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People Are Souper Sad About Souplantation Closing -- And What That Means For Buffet Restaurants

A bowl of clam chowder at Souplantation, circa 2010. (Michael Saechang/Flickr Creative Commons)
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Buffet restaurant Souplantation announced yesterday it is permanently closing all 97 of its restaurants and laying off 4,400 people. Here in Southern California, where the chain started, the sadness is palpable.

Parents, kids, college students, broke writers, seniors, hipsters ... we all appreciated how you could head to Souplantation to load up on cornbread and clam chowder, drench every vegetable in blue cheese and stuff yourself with soft serve -- and how you could do it without spending a ton of money.

Planning a family dinner for a dozen people from age 8 to age 80? Need a lunch spot to satisfy a bunch of coworkers with diverse dietary preferences? Tired of preparing food for a whiny eight-year-old who can't be bothered to sit through a meal where you have to look at a menu, place an order and wait for food? Souplantation had you covered.

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Founded by bartender Dennis Jay, the first Souplantation opened in 1978 on Mission Gorge Road in San Diego, reports Sandiegoville. The restaurant had expanded to three locations by 1984, when Jay sold the company to Tony Brooke and Michael Mack.

The two young entrepreneurs told the Los Angeles Times they had big plans to expand the soup-and-salad bar restaurant to 50 locations by the end of the decade.

A meal at Souplantation, circa 2016. (Person-with-No Name/Flickr Creative Commons)

The restaurant chain expanded through the western United States, operating in other states under the brand name Sweet Tomatoes, but its homebase was California, where it had 44 restaurants. In the process, it went public (in 1995) before returning to private ownership (in 2004).

Souplantation has previously faced challenges. In 2016, the company, by then owned by Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Americans were already moving away from "family dining" and, as part of the reorganization, the company closed approximately two dozen underperforming restaurants, reports the San Diego Union Tribune.

Like many restaurants, the chain announced in mid-March that it was temporarily closing to prevent the spread of coronavirus. This time around, there was no saving Souplantation.


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Long before COVID-19, such restaurants were on their way out. Between 1998 and 2017, the number of buffet restaurants decreased by 26% while the number of overall restaurants grew by 22%, according to Business Insider.

Coronavirus will likely be the nail in the coffin for many buffet restaurants, which had tried without much success to appeal to millenials and younger diners. With the FDA recommending that restaurants discontinue self-serve stations, salad bars and buffets, the writing is on the wall.

"The regulations are understandable, but unfortunately, it makes it very difficult to reopen," John Haywood, CEO of Garden Fresh, told the San Diego Union Tribune. "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."

What does that mean for Sizzler, Hometown Buffet and similar chains? Nothing good.

Odds are that buffet restaurants as we knew them in the Before Times will never come back. If they do, it won't be any time soon.

And yes, Souplantation's name was awful, but we're still going to miss it.

The awning of a Souplantation restaurant, circa 2007. (John Lambert Pearson/Flickr Creative Commons)