Our never-ending soup and salad days are behind us: Souplantation is permanently closing every location, effective immediately.
Headquartered in San Diego County, where the first Souplantation opened in 1978, the all-you-can-eat chain now numbers nearly 100 outposts across the country. Run by parent company Garden Fresh Corp, the buffet restaurants are known as Sweet Tomatoes outside of Southern California.
On March 10, days before California and much of the country closed restaurant dining rooms in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Garden Fresh CEO John Haywood announced the temporary closure of all of its restaurants nationwide. “We believe it is our social responsibility to assist in flattening the curve, and as soon as we can, we will resume restaurant operations,” he said. On May 7, Haywood confirmed that the temporary shutter will in fact be permanent, telling the San Diego Union-Tribune that the company worked for eight weeks to overcome the financial challenges caused by the pandemic, but that it was ultimately unsuccessful. The closure puts its 4,400 employees permanently out of work.
Robert Allbritton, chairman of the private investment firm that purchased Garden Fresh in 2016, told the U-T that coronavirus concerns sent Souplantation’s revenue plummeting back in February and March, when its buffet-style, serve-yourself concept made diners wary of its communal food bar. Additionally, the restaurant’s setup does not translate easily to a curbside pickup and delivery model that many other restaurants have adopted to generate sales.
With giant corporations under fire for accepting loans meant for smaller-scale restaurants, the company decided not to explore that route to stay operational and keep its employees on payroll. “We looked at the (federal) Paycheck Protection Program, but even with that we didn’t see how we could reopen the restaurants,” Allbritton said. “We can’t take that money, it’s just disingenuous.”
Souplantation may have been long past its heyday, but its eateries were a comforting, affordable dining option for much of America.