The Chain Challenge II: Golden Corral, Rochester, N.Y.

Two years ago, Smartest Man I Know™ Brian Moritz suggested that I should use my food snobbery as a means to raise money for Walk to End Alzheimer’s — an event which my organization, the Alzheimer’s Association, conducts each year. I raised $1,500 in 2014 and reviewed The Olive Garden in Syracuse

In 2015, we upped the ante to $1,750 and my having to commit an act so heinous that my mental state would be called into question. If I hit the magic number, I would eat at the Golden Corral. The nearest location is near Marketplace Mall in Rochester, about 75 minutes away from my house.

I raised $2,036. On May 7, we finally made it to the Golden Corral. Some of you watched as Brian and I offered live updates from the restaurant on Facebook (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Here’s how it went down.

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Drive down Jefferson Road in Henrietta and you will see a progression. Fast food and fast casual chains like the roadway, sprinkled with sitdown chain restaurants. The expansive Marketplace Mall sits to the left, as does a large Wegmans.

When you cross the bridge over Henrietta Road, you enter another world. Those upscale chains are gone, giving way to an endless series of Asian and Indian buffets. Strip centers have more vacancies than stores. PriceRite, not a Wegmans, sells groceries on this side of the tracks. A Golden Corral sign glows on the right side of the road, beckoning passersby to the “Best Buffet in the U.S.A.”

Our attempt to visit the restaurant early on a recent Saturday evening was thwarted by a line that stretched out the door. We wound our way through a series of dividers — like velvet ropes on the red carpet of indigestion — to the self-serve beverage area. Guests have a choice of Pepsi products, sweetened and unsweetened iced tea, and bottled water. Fountain beverages are served in 12 oz. hard plastic cups ($2.49) or disposable 32 oz. to-go cups ($2.89). Milk and coffee is served tableside. All beverages have unlimited refills.

Cash registers are located just beyond the beverage station. Admission to the buffet is based on age — children and seniors eat for less than $7, while adults are $12.99. The open kitchen afforded us a view of preparation areas that were ripe for cross contamination, and even the allergen guide cautioned those with Celiac disease that gluten-free foods could come in contact with wheat. Anticipating this, The Wife packed food for The Kid and we paid only for a children’s beverage.

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The six of us were corralled in a space behind the cashiers before joining the disorganized seating pool of people waiting to be seated. A single person asked for the party size of three to four groups of their choosing, regardless of order, and disappeared to find open tables. He returned to seat those guests, leaving everyone else behind to wait, and then starting the dance again.

Twenty-five minutes passed from the moment we walked in until we sat down.

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The Golden Corral is split into stations based on the type of food served. An extensive salad bar gives way to a soup station, which is connected to a fried chicken area, featuring wings, chicken tenders and fried chicken. This is connected to a stir fry area and small Mexican food station. Next to that is the grill, where ham is carved and steaks are grilled. A pizza station and seafood area round out that portion of the restaurant. The desert area is separate.

Table service is minimal. We were assigned someone that cleared plates and trays and refilled drinks.

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As per our agreement, Brian selected each of course with the caveat that I refused to eat any seafood. Frankly, I was not willing to chance my health over a steam tray of something marked “fish fillets.”

Course one was an appetizer. Brian chose a bowl of chili topped with shredded orange cheese, a mango habanero chicken wing and a sriracha chicken tender. The latter was an overcooked chicken breast tenderloin tossed in chili sauce. The sriracha sauce tasted fake and the tender itself was far too salty. The chicken wing was okay, more habanero than mango, and the chili was probably the best thing I ate, though one’s perspective on the word “best” is skewed given the conditions. It was a standard foodservice chili, loaded with ground meat, kidney beans and spices. It was simply inoffensive.

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Course number two was selected by our children. My daughter wanted me to eat salami (she collapsed under the pressure, just like her daddy). That wasn’t available, so I ended up with three slices of pepperoni from the salad bar. Brian’s daughter chose a Brussels sprouts sandwich, which he was able to assemble from the yeast rolls and the sides of vegetables. The rolls are the 1B to the chili’s 1A as best things you can eat at Golden Corral; dense with a buttery flavor.

The brussels sprouts were odd. They were steamed, as expected, but had an odd sheen to the exterior. They were not sitting in water nor did they have an obvious butter or margarine flavor.

Course three was my choice. I went with a piece of fried chicken, a wedge of garlic pizza and some Buffalo wings. Each were equally underwhelming. I tried a hunk of Brian’s meatloaf, which I immediately spat out. Dessert was a bowl of ordinary chocolate mousse and a sugar cookie. The Kid enjoyed the fresh spun cotton candy.

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Dinner for five (count The Kid out) was $80, including the $5 I left for our assigned table clearer (tipping is not mentioned anywhere and since I always err towards leaving a tip…). For me, this is problematic on a few levels.

First, let’s talk about quality. This was a step below college dining hall food. The pizza was gas station quality, everything sweltered under heat lamps and nothing looked particularly appetizing. At least the lettuce looked fresh. Overall, the food was dreck.

Second, the perceived value of eating at the Golden Corral is all-you-can-eat for a low price. There’s no significant loss leader here, like crab legs or prime rib, or any sort of strategy required to get the most for your dollar. It’s a trough where everyone can find something to eat. Four adults ate for approximately $70, which is not bad until you consider that we could have gone to any number of non-fast food/fast casual spots in Syracuse or Rochester for $80 (think about the diners we could have gone to). The clientele of the Golden Corral is not affluent; it’s middle class and lower. It is a household trying to feed a family with not a lot of money, and they get swindled, particularly considering that…

Third, and this is what bugs me the most, is that very little of the food was healthy. Yes, there was a salad bar. It was full of mayonnaise-based salads and high-fat dressings, and short on fresh vegetables. Yes, there were steamed vegetables, but the choices were corn, the aforementioned Brussels sprouts and broccoli so overcooked that it was yellow. There was not much in the way of lean proteins that looked appetizing. Most of the buffet was fried food. Look, my BMI says I’m morbidly obese, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but if we’re worried about public health and things like diabetes and heart disease, and the best we can do for those people I mentioned in the previous paragraph is fried chicken, fried chicken, and fried chicken, then aren’t we just perpetuating the cycle?

Yes, I know, every adult makes a conscious choice of what to eat, but not every child does. They are stuck with what is (or isn’t) put in front of them. I’m walking proof that obesity is learned and tough to unlearn. Watching kids pile more and more fried crap on their plates was sad, but when you look at the parents that approached the buffet with the same mindset… I don’t know what I’m getting at here. I think a lot has been said about food deserts and access to fresh produce in underserved communities. All the Golden Corral does here is perpetuate these behaviors under the guise of “value.”

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So, what did I think of the Golden Corral? It was shit. Pure and utter shit. I cannot give the Golden Corral an honest, unbiased restaurant review because it does not deserve one. It’s a step above the soup kitchens you and I have volunteered at, except there’s a better chance of the food being made with care in those locations. The Golden Corral is the Walmart of food emporiums. It preys upon an economic class with the promise of value and shovels platefuls of shit into their mouths.

The more I think about this place, the more it makes me mad.

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