A long line at Laurel Plaza June 28 heralded the grand opening of Grande Buffet and Grill, where the first 100 takers in the late-morning line were treated to free chow — as much of it as they wanted.
As green, yellow, red and blue streamers met a steamy breeze, Laurel Deputy City Administrator Marty Flemion grabbed an oversize pair of scissors and officially opened the new, 530-seat eatery, most recently, the home of a discount furniture outlet.
"Everybody hungry?" asked Flemion, rhetorically. With that, the mini-mob filed into the spacious dining room, where the decor is rich in dark wood, imbuing the air with a calm, soothing personality. The motif is complemented by a recorded blend of lively jazz instrumentals and pop vocals.
Flemion said Laurel remains a thriving eating-out market.
"Buffet-style seems to attract more people," Flemion said. "We're doing a lot to attract businesses to the city and to the area."
More than 10 steam tables are positioned inside the restaurant like an undulating field of corn, giving diners ample room to pick and choose what to include on their plate.
Standing at the seafood bar, North Laurel resident Carol Worsham struck a reflective pose, as she filled her plate with fare.
"The shrimp are fresh and big," Worsham said. "And this salad bar is huge."
The buffet is co-owned by Richard Ni and Zheng Zheng, both natives of Fuzhou, the capital and one of the largest cities of China's Fujian Province. Ni's parents opened the first Grande Buffet in Chicago in 1994, and the chain has grown to 15 locations in Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, the Carolinas and New Jersey. The Laurel store is the fifth to open in Maryland.
"We want our customers to leave pleased and happy," said Zheng, 28. One way that goal is achieved, he added, is by shopping early in the day at the Jessup Seafood Market, where a fresh catch of salmon and blue fish arrive daily, and filleting the fish at their restaurant.
The partners also buy fresh chicken, fruits and vegetables at the market.
Other items on the Grande Buffet menu include stuffed oysters on the half-shell, Japanese chicken, pork chops and beef stew. There are five kettles of homemade soup; pans of rice noodles, sesame chicken and sweet potatoes; ham; sausage; egg rolls; and a full line of cakes, pies and ice cream.
Ni, 30, and his wife, Janni Zhao, have been clocking 14-hour days instructing the staff of 35. Ni said Laurel was a good location to introduce diners to this particular buffet concept.
"There are all different kinds of people here," he said. "Spanish, black, white. Many of them are middle class."
Flemion — whose favorite entree is sweet and sour chicken — noted the Laurel area contains a solid mix of "blue-collar and technical, with a splash of executive. It's a diverse community."
The competition is not far away. Old Country Buffet, an all-you-can-eat restaurant located just five doors down from Grande Buffet, opened in the mid-1990s. Zheng acknowledged that when the partners were knocking around the idea of opening in Laurel, some friends in the business advised against it.
OCB offers "more American food," Zheng said. "Ours is Oriental, sometimes Spanish."
During construction of the restaurant, the partners often ate lunch at OCB, and even got to know one of the managers.
"We were friends — until we opened," Zheng said, smiling.
Another Laurel Plaza business owner keeping close tabs on Grande Buffet is Terri Haas. The longtime owner of Sullivan's Steak and Beverage, which has a sports-bar theme and Wednesday night Maryland trivia games, said she's ready for whatever competition it brings.
"I wish them the best of luck," Haas said. "I hope they wish the same for me."