Photo Gallery | Old Country Buffet closes in Pittsfield
PITTSFIELD — One employee is four months pregnant. Another had worked two part-time jobs in addition to this one.
On Wednesday night, they were gainfully employed at Old Country Buffet on Hubbard Avenue. On Thursday morning, they were suddenly out of work.
The Old Country Buffet in the Berkshire Crossing Shopping Center closed abruptly Thursday leaving behind a small legion of bewildered employees who were given no advance notice.
A sign placed on the front door Thursday morning stating that the restaurant had permanently shut down was how many employees and regular customers learned of the closing.
The scene was similar at 73 additional restaurants owned by Ovation Brands, a subsidiary of the Texas-based Food Management Partners, where employees were greeted by similar signs notifying them of the closures.
In a press release Thursday, Ovation Brands said that 74 underperforming Old Country Buffet, Hometown Buffet, Ryan's, Fire Mountain and Country Buffet restaurants throughout the United States would permanently close on Feb. 4.
The exact number of employees who lost their jobs could not be determined Thursday, but several staffers said Old Country employed around 30 workers.
Some employees also learned their jobs were gone through teary early morning phone calls from the restaurant's general manager.
"I'm at a loss," said former Old Country employee LeeAnn Shaw, of Pittsfield, standing outside the restaurant as the locks were being changed on the front door. "I just don't know what to think."
The sign on the door instructed employees to see the visiting manager for both exit paperwork and any money that was owed to them. Two employees said they had been hired on Wednesday.
Employees gathered at the restaurant Thursday afternoon for a four-hour meeting that was attended by Old Country's regional manager. Some hugged each other before the meeting. At least one employee cried.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, also visited the restaurant Thursday afternoon.
"I would like to think that a company would treat its employees in a better manner than this," said Farley-Bouvier.
She said her biggest concern was how the affected employees will be treated now that they're out of the workforce.
"I hope the company is able to work with our regional employment board to match employees up with places that are looking for workers," she said.
According to the sign on the door, employees have been encouraged to reapply at one of Old Country Buffet's parent company's nearby restaurants. Old Country has only two other outlets in Massachusetts, in Watertown near Boston and outside New Bedford in North Dartmouth.
Old Country's general manager and regional manager both declined to comment before the meeting took place. The regional manager who attended Thursday's meeting was from Minnesota, Farley-Bouvier said.
Telephone calls and emails to Old Country's parent company, Food Management Partners, were not returned.
Ovation Brands was acquired by Food Management Partners in August 2015, saying that they have ".. continued to execute former management's operating plan to stabilize and enhance the performance of the company. However, based on ongoing assessments of individual restaurants, it is necessary to shutter locations for the continued viability of the brands and our employees."
"Very unprofessional" and "rude" were some of the terms employees used to describe the restaurant's sudden closing.
"Some of us depended on that job," Shaw said. "It was the only way to pay our bills.
"It seemed fine last night. They didn't say anything about it."
"We have no explanation," said Melissa Peck, of Pittsfield, who had been a waitress at Old Country for nine years. "It opened for business as usual last night. This morning we're closed."
Shawn Gagne and Erica Knapp, of Pittsfield, who are a couple, both lost their jobs. Knapp said they had moved to Pittsfield from Springfield a month ago. Gagne is four months pregnant.
"We were counting on this," Gagne said. "I guess we're going to have to do our best."
Elayna Collias, of Pittsfield, had worked at Old Country for 17 years,
"Totally shocked, but not really surprised," said Collias, about the restaurant closing. "I feel really saddened. I've been here 17 years and I loved it."
Old Country Buffet had many loyal customers.
"I loved the guests," Collias said. "You could set your watch by them. I'm going to miss them so much."
Bill and Cindy Glendon, of Dalton, said they patronized Old Country Buffet every other week. Where will they go to eat now?
"We don't know," Cindy said. "This is what we do for entertainment."
Old Country Buffet is one of five buffet restaurant brands that belong to South Carolina-based Ovation Brands, which was purchased by Food Management Partners last August.
Ovation Brands, renamed in 2012 from Buffets Inc., had filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and 2012, according to Nation's Restaurant News, a food industry trade publication. When the company emerged from its second bankruptcy four years ago, it closed 140 stores.
This is the fourth Pittsfield-area restaurant associated with a national or regional chain to close with little or no notice during the last three years. The Dakota Restaurant and the Pizza Hut on Merrill Road closed in similar fashion in 2013, along with the Friendly's Restaurant in Lenox last April.