The prototype - unveiled with the opening of a Chula Vista, Calif., Souplantation - will feature a contemporary "farmers market" look with a barn-like facade and open rafters and an industrial design inside."We wanted to more effectively impart a cleaner, fresh-from-the-field image," said Michael Mack, chief executive of San Diego-based Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., which owns the Souplantation chain.
Missing will be the somewhat institutional, cafeteria ambience that still marks the company's 97 other Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants.
Privately held Garden Fresh, which did $245 million in sales last year, said the new design also will appear at two Sweet Tomatoes stores set to debut in the next few months in Arizona and Florida. The company plans to open at least four outlets in fiscal 2007, all of which will be stamped with the down-home theme.
The Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants - characterized by salad, soup and pasta bars as well as baked goods - are in 15 states in the West, Midwest and South.
Restaurant analysts said the new look - which took more than two years to design and execute - will help move Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes away from the dated buffet look, exemplified by the HomeTown Buffet chain, and firmly plant it among casual-dining competitors such as Applebee's, Baja Fresh and Panera Bread.
Souplantation's all-you-can-eat, fresh-food format will remain intact.
"It will still be self-serve but feel more like a full-serve restaurant," said Robert Sandelman, a restaurant consultant at Sandelman and Associates in San Clemente, Calif.
"The farmers market approach reinforces the impression that (Souplantation's) food comes right off the farm," he said.
The Chula Vista restaurant, for example, is in stark contrast to the cafeteria style layout of the typical Souplantation, where diners are greeted at the door with two long self-serve buffet lines. Customers in Chula Vista will be greeted by a receptionist and can peruse a detailed menu board before grabbing a plate.
Replacing the decor of finished wood and solid surface countertops are earthy materials such as stone or industrial accents in anodized aluminum. The exposed wood-beam ceiling has dropped lighting, and the windows are high - reminiscent of barn windows.
The open, sprawling design - there are virtually no walls in the core interior - will give customers a view of staff members in the kitchen and bakery preparing made-from-scratch items, as well as a look at the dining room as they spoon helpings of Won Ton Chicken Happiness from the buffet. All of the food stations are centralized in front of the restaurant and removed from the seating area.
The sparse interior decoration includes bright wall prints of tomatoes and blueberries, as well as such strategically placed wall messages such as "From nature, to us, to you."
Mack said the new look was put together in-house, with suggestions from many of the company's 5,000 employees. The company would not discuss redesign costs.
The redesign was accomplished despite Garden Fresh having gone through two ownership changes in the past three years. Sun Capital Partners, a Boca Raton, Fla., investment group, paid $198 million in October to buy the company from a partnership of Centre Partners Management, Fairmont Capital and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance. That partnership had purchased Garden Fresh two years earlier for $140 million.
Mack said Sun Capital has maintained a hands-off policy. "They've been very, very supportive (and have) left the operation and execution of the business to us," Mack said.
Garden Fresh was founded in 1978 by partners Ron Demery, Steve Hohe and Dennis Jay, who opened their first two soup-and-salad bars in San Diego. The outlets, emphasizing the attributes of a fresh-vegetable, whole-grain diet, were immediately successful.
In the early 1980s, word of the chain's growth reached Mack and Tony Brooke, who were Boston-based management consultants. After sampling the food, the pair quit their jobs and moved to San Diego with the idea of studying the Souplantation concept.
Mack and Brooke bought the company for a bargain $2.2 million. Mack has remained with the company through the years and seen its audience gradually diversify.
"Our typical customer used to be a well-educated female in her mid-40s," he noted. "Now, there's more of a balance between male and female, and the average age is down to people in their 20s and 30s."