Extirpation is the local elimination of a species. Hometown Buffet may well be doing just fine outside this local area; but here it is going out of business.
Hometown Buffet is just what it sounds like. A large cafeteria like operation where you pay a fixed price as you enter, pick up a plate, load it up at any of a few different tables / lines with traditional American style foods. There’s a “Carving Station” that typically has a beef roast, a large ham, and sometimes a turkey IIRC. In addition, there’s a salad bar, and a long set of hot sides and baked main dishes – meatloaf, fish, fried and baked-seasoned chicken, dinner rolls, mac&cheese, and more.
20 years ago there were 3 of them in the area. One in the more “upscale” area near Campbell, one in San Jose in a more sub-urban shopping center, and one on the major restaurant row of El Camino nearer to Santa Clara.
Over the years I’ve watched that area of El Camino shift what restaurants are thriving based in large part on what new ethnicity is entering Silicon Valley. Originally lined with Italian and French, and places like Denny’s. At one time the Filipino population was larger, then chip fab moved off shore and with it the army of folks who assembled chips. Their foods left with them. Then for a while Korean and Japanese restaurants popped up (some still surviving). A large population of Pho restaurants arrived with the Vietnamese (then moved to “Little Saigon” in San Jose). Lately the number of Indian restaurants has risen along with more Mexican places (though we’ve always had an underlayment of Mexican foods). There’s also been an uptick in Chinese restaurants.
So it isn’t a surprise to see turnover in restaurants.
What is different here is that the change has spread away from that El Camino / Lawrence entry point for new arrivals (lots of apartments, not as many single family homes, very near traditional Silicon Valley chip makers) and is more widely happening.
Along the way, the Hometown Buffet chain has lost the Campbell and San Jose stores. Last night we had dinner at the Santa Clara / El Camino area one. It is clearly struggling. It can not long survive given what I observed. (Note: I’m not certain exactly which town each is in, it is near the named one but they all run together into one urban metroplex).
So what is doing it?
A clue comes from Sizzler.
We’ve also had a local extirpation of Sizzler. Last I looked there was only one left in the area, and it may well be gone now. Over by the Eastridge Shopping Center. We really like Sizzler but have not gone to one in a few years.
Both serve traditional American foods. Both are directed at the “Middle Class”. Both are a step up from chain fast food places, and both are not in the “fine dining” or “special treat” category. They are aimed squarely at the working class family looking for a nice, but not expensive, night out.
That’s what is missing. The “American Middle Class” and “affordable”.
California has imported a large number of “immigrants”. As a “white guy” I’m a minority here. You are as likely to need Spanish as English if talking with the folks working in the restaurants and grocery stores. Campbell has become an Asian Mecca (they had a reputation for “good schools” about 30 years ago and Asian immigrants have paid up for that reputation) with the population largely shifting strongly to Asian since then. East San Jose has always been the Hispanic area, but that has now expanded across San Jose and into Silicon Valley tech areas.
But that is not the whole story.
A few years back, at the San Jose Hometown, it was still packed with diners. There was a lot of Spanish being spoken, and they added a Taco Bar with choice of hot sauces. I did notice the typical downfall of buffet operations: the crowd had more “large size” folks loading up lots of plates. The Hispanic working class was being efficient about it, and making sure everyone was really hungry before they showed up. A feast more than a dinner.
For the San Jose location, they also suffered through an Agenda 21 “friendly” gentrification / make over. With 3 story apartments added around the perimeter of the shopping center where they were located. Facelift on their building. Parking lot made “pretty” but harder to navigate. During those years they hung on, despite fewer folks willing to brave a construction zone for a dinner out. Then they were gone. Replaced with some overpriced fru-fru place. I’m left to assume their rent was raised too high after the construction was done.
Then there was what I think was the “last straw”. The State of California raised minimum wage for restaurant workers to $15 / hour. Hometown had to raise their prices. It became too expensive for the Hispanic Family Feast and not a “good deal” for the regular middle class folks.
That is how you go from 3 stores, full of customers, to mostly empty in just a few years. It is a death spiral of lower sales, needing higher prices to make the rent, giving lower attendance.
Effectively, The State has priced the mid-scale lower priced places out of the market.
We went to the local, last standing, Hometown Buffet. We arrived at about 5:45 PM. We were in the habit, from prior years, of making sure we arrived just before the “rush” at about 6 PM. There was one guy with 2 kids in front of us. Nobody was at the register. Maybe 1/2 dozen tables (out of room for, I’d guess, 200 seats) had folks seated. After a too-long wait, I “jumped the line” and told the buss boy they needed to get someone to the front or customers (i.e. me) were going to start leaving. He rang someone, the cashier showed up, and we paid.
$38 for 2 people, one a “senior discount”. Now an old couple is just not going to eat a whole lot and certainly not $38 (and change) worth. It used to be about $20 for 2. Now the drink is charged separately at $3 and the meal proper has gone up to $14… plus the 10% Sales Tax. Just not “worth it” even if the food were good.
But the food was not all that good. Some bits were, some were not. An operation designed to make large trays of food and turn them over fast does not work well for a dozen tables. Fish especially does not “hold well” in a hot table. The baked / sauteed fish was dry and leathery on top – it had clearly sat in the table too long. The breaded fish was similarly dry. The fried chicken was overcooked and way too peppery. I suspect their cook is now a Hispanic and is seasoning to his tastes, not the corporate recipe.
We did find some good to eat. The herbed baked chicken was good, as was the roast ham. The mashed potatoes were clearly instant, but not too bad. The jello was, well jello. There was even a nice cheesecake dessert.
But when you must pick through the foods to find the ones that are good enough to eat, wastage goes up, and costs with it. We spent a good hour slowly having dinner, talking. That put us pretty much into prime time Dinner Hours. There was never a line to get in. (In the past, the line would reach from the register along one wall all the way out the door). There were mostly empty tables and never more than a dozen or so tables occupied. They often had one adult and some kids – I think they have some special for kids at low cost or free.
Plus they have “speed bumps” in the parking lot. The quickest way to kill a shopping mall is to put speed bumps all over it. Folks just choose to go somewhere that doesn’t bounce them off the chair to get parked.
So we’ll not be going back. This will accelerate the decay and the extirpation of the last Hometown Buffet in the area.
We’ve mostly gone to “dine at home” ( I pick up “to go” sushi at the local grocery store and we can have a very very nice “dinner for 2” for $20 ) and the occasional “fast food” place. So our $60 “night at the sushi restaurant” has basically ended. Now the “sometimes go to Hometown” is over. We used to take a group of 7 (grandma, spouse and twin, me, 3 kids) every couple of weeks sometimes with a friend or 2 added on. Then it was just our family of 4. Then just the 2 of us. Now “never again”. That is how you go out of business.
Essentially, it is way too expensive for the “low end middle” to survive thanks to the high rental costs and high wage costs. IF folks are going to “pay up” they expect a special experience. So the very expensive very high end places can survive. The “meat and potatoes” middle can not. Fast Food can hang on some, but even there our frequency of use is way off. What was $4 for a quick lunch and “worth it” is now a $9 cost and portions are sometimes smaller. Even Taco Bell has gone from a $5 lunch to closer to that $9 point. More on that below.
It isn’t just the chains. At a KFC in Georgia I got a very good and filling meal for $5, drink included. Here in Santa Clara, I bought the same $5 box. The chicken parts were clearly much smaller – since price is fixed nation wide, other means need to be used to pay the excess costs here. It was OK but not the same. The local Jack-in-the-Box where I used to get a quick breakfast of 2 x b’fast Jacks for $2 and a drink now runs about $5 for the same thing. That is THE cheapest meal you can get there. It can easily run up to $9 if you buy anything more ‘high end’.
So now when driving somewhere, instead of just planning on J-B and KFC along the way, I load an ice chest and bag of groceries into the car. Why pay $3 for a drink if you can get a flat of water at Walmart for about that much and stuff your ice chest? Why pay $2 for a bit of bread with an egg and ham slice on it when you can have a whole loaf of bread, some hard boiled eggs, and a whole package of ham? The “convenience” is not worth it.
Sidebar on Taco Bell:
Over the years, Taco Bell has regularly been pushing the “up sell”. I originally loved and bought their “Bell Beefer” (Young folks will never have seen one). A hamburger bun with a big scoop of taco filling on it. Think “sloppy Joe”. Then they eliminated it from the menu (but for a few years you could order it if you knew). Then it was gone.
They have done this regularly. Eliminate the low cost item, add a high end fancy item. 7 Layer and all sorts of more complicated things. All at higher prices. So I moved on to the “Combo Burrito”. Beans and meat on a tortilla instead of a bun, but close enough and reasonably priced. It went through the same cancellation thing. A few months ago you could get it by ordering a “beef burrito + beans” for about $2.75 or something like that.
Now they have eliminated the Beef Burrito (at least at several stores from Oklahoma or near there to Arizona to California). I was told by one clerk I could still get it if “You order a Bean Burrito, no beans, add beef”. I then realized I could get my preferred “Combo Burrito” by ordering a “Bean Burrito add beef”… One wonders how long the bean burrito will survive… So my old $5 lunch at Taco Bell is now a complicated navigation of the rules and about $8. Um, no thanks. I’ll take “ham sandwich in the car” for $1..
So why do they do it? Because they want you to order the $3 or $4 upsell item from the menu, not the $2 to $2.75 item. Price, cost, and profit pressures. It is now hitting even the low cost fast food end of things.
It isn’t hard at all to arrange your own “Fast Food” on the road. A sandwich kit, cooler and flat of drinks, small bag of fruit. Toss in some kippers for breakfast. Heck, a drip (now sometimes called a Pour Over (tm – Melita) coffee maker and camp stove / hot pot and even the coffee stop isn’t needed. I’ve gone coast to coast without a single restaurant stop – though I did occasionally get a giant coffee at the truck stops. Unheard of a decade back.
For the spouse, I ‘make her lunch’. About 1 day in 10 she will do a lunch out (often when at a remote site or special event). The other days it’s a pre-made meal in a tub that gets microwave warmed. This, too, is unlike a decade back. I’ve gotten quite good at the assembly operation for these meals. At $8 each, that’s $40 a week or $120 / month. (Which, thanks to our progressive tax system would require $240 of wages to have that $120 take home pay). At that price point it is worth it and the fast food place isn’t. I make 3 or 4 at a time and they go into the freezer. It is faster and more convenient that “going somewhere” too.
The restaurant business is very competitive and cost sensitive. By forcing costs high, California is killing the middle class coffee shop and buffet, and damaging the Fast Food end of the market. Someone forgot that the grocery store is part of the choice spectrum. Low end restaurants especially are an economic “canary in the coal mine” as they are entirely optional and the first place folks “cut back”.
It is still doing well in The South, and next time I’m there I will be stopping at that same KFC that gave me good “value for money” last time. But I no longer buy a KFC lunch in California. Or a Jack-in-the-Box breakfast. And the Taco Bell menu has become hostile enough I’m pretty much done with them, too. I just feel silly ordering a “Bean Burrito no beans”…
Sure, I could afford those meals and I could keep going, but I’m not motivated too. It’s OK as a fast “fill you up” volume; but so is a loaf of bread, some lunch meat, and an ice chest of drinks. And I don’t have to deal with cashiers who can’t count change and have trouble understanding enough English to get my order right.
The extirpation of Sizzler and Hometown Buffet point out that same effect is up to the mid-scale middle class restaurants as well. An indicator of the extirpation of the Middle Class here.