BROOKSVILLE — Charles Chick couldn't believe it, so he had to see for himself.
"For cryin' out loud," he said upon driving up to the restaurant where he so often enjoyed steak by the pound with his wife, Debra.
Brooksville's beloved Golden Corral was gone, now a building with bare buffet tables and a sign encouraging people to visit the chain's other locations.
Dozens of residents drove by Friday, some to make their regular lunch stop and others, like Chick, to find out if the rumors were true.
While overseeing cleanup, district manager Jerome Kelley explained that after the restaurant lost a chunk of customers to the Spring Hill spot that opened in December, it wasn't making enough money to stay afloat. The restaurant closed on Wednesday.
"We were hoping we'd have enough to keep both of them open, but we didn't," Kelley said.
The company is working to place the 42 employees and three managers at other locations, but the regulars were at a loss.
"I'm just really discouraged and disgusted this place closed," said David Moses, 48, who pulled up in his truck for the third time in 24 hours to get answers.
Moses said he has been to the restaurant hundreds of times. He doesn't want to find a new place to eat, but the alternative — driving to the Golden Corral in Spring Hill — is worse. He said he had a bad food and service experience there, and he's not going back.
Like many, Chick was shocked that the always-packed restaurant closed from lack of business. His first instinct was to blame it on the chocolate fondue fountain.
"It's got to be that damn waterfall," he said. "Kids would put their dirty fingers in there."
Soon after Chick left, Carlos Mejia rolled up in an SUV with his wife and 13-year-old son to grab lunch.
"It's closed?" asked Mejia, 56. His jaw dropped.
This is the restaurant he and his family used to visit before their Sunday bicycle rides, showing up right at 10:45 a.m. to catch the transition between breakfast and lunch. Now they'll have to settle for Publix subs.
Perhaps the most disgruntled customer was 71-year-old "Chief Billy" Barnes. Barnes ate at the restaurant every day, sometimes for two meals. On the weekends, he would fill up takeout containers with breakfast to take to local veterans.
"This is the only restaurant they had in town that was worth a s---," he said. "Everybody else around here, they got nasty-tasting food."
As the lunch rush died down, one man drove up on his motorcycle, walked across the parking lot and yanked at the locked door. When he finally saw the closing sign, he summed up everyone's feelings in two words.
"Well, (shucks)," but he didn't use the exact same word.
Staff writer Octavio Jones contributed to this report. Kathryn Varn can be reached at [email protected] or (352)754-6114.