Many locals and visitors to the Forest Park Mall are being taken by surprise seeing that Old Country Buffet has suddenly shuttered its doors. The smorgasbord-style restaurant was closed Aug. 27 by its parent company, Minnesota-based Buffet Holdings, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January.
Last week, Old Country Buffet’s regulars were still driving up expecting to dine there.
“Smorgasbord closed. Smorgasbord closed,” Joe Louis Cherry called out to two families heading toward the nearby mall entrance Wednesday night.
Cherry, a diabetic and former Forest Parker who now lives on Chicago’s south side, had planned on dining at the Old Country Buffet when he walked up and saw the letter on the mall entrance announcing that the restaurant had closed.
“I liked the fish,” Cherry said. “You could get low sodium here.” Cherry, who said he enjoys smorgasbords, estimated he came to Old Country Buffet twice a month.
Former Forest Park Police Lieut. Steve Johnsen liked going to Old Country Buffet on Sunday mornings after attending St. Bernardine’s Catholic Church.
Johnsen was disappointed to hear it closed.
“I think it’s too bad,” Johnsen said. “I enjoyed it.”
Under Chapter 11 protection, Buffet Holdings is able to end leases, which it did in this case, according to company spokesman Michael Freitag. The company kept many of its other Chicago area locations open, closing only a Deerfield restaurant along with the Forest Park Mall restaurant, Freitag said. He would not give a specific reason for closing the Forest Park location.
“It was a business decision based on a number of factors,” Freitag said.
The 45 employees of the restaurant who lost their jobs are eligible for work at other Chicago area Old Country Buffet locations, Freitag said.
Old Country Buffet had been a fixture at the mall since it opened in 1991.
“We were interested in keeping this location open,” said Kim Clay, communications director for the Living Word Christian Center, a subsidiary of which owns the mall. “We did make some concessions trying to get them to stay.” Clay said Living Word had agreed this summer to change some terms of the lease.
The restaurant was a popular spot for breakfast with Living Word Church members stopping by after Sunday services.
Clay said that Living Word is trying to replace Old Country Buffet with another family-style restaurant.
“Plans are under way to fill the space with a similar family dining style restaurant,” Clay said. “We’re being as aggressive as we can to fill the space.”