“We’ve exhausted everything,” he said. The only option left is to file for bankruptcy, he said — the “obvious outcome” of which will be that “the restaurants will not reopen."
“We spent eight weeks modeling different options, and it just doesn’t work,” Haywood said. “Part of the magic is enjoying the ability to build your own experience there. So you can think about different ways to do it, but it takes away the essence of the concept. Financially it’s just not feasible.”
About 4,400 employees, previously furloughed, will likely be out of a job for good. Haywood said that when they were furloughed earlier this spring, the owner, Robert Allbritton of Perpetual Capital, who is also the founder and publisher of Politico, wrote a check for $2.5 million to pay out all the employees’ vacation and benefits.
Perpetual Capital bought Garden Fresh Restaurants in 2017, months after the company filed for bankruptcy in late 2016. Haywood, who also took over as CEO in 2017, said that Perpetual Capital has heavily invested in the restaurants over the last three years and that the prior bankruptcy filing did not have any impact on the decision to shut down now.
Still, the looming closures of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes could be a bad sign for buffet-style restaurants generally. Various states that have begun reopening restaurants specifically forbid the all-you-can-eat self-serve buffets and salad bars, famous for crowds of customers leaning over steaming food containers and handling the same utensils as they load up their plates.
“It might be premature to say that the buffet is dead, but it seems likely to go into a coma for a while,” Restaurant Business columnist Jonathan Maze wrote in a column April 27. He predicted a potentially lethal combination of “consumer skittishness” and the federal health guidelines could “well change the buffet concept as we know it, forcing a different service style or eliminating buffets altogether.”
On Thursday, as the news of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes’ downfalls spread, loyal fans grieved that lost experience in a flood of tributes.
Souplantation, founded by a surfer in San Diego in 1978, is located in 10 states from California to Florida, where it’s known as Sweet Tomatoes. As Los Angeles magazine reported last year, the restaurant grew to inspire an almost cultlike following among immigrant families, seniors and people who just liked to know what they were getting: unlimited helpings of Yankee clam chowder and Joan’s Broccoli Madness, among other dishes.
“Honestly, losing Souplantation is a true heartbreaker and im not being ironic or silly at all,” Bethany Cosentino, one half of the band Best Coast, wrote on the band’s Twitter account. “That restaurant chain holds so many memories for me I am so...sad to lose it."
In Twitter tributes, people remembered spending every birthday there “every year since i was like 9,” as one person wrote. More than one admitted to sneaking the restaurant’s addicting blueberry muffins home in their purses.
It had the makings of a guilty pleasure, the kind of chain restaurant nobody likes to admit to savoring but shamelessly returns to because it’s so satisfying. “My girlfriend teases me about going to there so often,” Ian T McFarland, an L.A.-based editor, told Los Angeles magazine last year. On Thursday his girlfriend “literally called to make sure i was okay,” he wrote on Twitter.
Another Souplantation customer told L.A. magazine that she liked it because it was the ultimate “normcore” restaurant: reliable, cheap, unpretentious — it came as it was.
“I think we love it because it’s timeless,” she said. “Everything is trying to be more modern, and on trend, and disruptive, but Souplantation is the same as it was before bigger salad chains like Sweetgreen came around.
The tributes Thursday also poured forth from the children of immigrants, several of whom recalled that buffets, and particularly Souplantation or Sweet Tomatoes, were the only American restaurants that their parents enjoyed, in part because it was a distinctly American experience: “Blunt, no frills, the great equalizing buffet at its core,” wrote Liana Aghajanian, an Iranian-Armenian-American who lived in L.A. “You didn’t have to be anyone, you just had to want to eat.”
Souplantation, despite its “cringe-inducing name,” wrote Joseph Hernandez, research director at Bon Appétit magazine, “also meant a lot to my family. My immigrant mom notoriously hates eating at restaurants, but it was the one dine-in spot she felt comfortable eating at.”
In a column grieving Souplantation, Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Sewell Chan, who had the same experience as the child of immigrants, most remembered the restaurant’s “egalitarianism” the most, how “its dining rooms truly were a democratic space, packed with toddlers, adolescents, harried parents, the elderly.” The chain’s family-style seating distinguished it from other buffets — “it doesn’t have a bleak Sizzler vibe,” Cosentino told Los Angeles magazine last year. “It’s its own mood and its own thing.”
Of the major buffet chains, Sizzler is still going strong, offering takeout to its customers. Golden Corral had tried the model in mid-March as restrictions started piling up, but quit by the end of the month, furloughing 2,290 employees, Restaurant Business reported.
Haywood said that he feared for the future of the buffet-style restaurants in general as well, due to the FDA recommendations against the buffet service model.
“The regulations are understandable but it doesn’t mean they’re feasible,” he said. “Anything that involves a communal experience, I think they will face a big challenge until there is a vaccine or a treatment. … We don’t think there’s going to be a type of concept, this service-model, to come back until next year at the earliest.”