|Fate||Bankruptcy (Chapter 7 liquidation)|
|Defunct||May 8, 2020|
Number of locations
|97 (March 2020, prior to liquidation)|
|John Haywood (CEO) Don Breen (CFO)|
|Products||Salad, soup, bakery, pasta, muffins, soft serve, fruits, vegetables, and other buffet and vegetarian options|
Number of employees
|Parent||Perpetual Capital Partners|
Sweet Tomatoes, operating as Souplantation in southern California, was a United States-based chain of all-you-can-eat buffet-style restaurants. The first location opened in 1978 in San Diego, California, where the company was headquartered. The company was incorporated as Garden Fresh Corp. in 1983. The company went public in 1995 but was taken private in 2004. The company, owned by Garden Fresh Restaurant Corporation, temporarily closed its 97 locations in March 2020 because of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 7, 2020, the closure was made permanent and the company filed for liquidation.
The first Souplantation restaurant opened on Mission Gorge Road in San Diego, in 1978. It was the idea of Dennis Jay, who was a bartender at Springfield Wagon Works, a pioneer in salad bars in El Cajon. Dennis's friends, John Turnbull and Scott King were opening their first Soup and Salad restaurant The Soup Exchange. Dennis was impressed with the new concept and introduced Steve Hohe, the Springfield Restaurant manager and Ron Demery, a bail bondsman and friend of John and Scott. Dennis, Steve and Ron decided to partner to create a parallel concept, the Souplantation. The two concepts grew side by side in a friendly, mutually supportive, yet competitive environment for several years. This restaurant and a second one in Point Loma were purchased in 1983 by Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp, founded by Michael Mack to operate the chain.
In 2005, an affiliate of the private investment firm Sun Capital Partners purchased Garden Fresh and with it the restaurant chains. In 2007, a Souplantation restaurant in Orange County, California was linked to an outbreak of E. coli. The restaurant closed temporarily while authorities investigated the outbreak.
In October 2016, Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp, the owner/operator of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. At the time Garden Fresh was nearly $175 million in debt. In January 2017, the company said it expected to emerge from bankruptcy later that month, following a sale of the company's assets to New York-based private investment firm Cerberus Capital Management L.P. and its partners. Garden Fresh anticipated it would wind up with "between 90 and 104 restaurants" and "significantly less debt". In 2017, Garden Fresh and its restaurant chains were purchased by the New York private investment firm Cerberus Capital Management.
In March 2020, all of the restaurants had to close temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 7, 2020, the company announced it would be closing all Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes locations permanently amid concerns that new federal guidelines recommending an end to self-serve stations would prevent local health departments from granting permits to restaurants with salad bars and buffets.
Garden Fresh Restaurants, the parent company to both Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, filed for Chapter 7 liquidation with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court the following week on May 14. At the time of the announcement, the company had 4,400 employees and 97 restaurants.
Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants specialized in fresh salads and soups, offering a large salad bar, homestyle soup, and pasta, as well as bread, muffins, cornbread, and pizza, baked on the premises.
The salad bar offered a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, croutons, and other salad condiments, as well as a few prepared featured salads, which changed monthly. Other sections included up to eight soup selections, a small bakery offering muffins, cornbread, pizza Foccacia, and baked potatoes, a pasta section with a few different plates of pasta and sauces, and a dessert section offering fruit, puddings, and soft-serve ice cream. Featured menu items were rotated monthly often along a theme. Themes, named according to the type of food being served, included Asian, Greek, Italian, and Customer Favorites.
The company's home city of San Diego often served as a test market for new ideas and innovations, and was home to Souplantation's corporate offices. For example, some Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes locations were open on Sunday mornings for breakfast. In 2011, the company launched its first quick-serve restaurant, called Souplantation Express, in Carlsbad, California.
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