When Pat O’Neal of Valdosta opens an Ole Times Country Buffet in the building formerly occupied by the Statesboro Ryan’s, he will have 14 restaurants in operation. He hopes to open it in early May, in time for Mother’s Day, a peak day for family restaurants.
Wednesday morning, O’Neal sat down for an interview in the building on U.S. Highway 80 East. His pickup and a trailer emblazoned with his three restaurant brands were parked out front. A painter was painting, and other signs of preparations were obvious. O’Neal is investing about $200,000 in all-new kitchen equipment and renovations he describes as largely cosmetic. He has obtained the building on a lease-to-own basis from the California-based investment group that owns it.
“I’m known for becoming a second-generation restaurant owner,” O’Neal said. “I take these restaurants after the first generation failed and I’ll turn them around, and I’ve been pretty successful at it.”
About this time last year, he took over a former Golden Corral in Hinesville and made it an Ole Times Country Buffet. His Ole Times Country Buffet in Savannah was also previously a Ryan’s.
In addition to those two locations, his restaurant realm includes the Ole Times Country Buffet restaurants in Brunswick, Douglas, Macon, Tifton, Valdosta and Warner Robins, Ga., and Lake City, Fla. So Statesboro’s will be his 10th under that brand alone. The Ole Times Country Buffet in Dublin is under different ownership.
O’Neal also owns three Smok’n Pig B-B-Q places in Macon and Valdosta and the Mama June’s Home Cookin’ restaurant, also in Valdosta. Mama June’s is much like an Ole Times Country Buffet, but he named it after his mother to avoid having two restaurants with the Ole Times name in his home town.
The largest two of these restaurants seat 550 and 475 people. The Statesboro restaurant, including its banquet rooms, will seat about 400, O’Neal said.
Meanwhile, about 150 stores sell Smok’n Pig B-B-Q sauce, he reports.
A since-deceased partner and O’Neal, who was previously in the nightclub business and in produce, opened the first Ole Times Country Buffet in Douglas about 20 years ago. It occupied a building that had been a Golden Corral.
Hiring 50 or more
Also at the transitioning Statesboro restaurant Wednesday, Ray Parr, area supervisor for O’Neal’s company, will be doing most of the hiring. He expects to be in town for at least a couple of weeks, he said. A former Ryan’s cook and another former Ryan’s employee were there as job seekers, or already in the process of being hired.
“We’re trying to hire as many people who were here before as we can,” Parr said.
O’Neal and Parr plan to bring in some experienced managers from the Savannah and Hinesville locations until the Statesboro Ole Times Country Buffet is able to operate on its own. The restaurant may hire up to 60 people, full- and part-time, at first, but O’Neal expects that to shake out to about 45 or 50 who will stay long-term, he said.
Parr was planning a visit to Georgia Southern University offices that can put him in touch with potential student employees, and said other applicants can talk to him at the restaurant.
In contrast to some buffet chains that steam or bake items assembled at other facilities, O’Neal said, his restaurants cook their meals fresh every day from mainly fresh or frozen ingredients. His company is a member of the Georgia Grown program, promoting the use of local produce.
“We buy local as much as we can and use a lot of fresh produce, homemade desserts,” he said. “We come in in the morning and we start cooking, just like Mama used to do.”
His father was in the produce business before him, and O’Neal takes his interest in fresh produce a step further. The Ole Times Country Buffet will feature a small produce stand, stocked with things such as vine-ripened tomatoes and sweet potatoes, inside the front entrance.
When this restaurant opens, O’Neal will be employing about 1,000 people across his chain. That has been a long-term goal of his, he said.
Not part of Buffets LLC
To be clear, O’Neal is not affiliated with Ryan’s or Buffets LLC. His Ole Times Country Buffet is an entirely different brand from Old Country Buffet, which like Ryan’s, is one of the Buffets LLC chains.
The Ryan’s in Statesboro closed suddenly the weekend of March 6. It was one of dozens of similar restaurants that have closed pending a Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring of Buffets LLC, acquired by Food Management Partners, or FMP, based in San Antonio, Texas, as part of a merger in August. FMP merged at that time with Greer, S.C.-based Ovation Brands, which previously operated the Buffets LLC restaurants.
FMP had announced the closing of 74 underperforming Old Country Buffet, Hometown Buffet, Ryan’s, Fire Mountain and Country Buffet restaurants throughout the United States on Feb. 4. Then, in a March 7 press release, FMP announced a Chapter 11 filing for Buffets LLC, which also includes restaurants under the Tahoe Joe’s Famous Steakhouse label.
“However, we are completely committed to the continued operation of these brands, and this is a necessary step for us to make that happen,” FMP Vice President for Business Development Peter Donbavand said in the March 7 release.
Bulloch County tax records show the former Ryan’s site, including 2.7 acres of land valued by the county at a little over $1 million and a $611,000 building, as the property of Realty Income Corporation of San Diego, Calif.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.