February 2010 will mark seven years that Albany’s Old Times Country Buffet on Dawson Road has been serving up down home vittles. It is one of eight eateries owned by Valdosta Restaurateur, Pat O’Neal, and according to Old Times Manager, B.J. Fletcher, one of the best, showing a 12 percent growth in business over last year.
Fletcher says that one key factor in the restaurant’s good standing is the “free reign” approach that O’Neal takes.
“Pat let’s each manager take control over their operations, understanding that every location and the community it serves, is different”, said Fletcher. “What works in Valdosta, may not work in Albany.” Fletcher, a native of Valdosta herself, has known O’Neal for thirty-five years, adding, “He is just a great guy to work for.”
When she first arrived in Albany, the location of Old Times in the Village Green Shopping Center was a problem. “Nobody knew we were here”, Fletcher said.
There were other buffets in the area, and Fletcher realized that to compete, she would have to set a course of action and stick to it. “I knew that the prices others were asking, for what they offered was high, so right away we got busy putting a menu together that a lot of people liked, that we could offer at a much better price.” It worked. In a few years her nearest competitor, Barnhill’s, had to close the doors. Others lowered their prices.
There are more than 500 licensed restaurants in the Albany area. Fletcher says that to be successful, you have to decide who your customer is, know what they want, and deliver that everyday. The success of Old Times is a simple formula of good food, good prices, and the “kitchen-table effect”, as she calls it. By that, she means the way her staff not only greets their customers, but in the little things like having the televisions on the local news, developing relationships with area churches by providing them opportunities to get their message and service hours on napkin holders, and making sure that the overall atmosphere is welcoming and relaxing.
“We made the decision to target our menu, our prices, and our attitude, to seniors”, said Fletcher. “We make it a point to get to know all of our regular customers. It’s a real family relationship. We’re glad to see them, and they are glad to see us.” Fletcher recalls one elderly gentleman a few years back, who had lost his wife. “We were all so worried about him”, she said. “We knew he was depressed and having a hard time.” One day, he sought her out as he was leaving, to thank her for the sincere kindness that he felt from everyone there saying, “I’m happy. There are some good folks in Albany.”
Old Times has a staff of 46. “I still have 90 percent of the people I started with seven years ago”, said Fletcher. These folks are effective ambassadors for Albany, drawing regular customers from Cordele, Cuthbert, and Randolph County, according to Fletcher. Two years ago Old Times secured the cafeteria contract at Miller Brewing. That operation, run by partner/manager, Sara Gay Edmonds, employs nine people. But according to Fletcher, they are not done yet in Albany, saying, “We are ready to go downtown.”
The plans have been on their side of the kitchen table for a while now, but Fletcher says that getting some serious cooperation from downtown property owners and the city has been difficult. “We have been shown property that the asking rent was in the high thousands per month, plus they wanted a percentage of our sales!”, exclaimed Fletcher. “If you are going to get part of our sales, get in the back and peel some potatoes!” She extended a challenge to the downtown powers that be, saying if they would offer a realistic rent, taking into account local economic factors, and the high degree of vacancies downtown, Old Times Country Buffet stands ready to open a Downtown Albany location. She would like very much to have something in place and operating by the first of the year.
Fletcher says that like so may others; she was upset, but not surprised, then motivated, by recent reports listing Albany as one of the ten poorest places to live in the nation. “All of us have to do something to change that.” She believes that the success of Old Times Country Buffet, and their plans for future growth, can be a positive force in the community.
Regardless of how successful Old Times Country Buffet gets in the future, Fletcher is determined to maintain the closeness they have developed with their customers. “It’s not only good for business, but more important; it’s just about treating people like you would want to be treated.”