Today in sad news we did and didn’t see coming: buffet-style restaurant chain Souplantation (also known as Sweet Tomatoes outside of California) will reportedly be shutting down forever due to the devastating economic effects of COVID-19. Souplantation, which was originally founded in San Diego 42 years ago, will be permanently closing all 97 locations (44 of which are in California). It is a devastating day for Souplantation fans who loved the restaurant for its budget-friendly all-you-can-eat salad bar and soups.
Is Souplantation for sure closing forever?
While Garden Fresh, the company that owns Souplantation, hasn’t officially released a statement, the news was originally covered by The San Diego Union Tribune. The article states that, while Souplantation was actually thriving before COVID-19 hit, sales plummeted almost immediately even before the country went into quarantine and Garden Fresh completely ran out of money. The CEO stated that he used up the remaining $5.2 million to pay employees one last time. Are you crying? Because we’re crying.
“The FDA has previously put out recommendations that included discontinuing self-serve stations, like self-serve beverages in fast food, but they specifically talked about salad bars and buffets. The regulations are understandable, but unfortunately, it makes it very difficult to reopen. And I’m not sure the health departments are ever going to allow it,” Garden Fresh CEO John Haywood said.
He added, “We could’ve overcome any other obstacle, and we’ve worked for eight weeks to overcome these intermittent financial challenges but it doesn’t work if we are not allowed to continue our model.” Unfortunately, he has a point. When a restaurant’s model is based around self-serve, it’s difficult to completely pivot like other restaurants have and become a to-go service. How can an all-you-can-eat buffet transform into takeout?
John Haywood, who you can tell is incredibly heartbroken, explains how Souplantation was making a comeback (the company had filed for bankruptcy in 2016 and was purchased by D.C.-based Perpetual Capital Partner, a private investment firm) and showing great promise before the virus hit the U.S. Sadly, Souplantation (and probably all other buffets — someone please check on Sizzler) seemed to have been hit the hardest and fastest.
“We spent two years researching and trying to improve things and actually got the business turned around. We were growing the number of guests and were in the process of renovating the restaurants with new fixtures, carpeting, signage as late as January. We felt great about it. But I’ve got to tell you, when the virus hit, we went from 100 percent to 70 to 30 to 10 percent that fast, before the restaurants closed down and the company ran out of money in one week,” John said.
If you’re wondering whether or not the company can receive federal support, it looks like it doesn’t matter either way. “We looked at the (federal) Paycheck Protection Program, but even with that we didn’t see how we could reopen the restaurants. We can’t take that money, it’s just disingenuous.”