Sweet Tomatoes And Souplantation Just Announced Sad News For Fans

It was a fun and friendly buffet chain which, to fans, had a simple premise: If you loved your soup and salad combos, there was a place that you could go where you could actually stuff yourself with enough of both that you wouldn't need an entree. And if you managed to dine at a Souplantation or a Sweet Tomatoes buffet restaurant before the pandemic, you'd be one of the lucky ones that would have a story to tell about the last time you ate at the buffet-style restaurant before it became a victim of COVID-19. Sadly, all Souplanation and Sweet Tomatoes locations are closing for good.

The restaurant chain opened its doors as Souplantation in 1978, the result of what its company website said was a vision to create a healthy place to eat. It embraced a farm-to-table concept, serving food that it promised had no artificial flavors and trans fats. The restaurant chain would offer a rotating menu featuring more than 100 ingredients to build signature salads, soups, bakery, and hot pasta, all of which was presented on a 55-foot salad bar. The restaurant chain went national when it established its first Sweet Tomatoes restaurant in Florida in 1990 (via The San Diego Union-Tribune).

Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes' business model could not meet the FDA's COVID-19 food service requirements

Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes' buffet style of food service is what hurt it in the end. "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. 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," John Haywood, CEO of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes' parent company Garden Fresh Restaurants told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

The decision to close was not an easy one to make, even for the investment firm that bought the company in 2016. "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," Robert Allbritton, chairman of Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes' owner Perpetual Capital Partners said.

Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes' owner thought getting a bailout would be disingenuous

Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes could have tried to save itself by applying for federal assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — the small business relief program whose first tranche ended up in the hands of big restaurant chains that included Shake Shack, Ruths' Chris Steakhouse, and Potbelly's (via Chicago Sun-Times). Shake Shack chose to return the money, and Ruth's Chris eventually bowed to public pressure and did the same.

Instead of applying for the PPP, Allbritton said he eventually wrote a check for $2.5 million that would help cover the paychecks of 4,400 Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes employees that would lose their jobs. "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, Allbritton said (via The San Diego Union-Tribune).