Sweet Tomatoes, the Salad Buffet Restaurant, is filing for federal bankruptcy protection and has permanently closed all of its locations nationwide, blaming the COVID-19 pandemic. Anyone who understands the concept of salad bars and buffets will understand why, but I’ll come back to that.
Sweet Tomatoes was part of a Southern California company called Garden Fresh that also owned Souplantation, which had a similar concept. Most Souplantations were confined to California. In all, the company had 97 restaurants and 4400 employees.
Sweet Tomatoes came into the Central Florida market in Feb. or 1997 with a restaurant on West State Road 436 in Altamonte Springs. It replaced an Indian restaurant called the Taj Mahal. ST opened a second restaurant on Colonial Drive in Orlando, replacing Carolina’s, another buffet concept. At the time of the closing, there were five Sweet Tomatoes restaurants in the area.
In my March 28, 1997, review of Sweet Tomatoes, I noted the price for the all-you-can-eat buffet – $6.09 at lunchtime, $7.19 in the evening – and wrote, “Frankly, I don't see how the company can make any money with those prices. But, heck, I don't own any of their stock, so I'm not staying up all night worrying about it.” (You can read that original review, and the one for Carolina’s, in the Orlando Sentinel archives, but note that the opening paragraph, which begins, “This week, we have a tale of two buffets,” is four paragraphs down.)
Although prices went up a bit over the past 23 years, it was still a pretty good bargain – $9.99 lunch and $11.99 dinner (2017) – to eat yourself silly here. But if low profits had anything to do with the eventual demise of the chain, I feel certain that that its very concept was now considered infeasible. Just think about it: Any setup that involves the use of sneeze guards over the food is not going to be popular for a very long time, if ever again.
Did you ever really trust the sneeze guards at any buffet you ever visited? And even if no one sneezed, we were all picking up and using the same tongs and ladles that everyone else used. Even the most well-tended buffet has always been a potential super spreader.
The post pandemic culinary operation will have no place for all-you-can-eat buffets, at least not self serve. Those restaurants that currently rely on them will have to rethink the business model. Indian restaurants come immediately to mind. It seems almost mandatory that Indian restaurants offer a buffet at lunchtime, even if they are strictly a la carte in the evenings. The only workaround that I can see is for buffets to convert to cafeteria style, where a server, standing behind a full shield of glass, dishes up the foods the customer requests. But it would be OK with me if these glutfests just disappeared altogether.
In announcing the closing on its website, Sweet Tomatoes said that for people holding gift cards, refund options are limited, which is a way of saying a refund is not an option. Card holders are advised to contact the bank or credit card company the gift card was purchased through to perhaps dispute the charge and have it removed.
“Otherwise,” the statement concludes, “ there may be an alternative option available through the court in the future.”
In other words, get in line with the creditors.