Requiem For a Heavy Meal
My husband and I started working for the Klinke family in 1989 and 1990, respectively. That’s where we met, working for the Klinkes at a chain restaurant they owned called Rax. I ran the cash register and my husband worked in the kitchen.
If you don’t remember the Rax chain of restaurants, for a few years there in the 80’s they were a huge craze. Rax Restaurants served roast beef sandwiches like Arby’s, but the real selling point was this elaborate all you can eat salad bar/buffet which Rax perfected before all you can eat buffets were really even a thing. The buffet was far more successful than the sandwiches, and the Klinkes apparently took that to heart. They sold their Rax franchise in favor of bigger and better things not long after we quit working there.
After we got married, my husband worked for a construction company that built the Klinkes’ next enterprise, a full-on buffet restaurant known as Granny’s. There was a picture of a winking little old lady airbrushed on the front window and the restaurant advertised itself as serving food “like Granny used to make”. Shortly after, we started our own janitorial services business and cleaned Granny’s Buffet every night for seven years.
We worked for the Klinke family in one form or another for over a decade.
By any account the Klinkes are an American success story. The patriarch, Paul, his wife Carol, and their sons, Brent and Greg, ran popular restaurants in the Spokane area for literally my entire life. (Prior to opening Rax in the 80’s they ran the popular Church’s Chicken franchises. How popular was Church’s? Well, I never even tasted KFC until I was a teenager because my parents only went to the vastly superior Church’s Chicken.) The Klinkes have been a one-family entrepreneurial institution for half a century.
Unlike the stereotypical greedy businessmen, the Klinkes took care of their workers. They worked around school schedules, second, even third jobs, and doctor’s appointments. They believed you when you called in sick and gave you the chance to pick up extra shifts when you needed the money. When I worked at Rax they had several older, obviously down on their luck women on their payroll; they frequently took chances on people who were likely unemployable anywhere else. The Klinkes promoted from within their organization; many of their employees worked for them decades. There were several folks who started off as dishwashers or salad bar girls, who rose through the ranks to become managers eventually.
After selling Granny’s Buffet to a nationwide chain, the Klinke family built a bigger and better buffet restaurant in 2008 – Timber Creek Buffet. Because it was close by my mom’s house, my extended family developed a tradition of getting together at Timber Creek around Thanksgiving for a holiday dinner.
Timber Creek Buffet, just like Rax and Granny’s before it, was an all you can eat buffet. The restaurant was invariably full. People would often spend hours there, in many cases as much for the company as anything. (The same was certainly true at Rax; we had several regulars who would order the salad bar and sit there all afternoon, eating for hours at one set price, chatting amiably with the workers as we walked by.)
Timber Creek served the types of All-American foods older people and small children generally like, things like macaroni and cheese and sliced ham and squares of Jello and potato salad and peach cobbler. But even though the menu wasn’t what one would consider gourmet, Timber Creek was a decent enough place, serving up ample amounts of hot, fresh food to the many people who wanted to eat it. The restaurant itself was always clean, the customers’ needs well attended to. Even the pickiest could find something they liked served at the buffet. As Paul Klinke used to say to his customers, “don’t leave here hungry” and very few people ever did.
As it’s getting down to holiday time once again, I went to look up what the corona restrictions were at Timber Creek Buffet to plan the family get-together, and I found much to my chagrin that the Klinkes were out of business. Like, out of business entirely. Not selling one restaurant to build a bigger and better one as they’ve done repeatedly lo these many years, they have shut down completely.
It must have been quite a challenge to run an all you can eat buffet restaurant during a pandemic, and Timber Creek apparently could not survive 2020. While I understand the coronavirus plus an aging demographic sounded the death knell for the Klinkes, at the same time I have to believe that the shutdowns had to play a part as well.
The Timber Creek website seemed to confirm my supposition as fact.
There are a lot of gross and selfish people who have said things like “I don’t care if vulnerable people get sick, I’m young, so I’m going out anyway”. Those people are of course jerks, and we rightfully look at them with dismay and wonder what’s gone wrong with the world. But it occurs to me that there are a lot of other people who don’t consider themselves gross and selfish, who look at businesses like Timber Creek Buffet and say “I don’t care if businesses get shut down, I’m not suffering at all, and I want everyone to keep quarantining indefinitely because it makes me feel safer.”
Timber Creek Buffet, and all those restaurants like it all across America, mattered. They gave people – including many elderly people, a demographic whose members were prone to loneliness and isolatation even before the pandemic – a place to go where they felt less lonely and less isolated. Rather than having a hot meal in a bright clean safe place served to them by friendly folks, these people are now eating microwaved frozen meals in front of a TV screen, alone. I know a good many older folks who don’t care about the coronavirus, who continue to go out, damn the consequences, because they think life isn’t worth living if you’re shut in a prison all day. And as someone who is no stranger to isolation myself, I can hardly blame them.
But it isn’t just older folks affected by the loss of places like Timber Creek Buffet. These businesses employed people, people who otherwise may not have found work, like college girls who had never run a cash register before and middle aged, down on their luck women. The Klinke family and families like them provided opportunities for people who had no marketable skills, opportunities for people with few prospects to work their way into a respectable career in food service. The people who owned these businesses presently shutting down in droves all across America paid rent and taxes and bought all kinds of goods and services from other businesses that are now going to go unpurchased.
And if you think that’s not going to have a massive, major ripple effect for years into the future, you’re a fool. Covid-19 is eating holes in the fabric of the American economy like a moth through a sweater and our leaders are letting it happen.
Maybe you don’t care. Maybe none of this bothers you because you don’t care for the aesthetics of things like buffet restaurants in Middle America. Maybe you’re one of those people who just doesn’t care about other people’s misfortune as long as it doesn’t affect you personally. But surely you have to acknowledge that just because you don’t see the point of a place like Timber Creek Buffet, doesn’t mean it didn’t have one.
I supported the quarantine at first, to flatten the curve, to gain more information about this virus we were facing, to give ourselves time to let businesses, customers, and government officials alike assess the risks and come up with strategies to mitigate those risks. But that was in MARCH. The goalposts were shifted; rather than mitigate risk, the bureaucrats changed course and sought to eliminate it entirely, a pipe dream when dealing with a contagious microbe. Germs spread, it is what they do, and a virus in which many of the infected remain completely asymptomatic will spread even faster. Stopping the coronavirus was never an option on the table. In pursuit of an unattainable goal, the strict shutdown in Washington State continued for months (though of course protests involving thousands of people were allowed to continue unmolested, but I digress). We erred on the side of safety again and again and it didn’t make the virus magically go away. The shutdowns apparently didn’t accomplish much other than delaying a surge cases just long enough for Governor Inslee to end up canceling Thanksgiving totally.
I find it hard to believe that there couldn’t have been some compromise forged between locking everything down at the expense of one group of people and letting a virus run amok at the expense of another. I find it hard to believe we couldn’t have opened back up sooner than we did, and let individuals make decisions for themselves about how much risk they wanted to undertake. Not for the sake of big money corporations like Carnival Cruise Lines and United Airlines, not to help the Democrats win an election (and you did it, guys! You now are in charge of the smoking crater in salted ground that is America! Good for you!), but for the small family-owned businesses who cannot come back from something like this. And for the sake of everyone – employees and customers alike – that they served.
Compromise was possible, and I believe some sort of middle ground would have been reached easily if not for the complete devaluation, even demonization of places like family-owned, all you can eat buffet restaurants in Middle America among elitists in government bureaucracies and the media – most of whom have the luxury of working from home indefinitely. People who see value in small businesses and the lives that are affected by those small businesses would never have allowed these small businesses to perish to create a façade of safety that never really existed. The course of action advocated by Jay Inslee, Gretchen Whitmer, the Cuomo brothers, and their ilk, was as short-sighted, selfish, and gross as a bunch of buttheaded Gen Z punks going to Fort Lauderdale for spring break and shrugging when somebody else’s grandmother coughed.
The job of government is supposed to be about juggling the needs of a lot of different people. (Not just the people who tend to vote for you, Governor Inslee.) We aren’t supposed to offer up one group of people as a sacrifice for the benefit of others. That’s not what “we’re all in this together” is supposed to mean. “We’re all in this together” means that we ALL sacrifice, not just some people. While it means that businesses needed to shut down for a temporary time period to flatten the curve, it also means that in the long run, some people may encounter more risk than they would personally like to in an ideal world, and may have to make concessions for that. Destroying the American economy to provide a mirage of safety for the benefit of 30 year old white collar workers who were never in danger anyway, should not have even been an option on the table.
Timber Creek Buffet could very easily have been doomed from the time the virus started spreading. Entirely possible. But maybe it wasn’t doomed. Maybe if only the Klinkes had been allowed to have the chance, if their customers had been allowed to decide for themselves, they could have survived this. We’ll never know.
This Thanksgiving we’ll toast the Klinkes, who put food on our table for many years, who provided us some happy family memories along the way, and who deserved a lot better than they got.