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Old Country Buffet closes Duluth restaurant

A sign hangs on the door of Old Country Buffet Tuesday afternoon at Miller Hill Mall in Duluth notifing guests that the restaurant is closed. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
Old Country Buffet at the Miller Hill Mall in Duluth closed its doors Tuesday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

The Old Country Buffet restaurant at Duluth's Miller Hill Mall closed Tuesday along with another in Minnesota, the latest in dozens of closures in the struggling chain in recent months.

Closure signs were posted at the all-you-can-eat restaurant in Duluth, which had been open for more than 25 years.

"Thank you for your business and we hope to serve you at another location very soon," the sign read, while also instructing employees to collect their final paycheck during specified hours Tuesday afternoon.

Old Country Buffet occupied a highly visible spot at Miller Hill Mall, facing Miller Trunk Highway.

"We are anticipating that this location will not be vacant for long given its prominent location at Miller Hill," mall general manager Katie Kaz said.

The Old Country Buffet location in Mankato also closed Tuesday, the Mankato Free Press reported.

The closures of those two locations leave just one Old Country Buffet operating in Minnesota, in Burnsville, according to the chain's website. Eleven other Minnesota locations have closed this year amid a national restructuring by the chain's parent company.

An Old Country Buffet also remains in operation in Eau Claire, Wis. At least one other Wisconsin location, in Onalaska, also closed Tuesday.

Buffets LLC — also known as Ovation Brands, and the current corporate entity overseeing the Old Country Buffet brand — closed 92 locations in March as it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The March closures included locations in Maple Grove, Coon Rapids, Rochester and St. Cloud.

Those closures came a month after seven other Minnesota Old Country Buffets were among 74 restaurants across several brands closed by Ovation, or 30 percent of its then-243 restaurants nationally.

Old Country Buffet was founded in Eagan, Minn., in 1983. The chain, which has been in a long decline, had closed more than 400 stores in the past eight years even before this year's shutdowns.

The company in March said it had lined up a multimillion-dollar recapitalization loan ahead of its Chapter 11 filing, its third trip to bankruptcy court. Chapter 11 lets a company keep operating while reorganizing its finances under court supervision.

Buffets filed Chapter 11 in 2008 and again in 2012. When it came out of the second bankruptcy in 2012, Old Country was rechristened Ovation Brands and moved from Eagan to Greer, S.C. Ovation itself was bought in August 2015 by Food Management Partners, a San Antonio-based restaurant company.

The Chapter 11 filing in March was "prompted by the discovery of liabilities, or alleged liabilities, that we believe were not disclosed in our negotiations," Peter Donbavand, vice president for business development for Food Management Partners/Buffets LLC, said in a company statement in March. "Among other matters which we were made known only after the acquisition is a $11.37 million judgment against Buffets LLC."

Last October, U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl in Wyoming awarded $11.37 million to a Nebraska couple after the husband, Christopher Gage, got a severe case of salmonella poisoning — including kidney failure — after eating at an Old Country Buffet in Cheyenne in 2010.

Skavdahl entered a default judgment against Ovation after the company failed to respond to the lawsuit in a timely manner. Gage's suit was filed in September 2014, almost a year before Food Management bought Ovation Brands. Ovation's new owner says its old owner never disclosed the suit, though it was a public record.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.

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