By Tin Terashima
YOUR JOURNEY ALWAYS BEGAN with grabbing an oddly moist tray before shuffling into position at the enormous salad bar. Huge bowls–filled to the brim with Caesar dressed salads–lined the counter, flanked by an army of bins teeming with carefully shredded vegetables and fixings.
You probably just dumped a bunch of boiled egg choppings onto your plate. This is a buffet, baby–cholesterol is the name of the game.
Next was the checkout counter where a bored employee was ready to take your credit card (or cash–you folks still exist?) in exchange for your ticket to food paradise. You had a coupon, because you ALWAYS had a coupon to Souplantation (or Sweet Tomatoes, but I grew up with Souplantation, so let’s stick to that for this piece). To go without one would be unthinkable. I hope you never did.
Finally, like Peter opening the gates of heaven, you were allowed to step onto the main dining area, and there it was: huge vats of soup. Tubs of mac and cheese–so dangerously fake in its orange-ness yet so dangerously delicious in its simplicity. Warm bread and thin pizza fresh from the oven and steaming with carbo-loaded goodness.
And all that’s not even mentioning the dessert station. Or, honestly can be boiled down to, the soft-serve ice cream station. Because come on, man, who goes to a buffet to eat JELLO or fruit?
The place made you feel like that scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory where the kids were frolicking in the Candy Gardens with the chocolate River. Well, I mean, maybe if the candy was actually cheap pseudo-Italian food and canned soup. But hey, you still went all Augustus Gloop on that stuff. Admit it.
Truly a wonderful dining experience–but also one we could never imagine these days.
As it turns out, it’s one that may only stay in our imaginations for the foreseeable future, for Souplantation was among one of the many business casualties that COVID-19 brought. When the pandemic first started getting bad in America, the chain would temporarily close its restaurants due to obvious health concerns inherent in the buffet business model (let’s be real, here–other folks never were as clean as we would have liked them to be). That temporary closure would end up being permanent in the face of a mismanaged pandemic response and a virus that wasn’t going away anytime soon. In mid-May, the company would file for Chapter 7 liquidation. In the process, Souplantation flipped all our table cards from “I’ll Be Ripe Back!” to “See You Next Thyme!”.
The death of Souplantation, and yes, also Sweet Tomatoes, is a sign of the changing times. We still don’t know the long term effects that COVID will have on society and culture at large. Will people continue to wear masks when it’s over? Will the handshake ever return? Hard to say, but I do think that buffets will have an uphill battle trying to convince future customers that they can maintain a safe and sanitary environment post-pandemic.
But maybe its death came at the right time. For one, there is no shortage of criticisms about the chain’s cringeworthy name that evokes images of slave-holding plantation owners in the Pre-Civil War South.
There has been a growing movement in the food and activist world to get companies who profited off of racially insensitive products, like Uncle Ben’s Rice or Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, to re-consider and re-contextualize their brand imagery. While there have been some victories regarding companies casting away their racist names and mascots (especially in the wake of the George Floyd protests), it hasn’t been without resistance.
For many, the word “plantation” doesn’t evoke memories of a brutal racist system but rather nostalgic imagery of the gentlemanly South. A two-part episode of “The Sporkful” explored this mindset and how it propagated to the point where Souplantation somehow became an acceptable name for a suburban family restaurant.
So maybe it’s good Souplantation is gone. No longer will we have to deal with the company’s unavoidable racially charged name. But on the other hand, maybe they got out easy: they never had to suffer a public reckoning like other brands had to. They just faded into bankruptcy, never having to face the music.
While there have been efforts to change the name of the restaurant in the past (notably right before its IPO), the switch to the Sweet Tomatoes name seemed more like a cynical business move than a justice-based decision, as this Funding Universe article describes:
Most drastically, Bifone convinced the company to change the name of some of the restaurants to ‘Sweet Tomatoes’, particularly those which were being introduced outside the San Diego area. The name ‘Souplantation’, Bifone felt, was too similar in sound to ‘Soup Exchange’, and did not emphasize enough the chain’s focus on salads and other products.
And look, I used to love Souplantation as a kid. The little flowery journey I embarked on at the start of the article was very much written based on my fond memories of eating there with my family. But as time went on, I found myself liking it less and less; it just seemed like cheap food you stuffed into your face out of obligation to get your money’s worth rather than an enjoyable meal. And really, I think what happened was that I just grew up. The world changed, and I changed with it.
And here, the world changed, but Souplantation couldn’t.