During the pandemic, most buffet concepts had to change radically to stay afloat. Some scrapped their salad bars, others resorted to hiring wait staff and amplifying their off-premise capacity. Once restrictions were lifted, these restaurants had to decide whether to dust off the food warmers or carry on with the new way of business.
Steakhouses Ponderosa and Bonanza decided on the former. They picked the serving spoons back up and were better for it. In fact, the once-struggling sister brands linked arms to bring their iconic buffets back. And like any good comeback story, they're seeing success after challenge.
Sales at the steakhouse chain are up by 30% this year compared to the same time period in 2021, according to FSR Magazine. Gregg Nettleton, president of Ponderosa and Bonanza, said in an interview with the magazine that he is seeing the brands' multi-generational appeal, with families coming back to the steakhouses in droves—some even traveling several hours to treat themselves to a night out at the buffet.
"We were shuttered in and we couldn't go anywhere, and I think people were just excited to get back out and socialize," Nettleton told FSR Mag. "Families have been returning in great frequency…It's comfort food, it's value-based, and it's the same kind of food you grew up eating at your grandparents."
While the steakhouses temporarily transformed into regular full-service restaurants during the pandemic, they have now gone back to the buffet setups at most locations. Nettleton says not only do guests prefer the standard buffet dining that the chain has traditionally offered, but it also keeps labor costs down.
Old West-themed Ponderosa and Bonanza steakhouses (or PonBon) have been around since the 1960s and are known as buffet restaurants. Their name was derived from the hit TV show Bonanza (with Ponderosa being the fictional ranch the show was set on).
PonBon restaurants weathered a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2008. After being passed around through multiple parent companies, they landed with FAT Brands in 2017. The number of locations has dwindled to just 53 in five years since the acquisition, but nevertheless, the brands seem to have finally hit their stride.
Due to Ponderosa and Bonanza's recent success, Nettleton is planning for a bright future—with an eye on expansion. The brand has already struck a deal to open locations in Egypt, while talks with potential franchisees have started domestically as well.
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