Souplantation Restaurants Announce Permanent Close As California Opens

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Souplantation, a California-based buffet-style restaurant chain under the Garden Fresh company, announced it was closing all 97 of its locations May 7.

Souplantation, called Sweet Tomatoes in areas outside of Southern California, was popular for its open bar, where customers could serve themselves pasta, soup, salad, ice cream and several baked goods.

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However, the restrictions implemented by the FDA to prevent the spread of coronavirus devastated Souplantation’s business model.

The guidelines encourage “discontinuing operations, such as salad bars, buffets, and beverage service stations that require customers to use common utensils or dispensers.”

But self-service, Garden Fresh CEO John Haywood told the San Diego Union-Tribune, is how the restaurant operates.

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.

In 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that Garden Fresh, the company which owns the Souplantation restaurant, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and closed 30 locations.

The company was then bought by Robert Allbritton, the chairman of a private investment firm. Albritton told the San Diego Union-Tribune that since the virus showed up, revenue dropped from 70% to 10% and that “the company ran out of money in one week.”

In mid-March, the company temporarily closed Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes locations across the country, which Haywood told People magazine cost him about $1 million a week.

Although Albritton said he considered taking the Paycheck Protection Program funds for small businesses suffering due to the coronavirus, he said he couldn’t do it knowing it could be months before they could safely operate the open bar. Instead, he said the company has begun looking at bankruptcy as a way to deal with restaurants on leased properties where the rent is due.


Souplantation Restaurant Closings Will Affect Customers And Employees Across the Country

The Washington Post reported that Albritton wrote a $2.5 million check to pay for the employees’ vacations and benefits.

Georgia, where restrictions for restaurants were eased at the end of April, didn’t allow any of the four Garden Fresh buffet restaurants in Atlanta to open.

Haywood told Nation’s Restaurant News that decision “was the canary in the mineshaft.”

Garden Fresh started out in 1978 as a lone Souplantation located in San Diego. In 1986, the brand grew to Southern California and four years later, began opening restaurants in other locations under the name Sweet Tomatoes.

The restaurant chain had locations across the country, including in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oregon and Colorado.

At its height, Nation’s Restaurant News reported that the company was making $250 million in sales per year.


California Is In Phase Two of Reopening

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Souplantation’s closure comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom embarks on slowly reopening the state.

The state’s budget is short $54.3 billion since the stay-at-home order was issued and more than 4 million Californians have lost their job, according to The Guardian.

Newsom said that about 70% of the state’s economy would be opened as part of his phase two plan. However, he also admitted many areas – such as San Francisco – will remain closed at least until May 18.

If all goes well, the next step could involve salons, gyms, movie theaters and in-person church services reopening to the public, The Guardian reported. Phase four would end all restrictions.

According to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine coronavirus dashboard, there were 63,779 infections and 2,613 deaths in California as of May 8.

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