When we think of buffets, we tend to think of their 1980s and early ’90s heyday, when commercial jingles for Sizzler might have been confused with our national anthem. We think of Homer Simpson getting dragged out of the Frying Dutchman, “a beast more stomach than man.” I think of my parents going on buffet benders resembling something out of Hunter S. Thompson’s life, determined to get their money’s worth with two picky kids.
What we don’t typically think about, however, is the fast-food buffet, a blip so small on America’s food radar that it’s hard to prove it even existed. But it did. People swear that all-you-can-eat buffets could be found at Taco Bell, KFC, and even under the golden arches of McDonald’s.
That it could have existed isn’t surprising. The fast-food buffet was inevitable, the culmination of an arms race in maximizing caloric intake. It was the physical manifestation of the American id: endless biscuits, popcorn chicken, vats of nacho cheese and sketchy pudding — so much sketchy pudding. Why, then, have so many of us failed to remember it? How did it become a footnote, relegated to the backwoods of myths and legends? There are whispers of McDonald’s locations that have breakfast buffets. Was there, in fact, a Taco Bell buffet, or is it a figment of our collective imaginations? Yes, someone tells me — an all-you-can-eat Taco Bell existed in her dorm cafeteria. Another person suggests maybe we were just remembering the nachos section of the Wendy’s Superbar.
The fast-food buffet lives in a strange sort of ether. You can’t get to it through the traditional path of remembering. Was there actually a Pizza Hut buffet in your hometown? Search your subconscious, sifting past the red cups that make the soda taste better, past the spiffy new CD jukebox, which has Garth Brooks’s Ropin’ the Wind and Paul McCartney’s All the Best under the neon lamps. Search deeper, and you might find your father going up for a third plate and something remaining of the “dessert pizzas” lodged in your subconscious. This is where the fast-food buffet exists.
The history of the buffet in America is a story of ingenuity and evolution. Sure, it originated in Europe, where it was a classy affair with artfully arranged salted fish, eggs, breads, and butter. The Swedish dazzled us with their smorgasbords at the 1939 World Fair. We can then trace the evolution of the buffet through Las Vegas, where the one-dollar Buckaroo Buffet kept gamblers in the casino. In the 1960s and 1970s, Chinese immigrant families found loopholes in racist immigration laws by establishing restaurants. They brought Chinese cooking catered to American tastes in endless plates of beef chow fun and egg rolls. By the 1980s, buffets ruled the landscape like family dynasties, with sister chains the Ponderosa and the Bonanza spreading the gospel of sneeze guards and steaks, sundae stations and salad bars along the interstates. From Shoney’s to Sizzler, from sea to shining sea, the buffet was a feast fit for kings, or a family of four.
And of course, fast-food restaurants wanted in on the action. As fast-food historian and author of Drive-Thru Dreams Adam Chandler put it, “every fast food place flirted with buffets at some point or another. McDonald’s absolutely did, as did most of the pizza chains with dine-in service. KFC still has a few stray buffets, as well as an illicit one called Claudia Sanders Dinner House, which was opened by Colonel Sanders’ wife after he was forbidden from opening a competing fried chicken business after selling the company. Wendy’s Super Bar was short-lived, but the salad bar lived on for decades.”
In a 1988 commercial for the Superbar, Dave Thomas says, “I’m an old-fashioned guy. I like it when families eat together.” A Wendy’s executive described the new business model as “taking us out of the fast-food business.” Everyone agrees the Wendy’s Superbar was glorious. And gross, everyone also agrees. How something can be both gross and glorious is a particular duality of fast food, like the duality of man or something, only with nacho cheese and pasta sauce.
“I kind of want to live in a ’90s Wendy’s,” Amy Barnes, a Tennessee-based writer, tells me in between preparing for virtual learning with her teenagers. The Superbar sat in the lobby, with stations lined up like train carts. First, there was the Garden Spot, which “no one cared about,” a traditional salad bar with a tub of chocolate pudding at its helm, “which always had streams of salad dressing and shredded cheese floating on top.” Next up was the Pasta Pasta section, with “noodles, alfredo and tomato sauce…[as well as] garlic bread made from the repurposed hamburger buns with butter and garlic smeared on them.” Obviously, the crown jewel of the Superbar was the Mexican Fiesta, with its “vats of ground beef, nacho cheese, sour cream.” The Fiesta shared custody of additional toppings with the salad bar. It was $2.99 for the dining experience.
The marriage of Wendy’s and the Superbar lasted about a decade before it was phased out in all locations by 1998. Like a jilted ex-lover, the official Wendy’s Story on the website makes zero mention of Superbar, despite the countless blogs, YouTube videos, and podcasts devoted to remembering it. At least they kept the salad bar together until the mid-2000s for the sake of the children.
Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny. The McDonald’s Breakfast Buffet. Googling the existence of such a thing only returns results of people questioning the existence of this McMuffin Mecca on subforums and Reddit. Somebody knows somebody who passed one once on the highway. A stray Yelp review of the Kiss My Grits food truck in Seattle offers a lead: “I have to say, I recall the first time I ever saw grits, they were at a McDonald’s breakfast buffet in Alexandria, Virginia, and they looked as unappetizing as could be.” However, the lead is dead on arrival. Further googling of the McDonald’s buffet with terrible grits in Alexandria turns up nothing.
I ask friends on Facebook. I ask Twitter. I get a lone response. Eden Robins messages me “It was in Decatur, IL,” as though she’s describing the site where aliens abducted her. “I’m a little relieved that I didn’t imagine the breakfast buffet since no one ever knows what the fuck I’m talking about when I bring it up.”
“We had traveled down there for a high school drama competition,” she goes on to say. “And one morning before the competition, we ate at a McDonald’s breakfast buffet. I had never seen anything like it before or since.”
I ask what was in the buffet, although I know the details alone will not sustain me. I want video to pore over so I can pause at specific frames, like a fast-food version of the Patterson–Gimlin Bigfoot footage. Robins says they served “scrambled eggs and pancakes and those hash brown tiles. I was a vegetarian at the time so no sausage or bacon, but those were there, too.”
McDonald’s isn’t the only chain with a buffet whose existence is hazy. Yum Brands, the overlord of fast-food holy trinity Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut, is said to have had buffets at all three restaurants. I confirm nothing, however, when I reach out to the corporate authorities. On the KFC side, a spokesperson offers to look into “some historical information,” but doesn’t get back to me. My contact at Taco Bell tells me, “I’ll look into it. Certainly, nothing in existence today. I’ve never heard of it. Looks like there are a couple threads on Reddit.”
Reddit, of course, speculates a possible Mandela Effect — the phenomenon of a group of unrelated people remembering a different event than what actually occurred — in the existence of Taco Bell buffets. But I have a firmer lead in Payel Patel, a doctor who studied at Johns Hopkins, who tells me there was a Taco Bell Express in her dorm that was included in an all-you-can-eat meal plan option, though it only lasted one fleeting year. “You could order anything, like 15 nachos and 11 bean burritos,” she says, “and they would make it and give it to you, and you walked off without paying a cent.” A Johns Hopkins student newsletter published in 2001 corroborates the existence of the utopian all-you-can-eat Taco Bell, saying, “you can also gorge yourself on some good old Taco Bell tacos and burritos. Don’t forget, it’s all-you-can-eat. Just don’t eat too much; you don’t want to overload the John.”
There are some concrete examples of fast-food buffets that still exist today. When a Krystal Buffet opened in Alabama in 2019, it was met with “excitement and disbelief,” according to the press release. Former New Orleans resident Wilson Koewing told me of a Popeye’s buffet that locals “speak of as if it is a myth.” When I dig deeper, I come across a local paper, NOLA Weekend, which covers “New Orleans Food, things to do, culture, and lifestyle.” It touts the Popeye’s buffet like a carnival barker, as though it is simply too incredible to believe: “The Only Popeye’s Buffet in the World! It’s right next door in Lafayette! Yes, that’s right: a Popeyes buffet. HERE.”
Somehow, the KFC buffet is the most enduring of the fast-food buffets still in existence. And yet everyone I speak with feels compelled to walk me through the paths and roads leading to such an oasis, as if, again, it were the stuff of legends. There are landmarks and there are mirages, and the mirages need maps most of all.
To get to the KFC buffet in Key Largo, Tiffany Aleman must first take us through “a small island town with one traffic light and one major highway that runs through it. There are the seafood buffets and bait shops, which give way to newfangled Starbucks.”
New Jerseyan D.F. Jester leads us past the local seafood place “that looks like the midnight buffet on a cruise ship has been transported 50 miles inland and plunked inside the dining area of a 1980s Ramada outside of Newark.”
Descriptions of the food are about what I would expect of a KFC buffet. Laura Camerer remembers the food in her college town in Morehead, Kentucky, as “all fried solid as rocks sitting under heat lamps, kind of gray and gristly.” Jester adds, “for all intents and purposes, this is a KFC. It looks like one, but sadder, more clinical. The buffet adds the feel of a hospital cafeteria, the people dining look close to death or knowingly waiting to die.”
Then Jessie Lovett Allen messages me. “There is [a] KFC in my hometown, and it is magical without a hint of sketch.” I must know more. First, she takes me down the winding path: “the closest larger city is Kearney, which is 100 miles away and only has 35K people, and Kearney is where you’ll find the closest Target, Panera, or Taco Bell. But to the North, South, or West, you have to drive hundreds of miles before you find a larger city. I tell you all of this because the extreme isolation is what gives our restaurants, even fast-food ones, an outsized psychological importance to daily life.”
The KFC Jessie mentions is in North Platte, Nebraska, and has nearly five stars on Yelp, an accomplishment worthy of a monument for any fast-food restaurant. On the non-corporate Facebook page for KFC North Platte, one of the hundreds of followers of the page comments, “BEST KFC IN THE COUNTRY.”
Allen describes the place as though she is recounting a corner of heaven. “They have fried apple pies that seem to come through a wormhole from a 1987 McDonalds. Pudding: Hot. Good. Layered cold pudding desserts. This one rotates. It might be chocolate, banana, cookies and cream. It has a graham cracker base, pudding, and whipped topping. Standard Cold Salad bar: Lettuce, salad veggies, macaroni salads, JELL-O salads. Other meats: chicken fried steak patties. Fried chicken gizzards. White Gravy, Chicken Noodle Casserole, Green Bean Casserole, Cornbread, Corn on the Cob, Chicken Pot Pie Casserole. AND most all the standard stuff on the normal KFC menu, which is nice because you can pick out a variety of chicken types or just have a few tablespoons of a side dish.”
Then she adds that the buffet “is also available TO GO, but there are rules. You get a large Styrofoam clamshell, a small Styrofoam clamshell, and a cup. You have to be able to close the Styrofoam. You are instructed that only beverages can go in cups, and when I asked about this, an employee tells me that customers have tried to shove chicken into the drink cups in the past.”
In the end, the all-you-can-eat dream didn’t last, if it ever even existed. The chains folded. The senior citizens keeping Ponderosa in business have died. My own parents reversed course after their buffet bender, trading in sundae stations for cans of SlimFast. Fast-food buffets retreated into an ethereal space. McDonald’s grew up with adult sandwiches like the Arch Deluxe. Wendy’s went on a wild rebound with the Baconator. Pizza Hut ripped out its jukeboxes, changed its logo, went off to the fast-food wars, and ain’t been the same since. Taco Bell is undergoing some kind of midlife crisis, hemorrhaging its entire menu of potatoes, among other beloved items. At least the KFC in North Platte has done good, though the novel coronavirus could change things.
In the age of COVID-19, the fast-food buffet feels like more of a dream than ever. How positively whimsical it would be to stand shoulder to shoulder, hovering over sneeze guards, sharing soup ladles to scoop an odd assortment of pudding, three grapes, a heap of rotini pasta, and a drumstick onto a plate. Maybe we can reach this place again. But to find it, we must follow the landmarks, searching our memory as the map.
MM Carrigan is a Baltimore-area writer and weirdo who enjoys staring directly into the sun. Their work has appeared in Lit Hub, The Rumpus, and PopMatters. They are the editor of Taco Bell Quarterly. Tweets @thesurfingpizza.