Garden Fresh Restaurants, the company behind popular buffet chains Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, is permanently closing all restaurant locations amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Garden Fresh said it has been losing about $1 million per week since shuttering its 97 locations in March due to the global health crisis.
John Haywood, the CEO of Garden Fresh Restaurants, told TODAY Food he tried to explore every possible option to avoid letting go of his 4,400 employees. But, in the end, said it just wasn’t feasible for a company which prides itself on offering all-you-can-eat dining experiences.
“The FDA is recommending the discontinuation of any type of salad bar, buffet or self-serve station,” Haywood explained. “While the regulations are understandable, our whole concept is a buffet salad bar. We don’t think the state and local health department will permit anything close to that format any time soon.
"You think about having to go a year at over without customers. It literally becomes tens of millions of dollars to hope that people will want a buffet concept."
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Haywood also pointed to Georgia, which became the first state to reopen restaurants on a large scale last month.
“One of the 39 restaurant regulations was that salad bars and buffets are discontinued,” Haywood said. “That was really a turning point for us where we realized that the states are going to to follow the FDA regulations. We just can’t make it work.”
Souplantation first opened 1978 in San Diego. Outside of California, restaurant locations operated under the brand name Sweet Tomatoes. The chains were known for offering a wide variety of freshly made soups, pastas, pizza baked in house, bakery items, desserts and well-stocked salad bars.
Fans of the 42-year-old buffet brand are mourning together on Twitter.
One mom shared a picture her daughter had drawn of a crying tomato with the words "RIP."
“We will miss you, @souplantation. Our daughter made this when she heard the new,” she wrote.
Added another, “This virus took away sports from me. It took away our baby shower. It took away our ability to go on a baby moon. And now you took away Sweet Tomatoes? This is too much right now.”
Haywood predicts other venues, such as arcade-restaurants like Dave & Busters (which are designed to bring people together), will also face challenging times until there's a vaccine for COVID-19.
"I think it's going to be difficult for anything like that to return," he said.