For those living in the West and the Southeast, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of buffet-style dining is probably Sweet Tomatoes. Or, if you’re from Southern California, you probably know the chain as Souplantation. For many young adults, myself included, some of the fondest childhood memories include dining out at buffets. Unfortunately, that has come to an end. In early May, Garden Fresh Restaurants, the parent company of Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation, announced that they would be unable to reopen their doors due to the pandemic.
Founded in San Diego in 1978, the restaurant chain quickly expanded through Southern California and beyond, operating at 97 locations throughout the country until their closure in March of 2020. Sweet Tomatoes’ business model was unique within the restaurant industry. They were renowned for their incredibly long salad bars that greeted customers when they first stepped inside.
Beyond its unique position as a buffet-style restaurant serving healthy, made-from-scratch food, Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation mean so much more to their beloved customers. That being said, here are the top three things that will be missed about this cherished chain.
1. Sweet Tomatoes’ approachable and non-judgmental environment
There’s something inherently approachable about a self-serve restaurant, because it gives everyone, including children, the agency to choose what and how much they want to eat.
After all, what’s more inviting than not having to confront an employee to order? Sweet Tomatoes presented all the food options with none of the fears that come with confrontation. Because, while someone might go back for seconds at the pizza and bread station, they might be a little more hesitant to ask for similar refills of the breadsticks at a conventional restaurant.
Even at a build-your-own restaurant, diners have to ask the person behind the glass barrier to add a little more lettuce or a little more guacamole, which can be uncomfortable for some people. When customers come to a buffet restaurant like Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation, they are never going to have any concerns about what others might think of their food preferences, and that’s the beauty of it.
2. The Iconic Food Options
Sweet Tomatoes obliterated the game when it came to giving diners full control over what they wanted to eat. But it’s not necessarily something that was entirely unique to this now-defunct chain, since most buffets operate upon this premise. But what made the healthy buffet stand out among buffet chains was its iconic and memorable food options. No matter which location diners chose to visit, they could rest assured that they would be greeted by their favorites. There’s something reassuring about consistency.
If the chain’s renowned soups and salad weren’t appealing, the baked potatoes and the assortment of condiments were always an exercise in fortitude and composure. No visit to the buffet chain could ever be boring. Adding bacon bits to the mac and cheese? Adding a brownie below the soft-serve ice cream? For many, eating at Sweet Tomatoes was an opportunity to try something new.
Some might say that making one’s own plate defeats the purpose of dining out, but I disagree. By going through the trouble of filling up soup bowls, being underneath the low sneeze guard and then carefully maneuvering across the dining area, careful not to spill, the end result was often more fulfilling.
3. The family-friendly, non-corporate atmosphere.
Finally, some of the most memorable aspects of Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation weren’t even related to their food at all. The chain took great strides in listening to their customers, even placing placards on each table. As one often does at buffets, returning to the food line can send mixed signals as to whether a table is done eating or will be coming back with more. Those “I’ll Be Ripe Back” and “See You Next Thyme” cards, which were used to exactly resolve this dilemma, were especially unforgettable.
All in all, between the complete freedom to pick whatever one wanted to eat, to the little details that made eating healthy an adventure for children and adults alike, Sweet Tomatoes has a special place in many people’s hearts. But unfortunately, it seems like these types of establishments are on the decline.
This pandemic might have closed one buffet chain, but many were struggling even before this year; in fact, Garden Fresh Restaurants declared bankruptcy in 2016 as well. With revised Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines that specifically call for the discontinuation of salad bars and buffets, it seems like it’ll be many years before companies that operate on a buffet model can return to normal. Without a proper solution to this pandemic, the formative experience of eating at buffets might very well be something of the past.
There’s no doubt that a lot will change after this pandemic. Buffet-style restaurants like Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation are some of the more noticeable casualties. But here’s to the good times from dining out in the past.