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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2005 03:51 pm

The last stuffer

Hungry? Come to Springfield, where the buffet line just keeps going and going.

How many times you go through the line is a private matter between you and your capacity, and then between your capacity and the chef's evil eye.
-- William Pearson, from the novel The Muses of Ruin

Back in the day, nearly 40 years ago, Heritage House stood alone. “No one had anything close to what we had,” recalls Don Taft, former owner of the landmark restaurant that pioneered buffets in a city that’s become a bastion of all-you-can-eat. “We were the only game in town then.”
They called it a smorgasbord, not a buffet. There was no shame in reserving tables for a wedding dinner or prom night. A red neon sign out front alerted the hungry: “Immediate Seating.” With 15,000 customers each month, Heritage House fed the entire population of Springfield nearly twice each year. And what a feast it served: Six to eight entrées, an equal number of vegetable dishes, 14 salads, 18 desserts, an ice-cream machine. There was fried chicken. Corn. “Homemade” bread pudding. Three kinds of pie, plus ice cream, plus Jell-O. Catfish. Polish sausage. Every day, shrimp. “Some days, we’d have liver and onions,” says Taft, who opened the restaurant in 1965. It still wasn’t enough. Faced with an ever-increasing number of competing buffets, Heritage House closed its doors last year. Call it the last of the city’s old-fashioned pig-outs. Instead of islands of food — one island devoted to salad, another to meat, another to side dishes — it was all one sneeze-shielded line. Nowadays, that qualifies as quaint. Folks who graze don’t like standing in line.
Las Vegas has the rep, but Springfield delivers. Buffets cost less in this town than in Sin City, where you’ll pay extra for crab legs or prime rib. It’s nearly impossible to find a decent buffet in Vegas for $10 or less. All-you-can-eats, once run as loss leaders to lure gamblers, now cost $20 or more, and some casinos don’t have them at all. At a September food-service conference in Vegas, a panel of chefs discussed the unthinkable: Buffets, once a mainstay on the Strip, may one day fade away. But not in Springfield, which literally bursts with buffets. With more than a dozen restaurants that offer the chance to eat yourself to death, there are more buffets in this town than aldermen — and the number explodes at lunchtime, when dozens of order-from-the-menu restaurants set out steam tables and run for cover. Until a few years ago, even McDonald’s offered a buffet-style breakfast on weekends, but it was too much of a good thing to last. “It got to be too expensive, No. 1,” explains Steve Jeffers, who owns the McDonald’s franchise at North Grand and Ninth. When one buffet falls by the wayside in Springfield, there is always, it seems, another to take its place. So it is that Taft has been talking with North Carolina-based Golden Corral about opening a restaurant where Heritage House once fed the masses. Peter Charland, vice president of franchise operations for Golden Corral, confirms that one of the nation’s fastest-growing restaurant chains is scouting. “The demographics in Springfield would be great for us,” he says. There’s a high percentage of consumers with average incomes, plus many seniors and families, and those sorts of folks make buffet owners drool. Golden Corral, which opens nearly three dozen new restaurants each year, isn’t concerned with the number of buffets in Springfield. “If there are already a lot of buffet restaurants in the market, we can come in and out-position them with better access and visibility,” Charland says. And a Golden Corral is highly visible: Whereas a Ryan’s restaurant is about 9,000 square feet, Charland says, a Golden Corral goes to 11. “We feel like we’re the big box of the restaurant industry,” he says. A Golden Corral will “hopefully” open here within the next two years, Charland says. He doesn’t expect to put anyone out of business. “I think there’s room for everyone; the pie just shrinks a little bit,” he says. “If Golden Corral comes in, there’ll be a little less, but I think everyone will survive.”
So let loose a celebratory belch, Springfield. We’re buffet-mad, and the biggest in the business are eager to invest in our appetites.
I love it whether the food is cold or hot
Put a burger on the plate and it’ll hit the spot
We’ll eat everything — an incredible feat
$3.99 for all you can eat!

— Fat Boys, “All You Can Eat”

The Kitchen Table will never be mistaken for Golden Corral or Ryan’s. Most folks don’t even call it by its proper name. You want the best fried-chicken buffet in Springfield? Head to Abe’s Tradin’ Post on Peoria Road. The restaurant shares space with Abe’s, a secondhand-furniture and knickknack store inside a giant metal shed with a dirt parking lot. This is the essence of nothing fancy. The tables are Formica and chrome, straight from June Cleaver’s kitchen. “Smoking Area,” written in black Magic Marker on a piece of blue cardboard fastened to a bare 2-by-4 ceiling rafter, divides the room in half. Glen Campbell, Engelbert Humperdinck, Donny and Marie, and other recording stars of yesteryear gaze down at the buffet line from album covers tacked to the walls. No business cards here: Diners who enter the drawing for a free meal write their names on pieces of notebook paper, which are tossed into a large salad bowl. Louis Armstrong croons “What a Wonderful World” from a cheap stereo. There are no rolls today, just a loaf of white Butternut bread, still in its plastic bag, left open on a table next to the buffet line. Diners who overload their flimsy Styrofoam plates risk messy accidents. Not counting desserts, there are 14 items to choose from. Starting with a plain iceberg-lettuce salad, the quality crescendos until, at last, you reach the chicken. The whipped potatoes topped with beef gravy in which tender chunks of top round swim would be the highlight of most other budget steam tables, save for this chicken. It tastes pan-fried, and it’s piping hot. You have to blow on it first. Juice dribbles down your chin when you bite into a breast. You look toward the kitchen for Mom, but she’s not here. No, Anglee Stickel, who runs the place with her husband, Roger, cooked this. At $5.85, including tax and a bottomless glass of soda or iced tea, it’s one of the best — and most overlooked — buffet bargains in town. Anything more than a dozen diners constitutes a crowd. Chicken, the most popular dish, is the main course on Wednesdays and Thursdays. On Sundays, the Stickels serve brunch, with eggs, french toast and pancakes all cooked to order. Pancakes and french toast, Anglee explains, don’t hold up well on a steam table. The restaurant is a part-time thing for the couple, who also run a mobile food cart. They open at 10 and close at 2, and they don’t open at all on Saturdays. They ended up here 10 years ago because Anglee’s brother owns Abe’s and offered them the space. They started the buffet five years ago and have never looked back. “We just decided there’s a lot of competition on this end of town, and nobody else was doing buffet,” Anglee says. You can still order from a menu, but 85 percent of the clientele opts for the buffet. Afaf Rashmawy knows the feeling. “We opened for one year with the menu,” says the proprietor of the Holy Land Diner. “Nobody came — they were afraid to come to try the food. ‘What is hummus? What is falafel? What is tabouli?’” After struggling for a year, Rashmawy went the buffet route. “Here is little, here is little, here is little — now they come in, they try the food,” she says. That was nearly a decade ago. Though she’s not getting rich, her restaurant has become a downtown institution. Rashmawy is the Don Quixote of buffet. Photocopied blurbs on every table extol the health benefits of olive oil and Middle Eastern foods. Her voice rises in how-dare-they outrage when she talks about food fried in anything other than canola or olive oil. She also frowns on avocados. “Avocado is very, very fattening, and we want to get rid of fat,” she says. “It is hard for central Illinois to change — they are steak-and-baked-potato eaters. We do here the original Mediterranean food. I like to have something healthy and good for Springfield. Our food is made from scratch — no preservatives in it. When we cook vegetarian, that means vegan.” She does all the cooking herself — if she’s sick, the restaurant closes. She’ll prepare lamb but won’t serve pork or anything else that isn’t kosher. Moussaka is offered only when eggplant is in season. Not surprisingly, the Holy Land isn’t the most popular place in town, especially on Saturday nights, when no meat is served. At 7 p.m. on a recent Saturday, fewer than 10 diners grazed on rice, salad, two kinds of soup (potato and lentil), olives, a vegetable casserole, baklava, and, of course, falafel and hummus. “If I get 70 people in a day, I say, ‘Thank you, Lord,’ ” Rashmawy says. On the other end of the spectrum is Ryan’s, the busiest buffet in Springfield. Open every day except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Ryan’s routinely serves 1,500 people daily on weekends and between 400 and 600 on weekdays. “On Thanksgiving, they’re lined up out into the parking lot,” says George Houston, assistant manager. Sure, you can stick with the prodigious salad bar, but come on. On guest receipts, a meal appears as “Large Mega Dinner.” The meat selection alone is ridiculous: sirloin steak, kabobs (chicken or beef), ribs, Polish sausage, pork chops, pork steak, terikayi chicken, bourbon chicken, meatloaf, chicken nuggets, fried chicken, roast chicken, ham, and roast turkey. Houston can’t say just how many dishes his restaurant offers. “I’ve never counted,” he says. At just under $10 a head, the ravenous may eat more than the raw ingredients would cost in a grocery store, and some do. “We’ve got that crowd that comes in that’s not shy, to put it in nice terms,” Houston says. “It evens out.”
You’d think that one blockbuster buffet a stone’s throw from Wal-Mart on Dirksen Parkway would be enough, but no. Just two blocks from Ryan’s, near the Roly Poly sandwich shop and Skinny’s Diner, sits International Buffet, Springfield’s newest big-time buffet. Open since April, International Buffet is a glutton’s Taj Mahal. There’s seating for 400. You may choose from more than 100 dishes, everything from frog legs to eel to pizza to prime rib to egg foo yong to Chinese-style barbecued ribs. But wait — there’s more. Diners who don’t see what they want need only ask, and their favorite dishes will be cooked to order at no extra charge. With gas-fired burners that resemble the business end of a rocket engine, the Mongolian grill is state of the art. The décor is upscale, featuring hardwood floors, elegant high-backed chairs, and lacquered tabletops with Asian artwork. The place has a liquor license, so you can have wine or beer with your meal. There’s a karaoke-equipped banquet room. About the only thing missing is cloth napkins, and you get the feeling that they have some of those at the ready in case anyone asks. Even when it’s slow, this place hums. The staff is constantly vacuuming and stirring the steam tables to keep the food looking fresh. The owners, who also run Buffet King on the other side of town, are in for the long haul. “We’re the only Chinese buffet in Springfield that owns its building and land,” boasts Linda Snyder, the manager. You have to admire their pluck — Goliath doesn’t scare them. Snyder smiles when asked how it is that International Buffet is so close to Ryan’s and Buffet King is right next door to Old Country Buffet. Just coincidence, she says. Besides, people who crave Polish sausage and ham are different than the kung pao crowd. “It’s different type of food,” she offers. “We have customers complain about Ryan’s. Ryan’s probably have customers complain about us.”
We’re not complaining about anyone. We’re too busy chewing.
When I pay the admission, you can say bye-bye To the chicken, beef, fruit and french fries Nothing safe on my plate, it’s devouring time I’m a buffet crasher, and it’s grazing time — Eric “Badlands” Booker, from the song “Buffet Crashers,” on the forthcoming album Ingestion Machine, due for release on Thanksgiving

Inspiration struck five years ago in Los Angeles. Dave Eid of Akron, Ohio, was famished, driving around town, searching desperately for a buffet. That’s when he got the idea for BuffetGuide.com, a one-stop-shop for all-you-can-eat. Nowhere else is there such a nationwide resource that lists buffets by city. “I thought, for my own edification, I’d create one,” Eid says. “I like buffet. If you looked at me, you’d know why. I bet I’ve eaten at 100 different buffets over the last 40 years.”
This is a man who believes that airlines should serve buffet. “Can you imagine getting on an airplane and eating until you burst?” he says, without stopping to consider where the rest of us would sit. In his younger days, he says, he could consume a dozen plates of all-you-can-eat crab. The Midwest, he believes, is a natural cradle of buffet because of its harsh winters and our spendthrift mentality. “We like to cuddle up by the fire and eat fried chicken and mashed potatoes,” he says. Independent buffets are the mainstay of BuffetGuide.com, which lists just a fraction of Springfield’s all-you-can-eats. Eid says that he’s tried convincing big chains such as Ryan’s and Old Country Buffet to sign on. He can’t understand why they won’t bite — after all, the listings are free. Perhaps their reluctance has something to do with the specter of who, exactly, would surf the Web in search of a gorge-a-thon. No buffet owner wants someone like Eric “Badlands” Booker to track him down. A thousand miles east of Springfield, Booker marvels from his Long Island home. “Wow, that’s a good deal,” says the man who’s one of America’s top eaters. “You can eat crab legs and prime rib for 10 bucks? Was this dinnertime?”
Though he’s never been here, Booker says that Springfield buffets sound like bargains. He should know. He is a champion eater, and it shows: He weighs 420 pounds, and knows what it’s like to walk into a buffet and see a photograph of himself next to the cash register. Yesterday he downed 9 pounds of grapes, taking second place in a contest at Grand Central Station by just five juicy orbs. He owns the world record for corned-beef hash (4 pounds in less than two minutes), doughnuts (49 in eight minutes), onions (three in one minute) and peas (9.5 pounds in 12 minutes). “If there’s a food out there, I’ve probably eaten it,” he says. Booker confesses, however, that all-you-can-eat crab would be lost on him. “I’m not too much on crab legs — it’s too much work,” he says. “I get the prime rib.”
Four years ago, Booker nearly won the Battle of the Buffets in Las Vegas, in which contestants competed in five timed rounds in one day: Breakfast, lunch, appetizers, dinner, and dessert — whoever finishes the most plates wins. He was out-munched in the final round, desserts, by Cookie Jarvis, the world ice-cream-eating champ. “He can chew ice cream,” Booker says. “I can’t do that. Once I got past the ice cream, I almost caught him.”
Booker, who treats himself to all-you-can-eat every other week, regards buffets as boxing opponents. “It’s not a good session unless I go at least 10 or 11 rounds,” he says. “They try to kick you out. Round five comes around, they’ll put little dinner mints and thank-you cards on the table. I’m, like, ‘No, I’m not done.’”
Booker and his fellow buffet-killers avoid the mashed potatoes, at least at first. “The starches fill you up,” he explains. “Basically, what I do, I hit the proteins first, then the starch, then the fruits and vegetables. When I’m capacity training, I hit the meats, then the starches, then straight watermelon.” One restaurant owner once jokingly threatened to give him a 30-minute time limit (“It’s all good — I can do a lot in 30 minutes,” he says), but he’s never been thrown out of a buffet for eating too much. Despite his appetite, Booker is not the world’s best when it comes to buffets. That distinction belongs to Jason “Crazy Legs” Conti, a New York City resident who downed a world-record 5.5 pounds of buffet food — beef brisket, baked beans, potato salad, and coleslaw — in 12 minutes at a state fair in Oklahoma. Without a time limit, it would have been a lot more, says Conti, who, at 210 pounds, is svelte enough to have run the New York City marathon. “An afternoon at an all-you-can-eat buffet, I’m good for at least 13 pounds,” he says. Strategy is key. “Most people load up that tray with a little bit of everything,” Conti says. “That’s not the way to go. I start with fruit, but a lot of people will go to the seafood bin. Then you want to go to the heavier stuff. No mashed potatoes — that’s just filler. And I’m also anti-condiment, always have been. There’s no need for gravy or ketchup.”
In Springfield, even the most menacing-looking eaters can’t touch the likes of Conti and Booker. Josh Dismukes, Dennis Stratton Jr., and James Ousley III, all football players at Southeast High School, proclaim themselves hungry as they stand in line at Ryan’s. “I can do six plates,” says Ousley, a nose tackle who is, by far, the largest of the three. But predictions prove much bigger than appetites. Eschewing the salads, Dismukes and Stratton both heap their first plates with mashed potatoes and gravy, fried chicken, green beans, and corn. “It’s eating time,” Ousley says as he brings back a cheeseburger, marinated chicken and Texas toast. “Spaghetti is my friend,” says Dismukes, digging into his second plate, which also features green beans, a dinner roll, and, of course, mashed potatoes and gravy. On his second trip through the buffet line, Ousley grabs another cheeseburger, plus fried chicken, Polish sausage, and macaroni and cheese. By the end of the second round, all three have slowed down considerably. No one finishes four plates. They’re out of here in one hour and 20 minutes, much of it spent pushing food around with their forks. “I’m going to explode,” Dismukes says as the friends joke with each other. “My stomach’s so full I can’t laugh.” Maybe, they agree, they’ve drunk too much soda. More likely it’s because they front-loaded the starches. Players from Lanphier High School don’t do much better the next night at Buffet City. Featuring lineman Phil Trumbo (rhymes with “jumbo”), who stands 6-4 and weighs 320 pounds, and the three Weed brothers, George, Elton and Emerson (who graduated last year and is a freshman at Western Illinois), the Lanphier eating team starts strong. At one point, Trumbo has three plates going at once: one devoted to fruits and vegetables, the other two a potpourri of sweet-and-sour and other traditional Chinese dishes. He finishes just four plates, one more than George or Elton. Emerson Weed goes heavy on the crab and also finishes four plates, including four varieties of chicken: General Tso, sesame, sizzling, and honey. George likes the pizza and Chinese doughnuts. No one eats sushi, and they offer $5 to anyone who would dare eat squid. All three brothers employ a family secret for dessert: Instead of using the bowls next to the ice cream machine, they get soup bowls, which hold more. No one interferes. After all, soft-serve ice cream is relatively cheap. The man who stops me in Buffet City as I’m heading back to my table holding a plate heaped with seafood is a buffet owner’s best friend. He’s a big guy, well over 6 feet tall — the sort who looks as if he could eat for hours. “Excuse me,” he says. “What do those taste like?”
He’s pointing at a mussel, steamed, then chilled and served on the half-shell. I struggle to describe the taste of a mollusk I can’t afford to buy on a regular basis in a grocery store. Sort of like a clam, I explain. He looks dubious. “I dunno,” he says. “It looks kind of strange.” Rather than try one and risk wasting an ounce of food, he turns and heads for the egg rolls and cashew chicken. Every day, Tommy Ye, owner of Buffet City, plays with fire, counting on a Midwestern ethic of cleaning plates and sticking with the familiar to stay alive in a buffet-eat-buffet world. He says that he serves between 400 and 500 people each day. Incredibly, his daily snow-crab bill averages just $200. Crab can bury a buffet. It’s expensive, and the wholesale market is volatile. Two years ago, the president of Red Lobster lost her job after an all-you-can-eat crab promotion ended in financial disaster. The chain lost money at $20 a person and continued losing after jacking up the price by five bucks. “You can get in trouble in a heartbeat with this product,” says one Chicago seafood wholesaler. Snow crab, he says, costs high-volume restaurants between $4 and $4.50 a pound, about half the price charged in grocery stores. “We cannot do anything — some of the customers come here just for crab legs,” Snyder says. “It’s not too many customers like this. We try to forget about it, even when feel pain.”
How can a restaurant survive while charging less than $10 for all-you-can-eat crab alongside all-you-can-eat everything else? Demographics help. Asian buffet owners aren’t necessarily happy to see Asian customers. “White people, they don’t eat so much snow crab,” Ye explains. “Asian people in St. Louis eat more seafood.” So much so that Ye says he’ll soon close his buffet in St. Louis, which has a bigger Asian population than Springfield’s. He says he can’t make money there. There’s no polite way to put this: Springfield is a buffet owner’s dream because, as much as we like to eat, we don’t really know how. We are buffet rubes, happy with meat and potatoes, rolls, and iceberg lettuce slathered with Thousand Island. In the buffet business, the law of averages rules. Even if Dad eats nothing but crab, Mom and the kids will make up for it by sticking with chicken nuggets and french fries.
At Wong’s, no meal is a loss At Wong’s covered in red sauce At Wong’s, everything is battered And what’s inside doesn’t even matter — Arrogant Worms, “Wong’s Chinese Buffet”

It has come to this. After eight plates heaped with crab legs, plus liberal helpings of mussels, shrimp and prime rib, I have retreated to the bathroom of Buffet King. It’s not what you think. Early into this eating venture, the staff ceased bringing out lemon wedges. Fine — I can live without lemon juice. Cocktail sauce will do. Ten-or-so chilled crab legs remain, and these are scrawny, not worth the bother of cracking open. The big ones with claw portions are all in my stomach. No problem. Although I prefer my crab iced, I have moved on to the steam table, where a half-bin of legs, most with the claw — the best part — remains. I could, of course, ask that more lemon wedges and chilled claw portions be brought out, but I do not wish to be rude or a burden. It’s 8 o’ clock, two hours from closing time on a weekday. I’m the only diner here, and I’m on a roll. I feel as if I could eat forever. The steamed shrimp (I don’t even look at the breaded version) is running low, but there’s plenty of prime rib left. I hold back, devouring just one slab. Too heavy — I want room for more seafood. I figure I’ll have another slab for dessert. I did not come here to eat Jell-O or ice cream.
Save for three pieces of sushi — octopus, tuna and, eel — I have yet to swallow a single mouthful of rice or anything else that costs less than $7 a pound retail. I’ve been eating steadily for an hour, not pausing long enough to even turn the page of the newspaper, now soaked in crab juice, laid out on the table beside my plate. Each round lasts about eight minutes. Like clockwork, the staff silently removes the pile of shells while I fetch yet another fresh plate. When they’re not cleaning up after me, they’re vacuuming or sitting at tables a respectful distance away, chatting with each other in a language I do not understand. I suspect that they’re talking about me. I empty my glass and go back for another plate. My old plate is gone when I return, but the empty glass remains, and no one moves to refill it. I go through another round. Once again, the old plate is gone, but my glass is empty. That’s why I’m here in the bathroom. I am thirsty. I need something to drink. I wash my hands and quench my thirst from the faucet. I’m good to go again. When I return to the table, I find my glass and my old plate gone. The table has been wiped clean. My check and a fortune cookie sit where my plate once was. “That’s, like, ‘I think you’ve had enough,’” Booker tells me a few days later. I have won. In its own subtle yet unmistakable way, the buffet has said no mas. Briefly I consider grabbing another plate and resuming the feast — after all, this is all-you-can-eat, and I have room for more. But I change my mind after opening the fortune cookie: (see fortune cookie graphic.)
How much? Indeed.
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