Souplantation will not be reopening due to the COVID-19 regulations--By Polly Fitton
A place to study, a place to celebrate with friends, a place to share a family meal, or a place to consume bowl after bowl of macaroni and cheese… however you remember it, Rancho Bernardo’s community has shared a love for Souplantation since it opened in 1978. After 42 years of enjoying family-friendly buffet-style meals, however, Souplantation has announced its permanent closure due to COVID-19 restaurant regulations.
Before the devastating strike of the outbreak, Garden Fresh Restaurants had experienced three consecutive years of increasing guest counts and was planning to remodel all locations as well as build two to four more units by 2021. Known throughout the rest of the country as Sweet Tomatoes, Souplantation has taken a hit from the nationwide Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommendations that buffets, salad bars, and self-serve restaurants be discontinued due to COVID-19. As of May 7, all 97 units of Souplantation, including the 44 units in California, have announced their permanent closure.
Director of Operations David Hayes joined Souplantation at age 15 during the construction of the first unit on Mission Gorge road. From washing dishes as part of the original restaurant staff to becoming a general manager at age 22 and eventually managing 11 restaurants before the closure was announced, Hayes is the only employee to have stayed with the business for all 42 of its years.
“It was just a company with great values,” Hayes said. “We treated people with respect, and we treated people with kindness when they needed it… And I truly believe it’s the reason why we stayed in business for 42 years where other restaurants that are similar to us didn’t survive.”
Chief Executive Officer John Haywood joined Souplantation in September 2017, just after it was purchased by the private investment firm Perpetual Capital Partners (PCP). Based in Washington D.C., the firm purchased the company after it had managed to survive bankruptcy in 2016. Now facing unavoidable closure, Haywood has been forced to file for bankruptcy and sell the company’s intellectual property.
“One of the greatest highlights was the number of highly tenured and very passionate team members,” Haywood said. “I’ve worked among a number of hospitality companies. This one had more highly tenured and passionate ones than any other brand I’d worked with… Second is that we had really passionate and loyal guests who were very excited about the brand and had a real emotional connection.”
Haywood, having worked in the restaurant industry for 35 years, has been called a “turnaround specialist” by PCP due to his reputation for fixing businesses that are struggling. In the three years that he spent with Souplantation, Haywood focused on having the technology and systems of every unit replaced as well as remodeling buildings and equipment that had suffered from a long period without investment.
“You can fix a restaurant company financially, but it will just get in trouble again if you don’t really get the guest experience right,” Haywood said. “That was a lot of our focus, reinvesting in our people, fixing up our equipment and buildings, and really focusing on improving the guest experience.”
Along with the tough parts of the job, Haywood appreciates his employees and customers for their loyalty and support. With Rancho Bernardo being the closest location to Garden Fresh Restaurants’ corporate office, the community became a highly valued part of the company’s time in business.
“It’s always been a special location,” Haywood said. “I know how much the community really supported it, so I definitely want to thank all the families and the community of Rancho Bernardo for the many years of support… For children and young adults, it was a place they could go where they could kind of do their own thing… It was kind of a bonding thing.”
General Manager Tami Henderson has been with Souplantation for 27 years total, 17 of which she worked in Rancho Bernardo. Despite the challenges of her job such as managing cost margins, Henderson will miss all of the guests as well as the close community feel of the restaurant.
“It was the best place to work ever,” Henderson said. “We had the most amazing leadership in our company… I’m really going to miss all of the guests that grew up in our restaurant.”
As we say our final goodbyes to our beloved Souplantation, it is important to look to the future while still filing away some fond memories of the past. Many citizens of the Rancho Bernardo community can recall a favourite food from the salad bar and buffet: for Haywood it was the mushroom soup, and Henderson preferred the chicken noodle soup. Hayes favoured the salads when he began his journey with the company, but his all-time favourite is a combo of chicken noodle soup with cream and mushroom.
The future is uncertain for many restaurant businesses, but one thing is for certain: our community will miss the loving atmosphere that Souplantation spread during its 42 years in business.