Bishop’s Buffet is a name that’s new to the East Valley but familiar to former Iowans.
Despite a low-key opening last week, the eatery has already attracted a loyal clientele hungry for its signature Chocolate Ambrosia Pies, said Dave Bailey, vice president of operations and the man who helped keep the Bishop’s Buffet name — and the pies — from fading into oblivion.
The buffet opened in west Mesa, at 1404 S. Longmore, across the street from Fiesta Mall and across the parking lot from a Target store scheduled to open soon. The location, which formerly housed a Luby’s Cafeteria, was tailor-made for a Bishop’s.
"We look for opportunities — a box that fits our concept," he said.
Bailey, his best buddy since third grade and seven other minor-interest investors now own the 84-year-old Bishop’s brand. The Mesa restaurant is the ninth location.
Bishop’s began in 1920 in Waterloo, Iowa, Bailey said. In 1969, when he was still in high school, Bailey got a part-time job at a Bishop’s close to his home.
"It’s the only job I’ve ever had," he said. By the time he was 25 years old, he was a restaurant manager.
In 1982, then-flourishing Kmart bought Furr’s Cafeterias. In 1986, Kmart bought Bishop’s and tucked the new chain under the Furr’s operation. Soon after, Kmart, whose fortunes were beginning to flag, unloaded the restaurant division.
By early 2003, Furr’s was in bankruptcy. Bailey, then a regional manager, put together an investment team to save the Bishop’s brand. There were 11 of the chain surviving at the time, he said, but he could only raise enough money to buy seven restaurants, including a Furr’s in central Phoenix.
He renamed the Phoenix Furr’s as a Bishop’s in April. The Mesa Bishop’s is the second store he’s opened since buying the brand.
He’s expanded without incurring the big debt that saddled previous parents, Kmart and Furr’s. Bailey said he is careful about location — picking spots where the operational cost is low and the visibility is high.
The empty Luby’s is a prime example, Bailey said. The rent in the shopping center is reasonable, and all Bailey had to do to turn the Luby’s into a Bishop’s was add new carpeting and new chairs and upgrade some of the kitchen equipment.
And the local crowd is starting to stream in. A lot ask if it’s the Iowa Bishop’s, Bailey said. They seem happy to learn it is.
"I’ve even seen customers I knew from other Bishop’s," Bailey said. "This is a great location — a massive population base that isn’t going to move."
Stan Garner of Chandler is a new fan. He used to like eating at Luby’s and stopped by to see whether the new restaurant passes muster.
Unlike the Luby’s, Bishop’s is a one-price, all-you-can-eat buffet. Prices are $6.59 for lunch and $7.29 for dinner, lower prices for seniors, much lower prices for children. Garner thought it was a good deal for a good meal. "I’ll eat here again," he said. Mark Jefferson of Mesa was more effusive.
"It’s delicious food, and we really need a buffet here," he said. "There are going to be quite a few people coming here." Bailey hopes so. He’s baking up lots of Chocolate Ambrosia Pies. Customers at a typical Bishop’s will eat up 48 of the chocolate pies every day, he said. Some order whole pies to take home. "At Thanksgiving we sell 600 per store," he said.