Sunday, July 30, 2006

The idea of North's

A sad note from Medford, Oregon, gateway to Crater Lake and birthplace of Lisa Rinna:

The original J.J. North's has closed.

J.J. North's Grand Buffet was once a thriving chain of all-you-can-eat restaurants — the kind of place you folks of Scandinavian extraction residing in the upper Midwest call a smorgasbord. The sort of joint where you walk in, grab a tray, and proceed to pile plates high with bland-yet-filling steam-table fare until you can barely walk. Back in the day, the chain went by the name J.J. North's Chuck Wagon, before new ownership took the business — if not the dining experience — slightly more upscale under the "Grand Buffet" moniker.

Years ago, we had a J.J. North's here in Santa Rosa. It was a prime location for Sunday after-church luncheons because the price of admission was cheap, the grub was plentiful, even the pickiest child could find at least a few items to consume, and you could usually shove enough tables together to accommodate a party of almost any size. Our daughter KM loved it because of the self-serve ice-cream station, if for no other reason.

Then, one day, without advance warning, our J.J. North's closed its doors. (Much like the sudden departure of the Medford outlet, or so it seems.) We showed up one evening, our mouths watering in anticipation of crisp fried chicken and mounds of fluffy mashed potatoes, and it was gone. "Lost our lease!" proclaimed the hand-printed sign taped to the front door. We hoped that meant the management might perhaps reopen in another local venue, but they never did.

My funniest memory of J.J. North's involves the night we discovered our house had been sold. About a year earlier, our friend Tom the realtor had helped us move out of our cramped upstairs apartment into a comfortable two-story townhouse condo owned by one of his clients. On this particular evening, we arrived at North's to find Tom and his family already there. We greeted them in the usual way, but Tom barely spoke to us. Later, we discovered the reason — his client, our landlord, had only that afternoon decided to sell our townhouse. Tom was struggling to muster up the courage to tell us we had just 30 days to move.

A few J.J. North's Grand Buffets survive, scattered here and there throughout California, but the North family long ago sold the franchise to a larger company. The original Medford outlet was the last restaurant remaining under the control of old J.J.'s heirs.

In a dash of irony, one of the key factors in the Medford North's closure appears to have been competition from a nearby HomeTown Buffet — a huge chain founded by a former staff member at the Medford North's restaurant.

That's gratitude for you.

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