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A look at Souplantation’s New Express Concept

Buffet chain’s quick-service variant offers à la carte pricing, made-to-order salads

Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp. said customers are reacting favorably to the á la carte pricing at Souplantation Express, a quick–service alternative to the company’s buffet restaurants.

The express restaurant opened Jan. 17 in Carlsbad, Calif., in a 1,500–square–foot space with 40 interior and 30 outdoor seats. That contrasts with the San Diego–based company’s 118 conventional all–you–can–eat restaurants – known as Souplantation in Southern California and Sweet Tomatoes elsewhere – that take up 4,500 to 8,000 square feet and seat from 140 to 230 people. Garden Fresh officials have said the company plans to open four additional Express units within the next 12 months.

Business has been “great and consistent” at the first Express restaurant, where employees behind a food bar assemble salads to order, said Dan Anderson, vice president of business development and supply chain for Garden Fresh, a holding of Sun Capital Partners.

“Guest reactions are positive with the biggest complaint being the salads are too big,” he said. “Some of our most loyal buffet guests have even been pleasantly surprised with the á la carte format because of the increased choices and value.”

Anderson said an average meal at the company’s all–you–can–eat restaurants costs under $10. Customers eating at the one–time–through Express concept can spend from $6 to $15, depending on whether they order a $5.99 salad, which includes focaccia and a side of Joan’s Broccoli Madness, or a $7.99 soup–and–salad combination. Add–ons include beverages for $1.79 to $1.99 or a protein for salads.

The option to augment salads with proteins, including grilled chicken for $2 or shrimp or marinated steak for $3, is not available at the company’s buffet restaurants, Anderson said. Half a fresh avocado also can be added to Souplantation Express orders for $1; á la carte soups are $3.89 for a 12–ounce portion and $4.89 for 16 ounces; and warm cookies are available for 50 cents each or three for a dollar.

For the new Express unit, Garden Fresh worked to create a look that was “familiar and recognizable with our brand,” said Joan Scharff, Garden Fresh vice president of brand and menu strategy. She said the Express design is an attempt to bridge the look and feel of the company’s buffet prototype, which plays off the concept of a contemporary farmer’s market.

“Both used elemental colors and textures reminiscent of nature, the most beautiful fruits and vegetables and the subtle tones of earth, grass and nature,” Scharff said. “Express has a brighter palette, more citrus colors, slightly more contemporary and more whimsical.”

Garden Fresh chief executive Michael Mack has said that the company is looking to the Express concept to give it more expansion options, while leveraging its salad expertise, buying power and central kitchen systems. Outside of Southern California, the quick–service variation will be known as Sweet Tomatoes Express, the company said, with the first such store tentatively scheduled to open in a Las Vegas suburb in May.

The Carlsbad Express unit is located in the Bressi Ranch area, which Garden Fresh said features a mix of businesses and residences, with high traffic at lunch and dinner.

Anderson and Scharff said the Carlsbad Express restaurant is being promoted using local–store marketing outreach tactics, print advertising in local newspapers and through digital means, including e–mail alerts to regional members of the company’s Club Veg loyalty program. The marketing and promotion mix also includes the use of unique Facebook and Twitter channels, they added, with the intent being to ultimately drive sales through social media.