SARATOGA SPRINGS — The embattled operator of several Golden Corral restaurants that shut down early in the COVID crisis is making progress toward reopening some of them.
Niral Patel this week was approved to buy back a Wilton property out of bankruptcy and in May was approved for the largest single restaurant grant awarded in the Capital Region under the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund program — $2.54 million.
All is not clear: He still faces civil litigation and will need to find hundreds of workers in a labor market so tight that some restaurants have reduced their hours.
But Patel said via email Friday that he hopes to reopen the Golden Corral restaurants in Syracuse and Queensbury in September and the Atlantic City, Colonie and Wilton locations in late fall or early winter. He operated those five and three others under franchise.
Patel, a Saratoga Springs resident, also operates the Comfort Inn adjacent to the Golden Corral in Wilton, but declared bankruptcy on the Wilton properties to protect his ownership amid the financial crisis. His purchase offer was approved this week in bankruptcy court.
“We still need to finalize agreements with our restaurant and hotel franchisors,” Patel said. “Once they have been completed, we’ll be ready to close on the Saratoga County property and begin executing our reopening plans for the restaurant and hotel.”
It has been a rough year and a half for Patel, as for most other businesses in the restaurant/hospitality sector: COVID restrictions imposed by the state and fear among the general population reduced hotel occupancy and limited or banned restaurant operation.
The Patel family shut down the Golden Corrals in early 2020 and obtained $2 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to stay afloat.
In October 2020, the PPP lender, Adirondack Trust Company, sued Patel, his mother, and the various corporate entities that operated his businesses, alleging misuse of the PPP loan and demanding immediate repayment.
Soon after, through an attorney, Patel said he was blindsided by the lawsuit and said the allegations it contained were false. In December, he countersued Adirondack for damages predicted to add up to more than $10 million.
The case remains in state Supreme Court in Saratoga County.
“Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to discuss the details of the ongoing civil matter,” Patel told The Daily Gazette on Friday via email, “however, I can say that we are working on satisfying all the outstanding liabilities.”
He said he’s planning a complete remodel of the Golden Corral on Central Avenue in Colonie, which will push back its reopening, and said he’s aware of the shallow labor pool from which he needs to draw the 400 new employees he would need to make all of the reopenings happen.
“Depending on the location and market, we will need to hire between 60 and 90 people for each restaurant, and we’ll need to hire another 10 people for the hotel which will get us up to about 35 team members,” Patel said.
“My other challenge is evaluating each labor market so that we can understand what it will take to become the employer of choice for prospective job seekers. We are using a quality-of-life strategy that we hope will separate us from other service industry competitors. In addition to understanding the wages and benefits that are currently being offered, we need to understand the needs of our potential employees and meet those needs to the best of our ability; for example, it may mean providing increased schedule flexibility and job certainty among other things.”
Adirondack in its legal action cited an affidavit by Patel in which he said the buffet format was irreparably damaged in the public eye due to concerns of hygiene amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Patel’s then-lawyer, in a statement to the Gazette, said in October 2020 that the family was looking to convert their restaurants to another format.
But on Friday, Patel suggested he’d be bringing back the buffet format:
“We absolutely believe the casual restaurant concept is viable and it’s being proven with approximately 380 Golden Corrals operating across the country and seeing record numbers of customers returning.”
Patel said he has extensive roots in the business.
His father immigrated to the United States from India in 1976 and saved to buy his first Golden Corral. In his teens, Patel worked at a Golden Corral not owned by his father to learn the business from the ground up.
When his father died in 2019, he assumed control of all the family’s businesses — shortly before the unprecedented crisis set in.
He’s trying to get the family business back on track now, despite the obstacles still facing him, including a worsening of the COVID pandemic that derailed the business in the first place.
“I’m looking forward to passing it down to my son someday,” Patel said.