Childhood memories from Souplantation

Image: My last trip to Souplantation in 2016

Today we learned the news on California-based buffet Souplantation that’s been simmering for years.

The soup and salad chain announced Friday they would permanently close all restaurants due to difficulty meeting new health safety guidelines amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Founded in San Diego in 1978, the restaurant concept took off and expanded, with 97 locations at the time of their demise.

It was a long time coming; the restaurant filed for Chaper 11 bankruptcy in 2016, seeing a loss of revenue as buffet restaurants lost steam in a time when consumer spending and health consciousness was increasing.

Everywhere except the Southern California, the restaurants were called Sweet Tomatoes. As a young adult, I often thought how only in a region so far removed from the bitter history of the South could one get away with a restaurant name containing the word “plantation.”

As a child, I didn’t think about the name, but rather, all the hallmarks, both good and bad, of a family outing to Souplantation.

Mom would always have a coupon, good for a certain amount off someone’s meal. My brother and I brought our Souplantation plastic branded cups, which were good for free drinks of any type, from soda to iced tea and milk.

“They’re still around,” my mom said of the cups when I spoke with her on the phone.

First, we went through the salad bar, where my parents loaded up as my brother and I impatiently waited to arrive at the soup station. A notoriously picky eater, I craved the chicken noodle soup with thick egg noodles and generous hunks of chicken. Sometimes we would head to the table to drop off one plate of food, only to return once the bakers brought piping hot sourdough bread from the oven.

Whatever table the waiter brought us to, my parents always insisted on a booth. When we’d eaten our fill of entrees, which usually consisted of bread and pizza for my brother and I, it was time for dessert.

The soft-serve machine was the stuff of dreams for any kid. Chocolate syrup, crushed Oreos, M&Ms and nuts sat in dishes nearby. Sometimes we’d use the soup bowl to make a bigger sundae.

If we were lucky, the waiters often brought around fresh baked chocolate chip cookies for the table. My mother would sometimes spirit a few away into plastic baggies for later.

On the 30-minute drive home, I would usually fall asleep, waking up once we turned down our street. I’d still pretend I was asleep when my dad tried to get us out of the car, knowing he would carry me to bed.

At the Tustin location we went to when I was younger, there was a balloon man named Freddie who would make animal creations for the children. Yes, a balloon man.

One time, we celebrated my grandpa’s birthday at Souplantation. I don’t remember it, but my mom says she’d had a song written specially for him, and the management played it over the loudspeakers inside the restaurant.

A transplant from the Midwest, my mother’s first time to Souplantation was in the late 80s. She was always a fan of their salad bar.

When we were a little older and caught up with sports, my mom often picked up takeout containers of soup when someone was sick or craving the soup we all loved.

The last time I ate at a Sweet Tomatoes, or even lived near one, was four years ago, at the end of my college years. I wanted to introduce my roommate to the comfort food that marked my childhood.

A few times since, I have thought of going. The closest restaurant was in the suburbs of Atlanta, nearly a four-hour drive. I didn’t make it, but wish I had now.

I never knew so many people had similar memories tied to Souplantation before the announcement of their closing, but a quote from the blog LAist sums up the appeal:

“Planning a family dinner for a dozen people from age 8 to age 80? Need a lunch spot to satisfy a bunch of coworkers with diverse dietary preferences? Tired of preparing food for a whiny eight-year-old who can’t be bothered to sit through a meal where you have to look at a menu, place an order and wait for food? Souplantation had you covered.”

Though I carry markedly different dietary preferences into adulthood, I’ll always feel nostalgia for the restaurant that defined a simpler era of my life.


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