Barnyard Buffet was founded by Nancy Nelson in Saraland, Alabama in April 2005.
Nancy grew up serving tables and bartending at The Fox Hunt in Mobile, Alabama. Skipper Nelson was a regular at The Fox Hunt, and he fell in love with the bartender. Nancy and Skpper got married and opened Sweet Peppers' Pizza & Pasta in Perdido Key, Florida in 1986 with the help of Nancy's parents, Joe and Kitty. Skipper and Nancy had one son named JJ, who grew up playing with coloring books in his parents' corner booth while the servers brought him plates of pickles and black olives. Papa Joe bought JJ a hat that said "The Boss," and little JJ took it very seriously. Sweet Peppers' did well for years, but Nancy and Skipper closed it in 1999 when a hurricane ripped the roof off their building. Skipper became a food distributor for Sysco Foodservice (later PFG and Merchants'), and Nancy became a manager for Quincy's Steakhouse in Daphne, AL.
Nancy was promoted to General Manager and then District Manager for Quincy's Steakhouse. As District Manager, she met an Assistant G.M. at their Moffett Road location named Eleanor Rudder, who had been with the company since 1989. Ms. Eleanor had a reputation for being the best and toughest manager in the company. She was the store opener and arrived before sunrise every morning to prepare the yeast rolls from scratch. Nancy also got to know several employees at various Quincy's stores including Chef Deloris, Amino, Ashley, Darla, Barbara, Cleo, and Laurie. Quincy's was bought by Western Sizzlin', who in turn was bought by County Fair Buffet and then Barnhill's Buffet. Nancy, Ms. Eleanor, Chef Deloris, Amino, Ashley, Darla, Barbara, Cleo, and Laurie all remained with the company throughout.
In 2005, Nancy acquired what was left of Barnhill's. She changed one syllable of the name to keep things simple. She hated traveling and wanted to focus on one store, so she closed all of the locations except for the most profitable one in Saraland. She fired all food distributors and replaced them with her ex-husband, Skipper. Then she recruited the best of the best employees from each store, including Ms. Eleanor, Chef Deloris, Amino, Ashley, Teresa, Val, Darla, Barbara, Sandy, Karen M., Cleo, and Laurie. They hired a cook named Chef Eugene (who fell in love with Chef Deloris and is still with her to this day), a Bar Runner named Alicson, some servers named Ramona, Madilyn, and Karen K., and five teenage girls still in high school named Renee, Crystal, Brittany, Savannah, and Erica.
Things went really well until their landlord suddenly sold the building. The new owner wanted to open a Chinese Buffet and gave Nancy a 30-day eviction notice. With nowhere to go and insufficient capital to buy or develop property, Nancy told the staff they were probably going to go out-of-business. The next day, Ms. Eleanor brought Nancy her life's savings and told her to keep Barnyard open. Word got around to some of the regular customers, and some of them also brought Nancy thousands of dollars. "Save Barnyard," they told her. Nancy still had no location in mind until someone introduced her to Mr. Harrison and Mr. Bell from Gulf Dirt, Inc. They offered her a lease on an old tire shop across the street and very generously agreed to remodel the structure into a restaurant as part of the lease agreement. Gulf Dirt renovated the building in 30 days while Nancy, Ms. Eleanor, Teresa, and Renee frantically moved furniture and equipment across the street and set it all up. Business was so good that Nancy fully repaid Ms. Eleanor and the customers their loans plus 10% interest within one year.
Barnyard Buffet has remained in its current location since June 2007. Nancy got remarried to a chef named Lee Catalfamo, who worked at Barnyard for several years. They enjoyed another 12 solid years of business success until they retired in 2019. Eleanor retired as Assistant G.M. and store opener in December 2021 at the age of 86. Sandy, Teresa, and Chef Eugene have all retired now, and Val, Karen M., Ramona, and Karen K. have all passed away sadly and are sorely missed. Savannah even left in 2021 to start her own restaurant franchise, a P.S. Taco, with her husband. But if you come to Barnyard Buffet today (17 year later), you will still be greeted warmly at the front door by Amino. The bars will still be kept full, clean, and fresh by Alicson. The food is still prepared by Chef Deloris and Ashley. And it will still be served to you with a smile by Darla, Barbara, Cleo, Laurie, Madilyn, Crystal, and Brittany. You might even recognize our new owners...
Chef JJ Nelson is an only child born to 2 only children. He graduated from Bayside Academy in Daphne, AL in 2007, where he was captain of the football team. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy for 2 years, where he was deployed on the U.S.S. Doyle, a frigate, and the U.S.S. Asheville, a fast-attack nuclear submarine. He got to fly jets and helicopters with the air wing in San Diego, and he trained with the Marines at Camp Pendleton and the Navy Seals at Naval Base Coronado. During his time in the service, JJ was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation and the National Defense Service Medal as well as expert weapons qualifications.
After the military, JJ started serving tables and working in the kitchen at Baumhower's Victory Grille in Daphne. There he was promoted to Team Leader. In 2011, he moved to Auburn, AL for college and worked 3 jobs while he was in school. He helped open the Auburn Baumhower's Victory Grille as as server, and he also helped open "The Hound" in Auburn as a server/bartender. At the same time, he started as a dishwasher/cook at Moe's Original BBQ in Auburn, where he became a Kitchen Manager in his 6 years with the company. JJ graduated from Auburn University with a degree in Creative Writing. He met his wife, Mariah, in Auburn. They hit it off because she was a Restaurant Management major, and her father and stepmother, Dan and Bridgit Budd, also owned a fried chicken restaurant called The Pecking Order in Sanibel, FL.
JJ and Mariah welcomed their 1st son, Wilder, in 2017 and moved home to take over the family business. JJ became a Manager at Barnyard Buffet in 2017, became General Manager in 2018, and became the Managing Partner at the beginning of 2022. JJ and Mariah also welcomed a 2nd son, James, in 2022. JJ became the full owner of Barnyard Buffet at the start of 2023. JJ and Mariah do private catering on the side in their free time, and Mariah's mom, Janice Budd, serves tables at Barnyard a couple of days a week.
In January 2020, the rug got pulled out from under us when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. NOBODY wanted to eat at buffets anymore, and our booming business with 40 employees died overnight. We had to adapt and do so quickly. We rearranged our buffet bars into a single file line, put a giant plexiglass wall across it, and turned into Barnyard Cafeteria as quickly as we could. Some of our business returned, but we still had to endure terrible layoffs and pay cuts to remain afloat. Mr. Harrison and Mr. Bell let Barnyard get behind on rent for 6 months and never said a word. They even put in a drive-thru window to help us bring in new business. Nancy and JJ had to stop taking salaries for months while JJ worked as the General Manager, shift manager, and lunch Fry Cook at the same time. Twice our bank balance got so low that we couldn't pay for food, and both times our prayers were answered at the last possible minute by federal aid in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program. In Spring 2021, COVID vaccines came out and business finally started to bounce back. Our staff even decided to fully vaccinate against COVID to protect some of our staff members with autoimmune disorders. The coast was finally clear for us to be Barnyard Buffet again. We caught up on rent and got free and clear of our pandemic debt.
JJ's main goal has been to modernize and streamline Barnyard Buffet to increase revenue. He designed a website, set up social media accounts, and began doing interviews and making appearances on AL.com, CBS, NBC, Fox, and CNN to promote the business. JJ has also tried to increase food quality and consistency. Otherwise, he's tried to stick to the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." This place and this staff have always been special, and the last thing JJ wants to do is screw that up.
Thankfully, JJ has managed to do a few things right. For one thing, he's promoted and hired the next generation of outstanding Barnyard staff. Newer faces like Tiffany, Amanda, Felicity, Roderick (Deloris' grandson), Kimberly, Daniel, Janice (Mariah's mom), Tammy, José, Sylvia, Genny (Darla's daughter), Toy (Darla's son-in-law), Summer, Jimmy, DJ, Niki, Shandra, and Merissa (Amanda's daughter) are now a fixture of our Barnyard family.
JJ and Felicity spent 2 weeks remodeling the dining room (with lots of help) in January 2022, including a new paint scheme and new flooring. The place is hard to recognize these days, and we're very proud of it. The plan is to continue updating the building until everything is new.
Over the last 3 years, we've also been selected as "The Best Buffet in Alabama" by iHeartRadio, The New York Daily News, The Daily Meal, OnlyInYourState.com, and BestThingsAL.com. We are doing everything we can to deliver excellent food and service on a consistent basis so we can uphold our growing reputation.
JJ's longterm goal, once the building is updated, is to expand into more locations. To do this, he knows he will need hard-working partners that he can trust to always do the job right:
Re-enter Ms. Erica Janes, one of those high school girls Nancy hired at the original Barnyard location in 2005. Erica now has a young daughter named Leanna. Erica was a salad bar runner and cashier until JJ promoted her to Manager, then Assistant G.M. In January 2022, Erica became an Operating Partner in the business. At the start of 2023, Erica became the General Manager.
Cue the next piece of the puzzle: Mr. José Cuellar. He's another family man with 2 daughters, Ariel and Knyssa. He started as a fry cook and truck unloader in 2021. JJ quickly promoted him to manager, and José became the 2nd Operating Partner in April 2022. At the start of 2023, José became the Assistant G.M.
Ms. Amanda Lodriguss started as a cashier in 2019. Barnyard has also had the pleasure of employing 2 of her 4 daughters, Molly and Merissa. She is also a grandmother to several beautiful grandchildren. JJ promoted her to manager in 2022, and at the start of 2023 she became the 3rd Operating Partner.
JJ's son, Wilder, likes to sit at the booth in the corner, color his coloring books, and eat plates full of pickles and black olives. He calls himself "The Boss" because Nancy thinks it's hilarious.