Even in areas where restaurants can reopen, self-serve stations aren’t always allowed.
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The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the American economy is virtually unprecedented, and with the restaurant industry hit especially hard, permanent closures were inevitable—with some experts suggesting the number could be as high as 30 percent. But a recent announcement could prove especially telling—and especially bad—for one particular niche: buffet-style dining. Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes are reportedly planning to permanently shutter all 97 locations.

Souplantation—which operates some locations under the name Sweet Tomatoes—is known for its extensive serve-yourself soup and salad bars. Buffet-style dining made the chain a cult favorite, but as we saw when the COVID-19 outbreak unfolded, self-serve options—whether in-store samples or Las Vegas buffets—where deemed problematic very early on. With government plans suggesting that social distancing will have to continue even once restaurants are allowed to open, buffets appear to have a particularly long road ahead.

Souplantation
Credit: LPETTET/Getty Images

“The FDA had previously put out recommendations that included discontinuing self-serve stations, like self-serve beverages in fast food, but they specifically talked about salad bars and buffets,” John Haywood—chief executive of Garden Fresh, the parent company for the two restaurant brands—said, according to the San Diego Tribune. “The regulations are understandable, but unfortunately, it makes it very difficult to reopen. 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.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, Haywood said that, even in Georgia—where restaurants have controversially been allowed to reopen quickly—Souplantation wouldn’t make the cut. “Among the 39 regulations to reopen was that salad bars and buffets be discontinued,” he was quoted as saying. “All restaurants face an enormous challenge right now. Our challenge is somewhat doubled by the fact that we’re a salad bar and buffet.”

The San Diego-based company’s decision to permanently shut will reportedly cost about 4,400 employees their jobs—an especially disheartening end since the brand had spent the past few years returning to viability after declaring bankruptcy in 2016. “We were growing the number of guests and were in the process of renovating the restaurants with new fixtures, carpeting, signage as late as January. We felt great about it,” Robert Allbritton—chairman of the private investment firm Perpetual Capital Partners that orchestrated the turnaround—told the Tribune. “But I’ve got to tell you, when the virus hit, we went from 100 percent to 70 to 30 to 10 percent that fast, before the restaurants closed down and the company ran out of money in one week.”

Souplantation leaves behind a 42-year legacy. The first location opened in San Diego in 1978.