Pandemic victim Sweet Tomatoes is planning a comeback

The buffet salad chain has signed a lease to reopen in Tucson, Ariz., in a former location. It remains to be seen how the brand will adapt to the post-pandemic era.

Sweet Tomatoes is reopening in this Tucson location, which was one of the most successful in the state, pre-pandemic./Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

In what could be a final indicator of the return to pre-pandemic normalcy, it appears Sweet Tomatoes is planning a comeback.

The buffet salad-bar chain—known as Souplantation in California—that once boasted close to 100 units, was one of the more comprehensive casualties of the Covid shutdown. Then-parent Garden Fresh Restaurants filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy and the dual-named chain was shuttered entirely in 2020, much to the dismay of many who loved the brand’s array of food and variety, particularly families with picky children.

But now, it’s back. Well, at least one unit will reopen.

A company identified only as ST Three LLC has signed a lease to reopen a former Sweet Tomatoes location, with plans to revive the brand. According to landlord CBRE, ST Three LLC has purchased exclusive rights and all intellectual property, and has “retained operators with decades of experience at Sweet Tomatoes to revive it,” CBRE said in a press release.

A Sweet Tomatoes operated in the 7,000-square-foot building from 1996 to 2020, and according to local reports, nothing else has opened there since. Renovations are expected to take several months.

It’s not clear who is behind ST Three LLC, or when the company acquired the brand’s assets.

According to the ongoing bankruptcy of Garden Fresh, all trademark assets of the Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation brand were acquired by Sahara Capital Partners in 2020 for about $775,000.

Sahara Capital Partners has proven equally difficult to reach.

According to The Arizona Republic, Sweet Tomatoes’ COO is Mike Malone, who per his LinkedIn profile, spent three decades with Garden Fresh before the liquidation and was vice president of operations. He joined the new Sweet Tomatoes as COO starting in September 2022.

Malone did not immediately respond to requests for more information.

It remains to be seen whether Sweet Tomatoes will follow the same format, with its all-you-can-eat salad bar, as well as soups, fresh breads, desserts and soft-serve ice cream. Tucson was selected to test the brand again because of the buffet brand’s popularity there. Of nine locations in Arizona, it was one of the most successful.

Other buffet concepts have also found new life in the post-pandemic era, though most have adapted to new realities.

Chains like Pizza Ranch have adapted by adding features like drive-thru windows and virtual brands, as well as focusing more on off-premise business. Similarly, Golden Corral is enjoying same-store sales increases and is developing a new prototype for growth. The pizza-buffet chain Cicis has had success with the addition of video games.

No doubt many will be watching this test case for brand resurrection as it comes to fruition.

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