No more Souplantation for you?

Escondido Promenade Souplantation at night.

It’s almost too easy to go Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” as in no Souplantation for you.

Rancho Bernardo-based Garden Fresh, owner-operator of Souplantation, is closing 20 to 30 of its 123 restaurants in 15 states as part of a reorganization caused by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Delaware.

Rest assured lovers of the all-you-can-eat soup and salad self-serve eatery with outlets at Escondido Promenade along with North County Square at Vista, Rancho Bernardo, Encinitas and Carlsbad. Local restaurants will continue with business as usual, according to company officials.

Company officials said no California restaurants would be affected, saying, “our Souplantation restaurants throughout Southern California have historically been significant contributors to the company’s financial performance in its 38-year run.”

The company received the court’s approval to close 20 restaurants immediately, including its stores in Utah and Kansas City, as well as multiple locations in Chicago and Dallas. Part of the reason for the bankruptcy, according to bankruptcy court filings was that the chain expanded too rapidly to places that were too far flung for efficient operation.

The Chapter 11 bankruptcy came following an unsuccessful attempt to sell the the company that was millions of dollars in debt. Company officials said they would continue to seek a “sale of the business to second lien lenders.”

Company debt was estimated as around $10 million. Officials said they expected to emerge from the Chapter 11 process by Dec. 5.

Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp. is the official name for the venerable buffet chain whose headquarters are at 15822 Bernardo Center Dr. Some of its Souplantation  restaurants also include the Sweet Tomatoes name, especially outside of California.

The first Souplantation opened at the Granville section of San Diego in 1978, It expanded in 1986 throughout Southern California. The company went national in 1990, starting with a Sweet Tomatoes outlet in Palm Harbor, Florida.

Garden Fresh issued public stock in 1995 and expanded en masse before being taken off the market and back into private ownership in 2004. It reorganized upper management drastically in 2012, replacing its  founder and CEO Michael Mack.

Souplantation, Del Mar re-opening 2013

Souplantation, Del Mar re-opening 2013

Chief Executive John Morberg was handling damage control this week. He said Garden Fresh will operate “our business as usual,” adding, “By improving our capital structure through this restructuring, we’ll be able to accelerate the changes underway to refresh our restaurants and build a strong future.”

In an affidavit released earlier this week, Morberg blamed the business’ overall cash-flow problems on declining sales, cost increases, higher minimum wage requirements, more expensive employee benefit plans and rent hikes.

Revenue at the nation’s top buffet chains has tumbled over three years, according to industry analysts. Brands such as Golden Corral, Souplantation, Sweet Tomatoes and Sizzler generated $3.8 billion in sales in 2015, down from $4.1 billion in 2013, according to Chicago-based market research company Technomic.

In 2011, the company experimented with fast-food-style salad bars. But that format didn’t last as Garden Fresh called off the experiment. A” Discover Fresh” campaign emphasizing farm-to-table foods in 2015 also failed.

In early 2015, the company said January same-store sales increased chain-wide by 5.5 percent, with refreshed stores in Southern California showing a “strong” 8 percent increase.

Alas, that was not enough to stave off the bankruptcy wolves.

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