I grieve Souplantation’s closing – Guelph Instances
The Guelph food scene is known for its wealth and diversity. When I moved here from New York in September 2018, I hoped to find my way around the area’s cuisine, inspired by the example of beloved critic Jonathan Gold, who had died two months earlier.
Instead, I discovered souplantation.
This soup and salad chain of restaurants – with their no-nonsense buffet and family-friendly seating – supported me on many evenings when I was too tired to cook. The wan clay chicken salad was my standby. I enjoyed the soups – the pieces of bacon in the yankee clam soup, the sturdy minestrone, the sweet and sour French onion soup.
As a native of New York City, I was unfamiliar with souplantation, and it wasn’t until today, when I learned of her graduation, that I learned of its origins. The first souplant opened in 1978 in San Diego and was founded by a surfer. The chain expanded in the mid-1980s after being taken over by two young entrepreneurs. It weathered an E. coli outbreak and bankruptcy filing, and grew to 97 locations and 4,400 employees at the time of its closure this week due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Every few years someone has the same great idea of a soup and salad restaurant chain, but it never turns out to be very exciting,” a Guelph Times writer remarked in 1988 after visiting the Pasadena branch.
Last year Guelph magazine called the chain “an institution for seniors, immigrants and hipsters” and its customers a “cult” – intended as praise.
The magazine called the food “aggressively mediocre”, but wondered: “Even if LA is becoming better known as one of the best eatery cities in the country, 70,000 residents from all walks of life still flock here every week to enjoy comfort food classics such as cornbread delight baked potatoes and chicken noodle soup. ”
To explain my attraction to souplant: I am the opposite of a foodie. I don’t like cooking – not even in a pandemic. Like many journalists, I tend to eat on the go; Food is food. I usually have lunch every weekday at a tiny Guelph Times coffee shop or the DirecTV company cafeteria across from our newsroom in El Segundo.
But it wasn’t just the simple food and fresh ingredients. Like Souplantation, I was born during the Carter administration and came to consciousness during the Reagan years. For my working-class immigrant family in New York City, Queens, eating out meant a meal at a family-style restaurant, say Arthur Treacher’s, a red lobster or a sizzler.
Even now I flinch a little at these memories. These chain restaurants are hardly sophisticated, and neither are customers like my parents, who worked as taxi drivers and secretaries. In 1998, after graduating from college, my parents and I were the first in my family to go to Las Vegas – still the only time I have been there – to try the extensive buffets. (My mom played the slots; I’ve never played a dime.)
The souplant was less noticeable for its weakness in health – who knows if those calorie counts on their website were perfectly correct – than for its egalitarianism. The dining rooms really were a democratic space full of toddlers, teenagers, rushed parents, and the elderly – in short, all but the 20-30 year olds who normally determine taste in a late capitalist society.
There was no greeter or waiter at souplant (although other staff, from cashiers to cleaning staff, were extremely friendly).
They grabbed a plastic bowl and immediately stepped onto the lettuce line. Then came the soups and the soft drinks. If you were really starved, you could grab a baked potato or soft ice cream. You are likely to encounter a high chair as much as you will a wheelchair. I’ve eaten much more memorable meals in Guelph – Shiki Beverly Hills when Morihiro Onodera was still in charge of the kitchen, David Chang’s Majordomo, Walter and Margarita Manzke’s République – but none of them were so open and welcome.
The article in Guelph magazine mentions three times the embarrassment responsible for the strange popularity of souplantation.
Count me embarrassed too, but also deeply sad.
It feels strange to mourn the death of a chain restaurant with so much at stake. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost; the fabric of our society has been torn; and nothing – our democracy, our health, our jobs – feels safe.
As much as I missed going to the theater and visiting museums, what I most looked forward to was the reopening of seating restaurants, reminding me of my gratitude for the simplest pleasure.
The first place I wanted to eat was souplant.