The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad COVID-19 pandemic has claimed for itself its first chain restaurant to close its doors for good: the popular buffet chain Souplantation headquartered in San Diego, California.
Known as “Sweet Tomatoes” outside of Southern California, the first Souplantation started in 1978 in San Diego and grew up to 100 locations throughout the country as it came under the ownership of the company Garden Fresh. The restaurant was famous for offering unlimited salads and soups along with baked goods like pizza, cornbread, and muffins – not to mention some of the tastiest strawberry lemonade around.
In an announcement in March, Garden Fresh CEO John Haywood originally stated that Souplantation (Sweet Tomatoes) would be closing its doors to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 until further notice; nearly two months later, the projections turned grim as the restaurant chain could not see a way in which its business model could thrive in the current climate.
“As part of an international effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) we have temporarily closed all 97 Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants nationwide,” the original announcement said. “We are taking the urgent guidelines expressed by health and government officials very seriously, and we feel this temporary closure is the best decision to help keep our guests, team members and their families safe and healthy. We believe it is our social responsibility to assist in flattening the curve, and as soon as we can, we will resume restaurant operations.”
On Thursday, John Haywood regretfully told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the FDA guidelines made the reopening of a self-serve restaurant too difficult to implement. All 97 restaurants will now be closing, putting 4,400 people out of work.
“The FDA had 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,” said Haywood. “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. 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.”
Robert Allbritton, chairman Perpetual Capital Partners, an investment firm that purchased Garden Fresh in 2016 after the company filed for bankruptcy, told the outlet that the business was actually thriving prior to the pandemic. In just one week, the company ran out of money and Allbitron had to cut a final check of $2.5 million to cover payroll.
“We spent two years researching and trying to improve things and actually got the business turned around,” Allbritton said. “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.”
“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,” he added.
John Gordon, a San Diego restaurant consultant, however, said that Souplantation’s demise was inevitable, arguing that buffet-style restaurants had been in decline all over the country.
“Restaurant buffet operations all over the country were in deep sales decline for years prior to the Covid-19 impact in March, and the prolonged period of zero revenue since March and the possibility that US/state/local sanitation standards would prohibit buffet operations likely was responsible for the decision,” said Gordon. “The restaurant world has already changed dramatically and unfortunately Garden Fresh and Souplantation do not fit into the new reality.”
In March, the National Restaurant Association predicted that 11% of restaurants could be closing permanently. Hudson Riehle, the Association’s senior vice president of research, said the data shows the industry is in “uncharted territory.”
“Association research found that 54% of operators made the switch to all off-premises services; 44% have had to temporarily close down. This is uncharted territory,” said Riehle. “The industry has never experienced anything like this before.”
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