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Busy times at Ole Times
To keep pace, restaurant creates 70-plus jobs
Ole Times Lunch Web
Monday lunch isn't the busiest mealtime at Ole Times Country Buffet, but it's still busy. At the near table, server Kierria Kirkland looks after customers Sharon and Eric Norwood. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

             In the restaurant's first five weeks in operation, the popularity of the Ole Times Country Buffet in Statesboro has exceeded his expectations, said Pat O'Neal, owner of the Valdosta-based chain.
        As a result, his latest venture has created more than the 50 or so jobs he predicted. In fact, the Ole Times Country Buffet here currently employs more than 70 people.
        "Once we opened, we're doing twice what we thought we were going to be able to do, so we had to gear up for it," O'Neal said. "Whenever you're that busy, you've got to have extra people just to keep your place clean and stay on top of things. It's a nonstop cycle."
        Open seven days a week, the restaurant occupies the building on U.S. Highway 80 East vacated by the former Ryan's, which closed in early March. After some quick remodeling and the arrival of new equipment, the Ole Times County Buffet opened the first week of May, just in time for Mother's Day, when cars filled the lot and customers lined up nearly to the neighboring Lowe's property.
        Of course, restaurants often experience an opening rush that tapers off some when the novelty wears away.
        So, on the one hand, the expected daily traffic has begun to stabilize, which isn't entirely unwelcome for those operating the business.
        "We've been putting in 18-hour days for the last month and a half to two months just to get it open," O'Neal said. "But now that we've got it open, it's starting to level out, and we've got some real good employees."
        On the other hand, he notes, it's now summer break for Georgia Southern University, and many of its 20,000 students are away. He hopes for a further influx of new customers when they return.
        His company will reach out to both the university and local high schools to show support for their teams, O'Neal said.

Now 14 restaurants
        The Statesboro location gives O'Neal 14 restaurants currently in operation, with a combined workforce of about 1,000 people. Ten of the restaurants, from Lake City, Fla., to Macon to the Georgia coast, use the Ole Times Country Buffet name.
        He also owns three Smok'n Pig B-B-Q places in Macon and Valdosta and one Mama June's Home Cookin' restaurant, also in Valdosta.
        O'Neal built the brand by reopening restaurants in the same buildings where larger chains, especially Ryan's and Golden Corral, have closed.
        One unusual feature of the Ole Times restaurants is they sell some fresh produce for home cooking. The one here has shelves just inside the entrance, near the host stations where customers pay for their meals in advance.
        Vine-ripened tomatoes are offered year-round, O'Neal said, and those currently in stock are Georgia-grown.
        The shelves also hold Georgia honey and Georgia pecans. Vidalia onions and other vegetables are offered seasonally. The company participates in the Georgia Grown program sponsored by the state's Department of Agriculture.

Experienced staff
        Several people with buffet restaurant experience, some from other Ole Times locations and some from the former Ryan's, are working in key positions in the Statesboro restaurant, O'Neal notes.
        His ex-wife, Bobbie O'Neal, is general manager. O'Neal's son Trey is also working here.
        Tammy Poynor, now one of the Ole Times Country Buffet managers, worked in the same building when it was a Ryan's. Another manager, Rose Savage, and her husband, Daniel Alexander, as kitchen manager, have moved to Statesboro, for now at least, from Valdosta, where they also worked at the Ole Times.
        "Statesboro has been very supportive of us,' said Bobbie O'Neal. "We're doing really well."
        After serving longer as site manager of an Ole Times Country Buffet - which has since been sold to another company - in Tallahassee, she managed the Savannah location for three years.
        So far, customer volume in Statesboro has been comparable to that in Savannah, she said.
        The restaurant here on Highway 80 East has about 400 seats; the one in Savannah, 350.
        "I'd say we're neck-and-neck," said Bobbie O'Neal. "Our sales are right up in there. Well, we're doing more than them, but we've only been here a short while."
        For restaurant number 15, Pat O'Neal said he may begin looking toward Pooler, possibly within the year, but right now he wants to see how things level out for the Statesboro store.

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