though, when I was going to pick up some prescriptions at a pharmacy adjacent to a Golden Corral, I decided to walk over to the restaurant and peer into its windows. I missed the place, I guess. It had been such an important part of my youth, the site of many valuable first experiences, only most of which were regrettable. My visit didn't occur at 3:55, which is the perfect moment to buy dinner, right before the registers change over to the increased price, nor was it 11:00, when the doors open and the fresh items on the buffet look almost good enough to eat. Rather, it was around 2:30 PM, a dead zone in the restaurant's operating schedule. This is the point of the day smack between lunch and dinner, when the cheaper lunch foods are left exposed and unattended while the hot cooks and grill cooks begin preparing dinner.
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It's when the servers take their smoke breaks, availing themselves of pick-me-ups before what they hope will be a profitable dinner shift and leaving veritable Everests of un-bussed, half-eaten food plates to fester under the fluorescent lights. Since it was a Monday, usually one of the worst nights for the Golden Corral, those hopes were unlikely to be realized unless a few buses of hungry Little Leaguers materialized out of the aether.
The stacks of plates, laden with abandoned comestibles, transported me back to my turn-of-the-millennium prime. Here, as plain as day, was the tragedy of the Golden Corral, which is this: the Corral does exactly what it is supposed to do, and does it very well. And what it does is optimize gluttony in much the same way that Henry Ford had once optimized the production of automobiles: with precision, power, and unfailing efficiency.
Consumption was why I took the job at the Corral in the first place. I had only ever eaten there once or twice before applying for work, but I was a budding weightlifter who harbored dreams of professional wrestling glory. The Golden Corral would sustain me during this lean period, its bountiful meats and poultry enabling me to maintain an intake of 300 grams of protein per day.
I have no complaints about the particulars of the job. The store where I worked was managed by a man who remains the most competent supervisor I've ever had. My co-workers were a diverse and lively bunch of characters with whom I shared a great deal of extracurricular fun. But a well-run nuclear waste dump is still a nuclear waste dump.
The savvy buffet-icianado, however, knew to purchase ice water, fill up 30 plates of food, nibble at all of it, and then leave the mess for the server.
At the Corral, an eight dollar or ten dollar buffet purchase entitled the purchaser to all he could eat, after which nothing would stop him from depleting the buffet. The price, set by some bean counters at the corporate headquarters, presupposed that the average patron would devour two or three plates of food and would wash it down by buying an overpriced soda; thus satiated, he would stack his two plates in a neat pile on the table, and leave a three-dollar tip. The savvy buffet-icianado, however, knew to purchase ice water, fill up 30 plates of food, nibble at all of it, and then leave the mess for the server, who quite naturally hadn't been tipped so much as one red cent, to haul away. By acting this way, you beat the system—and really, what was the harm in that?
In spite of this, the Corral is profitable and generally always has been, in part because its bigwigs don't waste money on slick advertisements and in part because they exact steep discounts from their food distributors. The workers are paid reasonably well (I was making around 12 bucks an hour when I quit) and the managers earn high base salaries and competitive bonuses. Each year, the menu—which once upon a time existed to emphasize standalone offerings like sirloin tips, the salad bar serving merely as a pleasant add-on—grows smaller and smaller, with more made-to-order items moved to the buffet.
So eventually every patron who wound their way through the actual corral at the entrance and up to the register found himself or herself ordering the buffet, thereupon to feed for as long as possible at this ever-expanding golden trough. The Corral, in the thoroughgoing blandness of its furnishings and the forgettable hum of its Muzak, represented the banality of American wastefulness. People of all shapes and sizes, and from all walks of life—I'll engage in no classism or body-shaming here, since the Corral took all comers—entered the place and began to act like complete assholes who had never before encountered plates, forks, napkins, food, or even bathrooms (the less said of their restroom discoveries, the better).
In 2013, some candid photographs of a filthy Corral dish room set Reddit ablaze. When those photos grossed out the readers of Reddit, blame was automatically assigned to the Corral itself. Redditors made all the expected remarks: "What an advertisement for this dump," "can you imagine working here?", "e. coli central." That's not so bad, I thought. You should have seen our dish room after the Sunday church crowd left.
The reason the Corral dish room becomes so fetid and miasmal, with standing food-sogged water so moat-deep that I and an enormous El Salvadorian dentist would slip and slide while staging playful battles in it, is because its patrons lose all sense of proportion once they pass through the corral and thence to the trough. The reason I sprayed off dishes with a garden hose, dozens at a time, and then restacked them and hurried them back out, was because I had no choice. The Sunday post-church patrons needed their slop buckets, and if they didn't get them, everyone on staff would catch holy hell.
The result of all this wasn't pure Americana; it was, pardon the shouting, pure AMERICANA!!! As a US historian, I've always had a keen fascination with manifestations of the more unsavory aspects of our national character. The first thing I realized while working at the Corral, and this was especially notable in 1999-2000 at the heyday of 80-cents-a-gallon gas, was that Americans waste stuff because they can, for the same reason a dog or cat chases its tail, and for no better reason than that. The second was that Americans get what's coming to them. They get their money's worth, even if that means throwing away food that would be better served by being repurposed to nourish the least among us.
The Corral, which also managed to get its money's worth in spite of its rapacious customers, couldn't donate all the uneaten food or untouched leftovers to food banks or homeless shelters, because, you know, lawsuits. Rather, we just hauled teeming trashcan after teeming trashcan to the compactor, and I got a decent workout hoisting and dumping these overstuffed receptacles. The resulting stench beggared the imagination. Describing it is beyond my ken. To quote the great sportswriter Red Smith, "Now the story ends, and there is no way to tell it…reality has strangled invention."
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