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Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes are closing all locations, as the coronavirus pandemic threatens to destroy buffets and salad bars' already shaky future

  • All 97 locations of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes are permanently closing amid the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • The number of buffets in the US has plummeted in recent years, as customers' tastes have changed. 
  • The coronavirus is expected to be a final blow for many buffets and salad bars, as new safety standards roll out across the US, and restaurants increasingly rely on to-go sales to survive. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Garden Fresh — the parent company of regional salad bar chains Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes — is permanently closing all locations, as the coronavirus pandemic makes it increasingly difficult for buffet-centric restaurants to survive.
All 97 locations of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes will close permanently, Garden Fresh CEO John Haywood told media outlets on Thursday. The restaurants last served customers in March, when they closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Haywood told Restaurant Business that Garden Fresh plans to file for federal bankruptcy protection, telling the publication that the company did not "see a viable way to reopen."
Business Insider's Irene Jiang recently reported that the coronavirus pandemic might be the final blow for many buffets.
The number of buffet restaurants decreased by 26% from 1998 to 2017, even as the overall number of restaurants in the US grew by 22%, according to The NPD Group. A number of buffet chains have filed for bankruptcy over the last decades as customers' tastes change. With the coronavirus pandemic, the bulk of restaurant sales are now to-go orders — something that is incompatible with the buffet model.
"One theme that restaurant owners and analysts have repeated to Business Insider throughout this crisis is that the pandemic is speeding up trends that were already starting to take hold slowly," Jiang reports. "These trends — towards increased online ordering, food delivery, cashless payments, off-premise dining — largely leave the buffet format in the dust."
Haywood told the Los Angeles Times that recommendations from the FDA, such as discontinuing self-serve stations, made it impossible for Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes to survive.
"The regulations are understandable, but unfortunately, it makes it very difficult to reopen," Haywood said. "And I'm not sure the health departments are ever going to allow it."
Souplantation and the two private equity firms that acquired Garden Fresh out of bankruptcy in 2017 — Perpetual Capital Partners and CR3 Capital LLC — did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment.
On social media, many mourned the loss of the iconic salad bar chains.

"We have hundreds of dollars in untouched gift cards that we purchased in December," one person commented on Souplantation's Facebook page. "At a loss... we love Souplantation and also do not wish to lose all this money. Heartbroken!"

SEE ALSO: Buffets were already on their way out. The coronavirus pandemic may have dealt them a final blow.
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