RALEIGH — Some of the proudest moments of Ted Fowler’s long career in the restaurant business have little to do with food.
Fowler, the longtime CEO of Raleigh-based Golden Corral, says many of them stem from the nights when anyone who has served in the military can eat for free – an annual event that Fowler made a tradition at the company’s nearly 500 restaurants nationwide.
Golden Corral has served more than 3 million free meals through its Military Appreciation Monday dinners. On Monday, the day of the 12th annual event, Fowler will visit three or four restaurants, taking in the sights and stories as he does every year.
He says it’s not unusual for him to find large tables with veterans of World War II and Vietnam sharing a meal with others who only recently returned from Iraq.
“To see three generations of military people sitting there talking, and the bond that they have – it’s very emotional,” says Fowler, who celebrates 35 years with Golden Corral this week. “You can feel it as you walk around the restaurant.”
Recently, Fowler has broadened the company’s commitment to veterans from that one night to a more sustained effort. It has raised more than $6 million for the Disabled American Veterans nonprofit. And last year it opened its first Camp Corral, a free summer camp for children whose parents have been hurt or killed in combat that this year expanded to eight other states, serving 1,500 children.
“Ted has really taken that initial idea of thanking veterans and brought it to another level,” says James Maynard, who founded the company nearly 40 years ago. “He’s done amazing things.”
Fowler says the company’s focus on veterans makes sense considering its origins and clientele. The first Golden Corral opened in Fayetteville, home to the Fort Bragg Army base, in 1973, and the restaurant continues to be a popular destination for military families.
For many veterans, the gesture means more than a free meal that might cost $10 on a regular night. Fowler says his own father, who served in the Navy during World War II, has raved about the annual dinners as a time to reconnect with friends and soak in the appreciation of their community.
Bill Wilkins, who served in the Army during the Korean War, has visited the Smithfield Golden Corral for most of the last 10 years, where he and his wife always run into friends from his American Legion post, enjoying the camaraderie along with a lighter meal ticket.
“There’s always a big crowd there,” he says. “It’s a great night.”
A career in restaurants
Fowler has maintained a national profile in the restaurant industry for years. He has served as chair of the National Restaurant Association and is now heavily involved in promoting that group’s education project, ProStart, which provides instructional materials in the culinary arts to more than 100,000 high school students nationwide.
But he started in the restaurant business on its very lowest rung. He grew up in California, and started working part-time at various restaurants there and in Texas, where he went to college, as a dishwasher and short-order cook.
He originally wanted to be a veterinarian. But a manager at the now-defunct casual dining chain Sambo’s took Fowler under his wing, persuading him that the restaurant business would make a good career.
“I don’t know if it was my long hair or my bad attitude, but he liked me,” Fowler says.
By his second year of college, he had decided to enter the restaurant business full-time when he graduated. He moved up the ladder at Sambo’s, and within a few years, was hired at Golden Corral.
It was the 1980s, and the company was undergoing a massive transformation from its original concept – a steakhouse with a small salad bar – to an expanded food bar with hundreds of different food items.
The company was also growing, both in North Carolina and beyond. There are now about 50 franchises in the state.
Over the years, Fowler has seen massive change in the industry and his own company. When he started, Golden Corral served only red meat; now its buffets sell more chicken than beef and include items ranging from cotton candy to quesadillas.
“We reflect the dining out habits of the American people, and they’ve changed pretty dramatically over 35 years,” he says.
One upcoming project is to include nutritional information on all Golden Corral buffets.
Fowler’s long tenure with the company is not unusual; the company enjoys high employee retention rates, and places an emphasis on recruiting and keeping talented workers. Maynard, the company founder, says Fowler has been one of his best recruits.
“I don’t think I could have picked anyone better,” Maynard says.
Fowler has also worked hard to ensure the upward mobility of his employees, in particular with a program that helps entry-level employees become managers within a year and, within five years, run their own franchise.
More new ideas
Fowler says he, as well as the Golden Corral company structure, tends to favor ideas that move up the chain from individual restaurants rather than those that come down from central management in Raleigh.
So when he heard about a franchise owner in the Tidewater region of Virginia, home of several military bases, who had started offering free meals to veterans for Veterans Day, he quickly adapted the idea on a national scale. It was an immediate hit among patrons, franchise owners and employees, he says.
Employees at the company’s Raleigh offices have embraced the annual events; they fan out across the region’s restaurants on those nights, busing tables and stocking salad bars alongside the hourly employees.
“Everyone is really passionate about it and they get into it,” he says. “They’re out there working hard to let the military personnel know that they’re appreciated. To give somebody something as basic as a meal is our way of thanking them in a small way for their service to the country.”
The free meals have caught on. Other restaurants, including Applebee’s and Denny’s, have also started offering free meals to veterans in recent years.
After a few years, Fowler started looking for ways to expand the company’s outreach to veterans, asking employees for ideas. The camps seemed like a good next step, Fowler says.
The first camp opened last year at Southern Pines, and the company opened eight more this summer.
The camps are meant to give children whose lives have been turned upside down by the death or injury of a parent a time when they can escape the pressures of their home life. They can feel a sense of normalcy, meet other children who are going through the same ordeal – and have a great time in the process.
“We want it to be the week of a lifetime,” Fowler says. “We think they deserve that.”
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