Sunny Burden Of Golden Corral: Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Opening a Franchise

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

People also need to think about finances. With any new business, you may not immediately see a return on your investment. The important thing to remember is how you will be able to support your finances between developing the business and opening.

The world of franchising offers a unique blend of entrepreneurship and established business models. However, navigating the franchise landscape can be daunting, especially for those embarking on this journey for the first time. There are lessons to be learned, pitfalls to avoid, and success stories to be inspired by. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sunny.

Sunny Burden’s journey in the food industry began in her family’s Chinese restaurant after they immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan. Growing up, she worked tirelessly alongside her parents and gained a deep understanding of the restaurant business. After college, she and her husband owned and ran a Chinese restaurant and a diner in Milwaukie, where they faced and conquered numerous challenges. She later worked at Starbucks Café Company for eight years as a general manager, running some of the highest volume units at the time and played a key role in helping the brand open stores in new markets, including China.

Sunny’s entry into the world of franchising began when she acquired and successfully ran several Baja Fresh locations. After forming a business partnership with Ramsay Zawideh, a fellow Baja Fresh franchisee, the pair began to explore new opportunities and eventually became Golden Corral franchisees. Despite hitting some bumps in the road while building their first location, they successfully opened the Vancouver Golden Corral in February 2018.

Throughout her career, Sunny has faced many personal and professional challenges, including the loss of her husband and parents. Nevertheless, she remains dedicated to her business, including her current Golden Corral restaurant, five Baja Fresh locations, three Sunny’s Diner locations, one Subway location and one Bobadochi location. Sunny’s story is one of perseverance, resilience, and a steadfast commitment to quality and service in the food industry.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about succession, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I decided to become a Golden Corral franchisee mainly because of my mom. After she had a stroke, the only place she wanted to eat was at a buffet. Unfortunately, the buffet we frequented for the first year or so primarily served unhealthy food and did not leave us with many other options. After a particularly unpleasant experience there, I decided to see if there was a better solution for my mom. I researched for a long time before looking further into Golden Corral. Before signing any agreements, we visited thirteen restaurants nationwide, which allowed us to speak to various franchisees and their team members. Once we met the leadership team, I knew Golden Corral was the concept for us because they were genuine about their love for the brand. Sadly, my mother passed away before we opened our first Golden Corral restaurant. Still, I knew that she would be proud of me and my choice, especially when I stood in the middle of the busy restaurant during our grand opening.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I have so many interesting stories picking just one is hard. While there is always a lot going on in the restaurant industry, it can be incredibly challenging for staff on holidays. One Thanksgiving, I had a lot of staff call out, so I decided to step in and work the entire day at the mashed potato station. By the end of the shift, I looked at one of my co-workers and asked them to remind me never to volunteer to work at the mashed potato station again. I am sure anyone who has ever made Thanksgiving dinner knows how tiring hand-mashing potatoes can be! Honestly, I had to take a break from making them for a couple of weeks after that, both in the restaurant and at home.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

One of my favorite quotes has always been, “Be happy with who you are; be genuine.” I am not quite sure who said it, but this is something that I live in all aspects of my life. I have had to go through a lot of trials and tribulations in my life and as a business owner. When I opened my first diner twenty years ago in Milwaukie, Oregon, so many people would come into the restaurant and judge me for serving traditional American breakfasts and lunches as a Taiwanese woman. Although this location closed three years after opening, when we re-opened a Sunny’s location about eight years ago, I knew I was making a significant impact, and today my restaurants are packed. I have grown to love opening restaurants where I live and in nearby towns because everyone I know shows up to support me.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Besides the fact that we [Golden Corral] offer an amazing buffet? Something that makes us genuinely standout is our process of making the food. Golden Corral has always been so open about this, and the kitchens are open so that our guests can see it too. They can see the fresh food that we prep in-house and share with them for an unbeatable value. When I first joined the brand, I went through an eight-week training in Albuquerque where I learned how to make and prep all the food served in our restaurants. This included chopping lettuce, cutting fruit, and even frying chicken. The whole experience was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me to be a part of as I was preparing to open my first location.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What factors did you consider when selecting your franchise, and how did you determine it was the right fit for you?

The most important factor I considered was if being a franchisee was something I would be passionate about. If a person is not genuinely enthusiastic about a franchise’s values or goals, they should not consider it. For me, the selling point is real food and the great value that Golden Corral offers its guests. Honestly, the best way to learn more about a franchise is to speak with other franchisees and the leadership team. When I talked to anyone from Golden Corral, they all spoke so positively about the brand, and not just about the food, but also the brand’s environment, including its positive trajectory and sustainability. I felt completely immersed in the company’s culture! Even managers and shift leaders at Golden Corral restaurants across the country only had great things to say about the company’s values and leadership, which is extremely important for a franchisee to hear.

Can you share a significant challenge you faced while establishing your franchise? How did you overcome this obstacle, and what did this experience teach you about running a successful franchise?

I have thirteen multi-brand franchise locations open throughout the Pacific Northwest, and throughout opening my locations I have had my fair share of issues. Sometimes there are construction or unforeseen weather issues that cause openings to be delayed. The most important lesson that I have learned is to plan for a whole host of different scenarios before you begin the process of building or renovating your location(s). It is common that an opening needs to be delayed or put on hold because of things that are out of your control. It is really critical that your franchisor is supportive in these situations and offers assistance to overcome these obstacles. I have been fortunate to have this high level of support, especially from the Golden Corral team.

Looking back to when you first started your franchise, what was one aspect that completely took you by surprise? This could be related to the franchising process, customer interactions, or day-to-day management that you hadn’t anticipated.

Before I opened my first location, I did not realize the volume of food that goes through the restaurant in the first thirty or even sixty days. I am extremely grateful that there was such a high demand from the community for each of my locations when they opened. I always had people coming up to me asking when a new location was going to open, or people driving by ahead of an opening to check on exactly when the grand opening would take place. As a result of this demand, I needed to hire sometimes one hundred or more employees. In my opinion, people who are interested in franchising with Golden Corral should have full-service restaurant experience themselves or with a partner so they are not overwhelmed by the sheer volume of guests, food, and employees that they will be keeping track of.

In hindsight, what advice would you give to potential franchisees about selecting a franchise that aligns with their personal and professional goals?

I mentioned this a little bit earlier in the interview, but one of my biggest recommendations is always to speak with current franchisees. As you move through the franchise sales process, there will be opportunities on Discovery Day or other initial meetings before you sign, so during these times take the opportunity to consult with other franchise owners in the system. Another great way to gauge what it would be like to be a franchisee is to on your own, visit nearby locations and to speak with the franchisee of those locations to get an even deeper understanding.

I would also add that becoming a franchise is a large commitment. Be certain to choose a company that has a strong culture and values that align with your own. Golden Corral gives back to local communities a great deal, which was appealing to me. Additionally, there are many people, both on the corporate team and franchisees, who have been with Golden Corral for over 20 years. That is no coincidence and is a great indicator of a brand’s staying power in the marketplace. Not only does this consistency make their team strong, but it also provides a strong support system for new franchisees.

How do you balance adhering to the established systems of your franchise with the need to innovate and adapt to your local market? Can you provide an example of a successful adaptation or innovation you implemented in your franchise?

Every Chinese New Year I like to suggest new Asian-style recipes that could be implemented into our restaurant’s menu. The Golden Corral Operations and Product Development teams are always very receptive and collaborate with me to craft location-specific menu items that can be offered in addition to Golden Corral restaurants’ traditional core menu items. It is extremely important to be in tune with your local market to know what would best suit your guests and continue to earn their loyalty to your restaurant.

What are your “Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Opening a Franchise”?

1. As someone who has opened businesses and franchised businesses, I think it is important for people to find out why they want to franchise beyond just opening a business. Why are you leaning toward franchising? Once you determine this, you must do the due diligence and research the category to see if there will be enough growth potential in the long run.

2. People also need to think about finances. With any new business, you may not immediately see a return on your investment. The important thing to remember is how you will be able to support your finances between developing the business and opening.

3. It is also important to do some deep personal reflection. Each franchise concept requires different skill sets. Do you have the right skills to bring to the table to help you to succeed in the industry you want to franchise in? Since I had previous experience in the restaurant industry and management, I knew that a large-scale operation like Golden Corral was a good fit for me on a professional level.

4. Many franchisees invest in their concepts as their sole job, while others see it as more of a side hustle. It is important to know what will work best for you before you sign on to become a franchisee. I knew that I solely wanted to focus on my restaurants going into it. Still, because have so many locations, I do have a trusted management team who oversees the restaurants since I cannot be at every location all at once.

5. On a similar note, if you are going to be a hands-on franchise owner, you should ask yourself if you can envision doing this for the next 5–10 years. You must be able to do the work and truly love what you do. So many people fall in love with the idea of owning something but quickly tire of the day-to-day operations. I truly fell in love with every aspect of Golden Corral, from the concept to the culture I knew that it was the perfect fit for me.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

Everything. With Golden Corral, I reflect daily on my work, my colleagues’ work, and our guests. I service the people who not only come to my restaurants but also who work for me too. I ask myself, “Did my guests have a good visit?” And “Did I do everything I could possibly do to prepare my staff for their jobs?” A good boss is someone who thinks about their employees and ensures that they do everything in their power to make their employees’ jobs easier.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could start a movement that would bring the best to the most people, it would be centered on the principle of being a role model to yourself first. It’s a variation of the Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated, but it starts with self-respect and integrity. I often discuss with my managers the importance of respect, both in giving it to others and in expecting it in return from guests. This is something I strive to coach my team on this, but it’s crucial that we practice it. The example we set at work should be consistent with how we live our lives at home.

Being true to yourself is essential. I frequently hear about people wearing different hats and behaving differently in various situations. However, I believe in the power of authenticity, being genuine and comfortable with who you are. This means respecting your audience and connecting with them. Effective communication stems from empathy and a genuine effort to understand others’ experiences. Until you make that connection, true communication cannot happen.

At Golden Corral, this philosophy is reflected in our commitment to hospitality and community. We strive to create an environment where everyone feels respected and valued, from our employees to our guests. By fostering a culture of respect and authenticity, we can positively impact our communities. This movement of leading by example and promoting genuine respect and understanding can ripple out, bringing significant and meaningful change to many people’s lives.

How can our readers further follow you online?

I do not have any social media presence, but to learn more about Golden Corral franchising opportunities, please visit

For more information about Golden Corral, visit

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.