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souplantation

I have been a loyal customer of Souplantation since 1985, when I first moved to San Diego. When I raised my kids, we were a family of four, and we would eat at Souplantation every other week or so. Sunday afternoons at Souplantation were some my favorite outings for dinner. Frequently I would do lunch, and I would always seek out Souplantations while on the road in California. You might say I have always been an ardent follower of their brand.

Over the last year or so I found myself not enjoying the experience as much as I used to. I could not put my finger on the reason, I just felt that it was not what it used to be.

I am a CEO, and I know that customer service is critical in any business. If I had a 30-year customer that was drifting away because of the quality of my product, I’d want to know. So I decided to write to the CEO.

A few days later I received an email from his assistant, inviting me to lunch with him at — you guessed it – the Souplantation. Last week was our lunch meeting at the Rancho Bernardo location.

He gave me a tour of the restaurant. For 45 minutes he and the store manager walked me through the entire salad bar and we discussed many of the items. Then on to the soups, the breads, the pastas and the desserts. I learned so much about their business, their mission and their vision, I can’t list it all here.

Souplantation is a “farm to table” restaurant. He talked about the various local farmers that supplied the restaurants. For instance, his supplier of broccoli has to ship several acres of broccoli every week. This requires timed planting and growing of the plant in a staggered fashion, also taking into consideration the seasons. In the summer, it takes 43 days (if I remember the number correctly) to grow a plant. In the winter it’s 90 days. I can’t even imagine running a farm that can harvest a number of acres of broccoli every week, just to supply one restaurant chain.

He knows his suppliers. He pointed out the lettuce and told me it was no more than two days old, picked in Yuma, Arizona “the day before yesterday.” Every items is much fresher than it would ever be in a grocery store. We talked about raisins, sunflower seeds, cauliflower, and blueberries used in the muffins. All the dressings are homemade per their own recipes and only remain in the bar for a few days.

Getting to know the food, the supplier processes and the preparation methods first-hand from the CEO of the company opened my eyes — and taste buds. I can assure you that I have never had a better-tasting Souplantation meal in my life than I did after this tour. The bread was fresh and chewy, the produce hearty and flavorful, and the soup delicious.

I also learned that they have 124 restaurants in 15 states. See the map on their website. There are over 6,000 employees. Only in Southern California the stores are called Souplantation. In all other places  they are called Sweet Tomatoes. The reason is that in the South, the word “plantation” has an undesirable connotation. That had never crossed my mind, but then again, I am a Southern Californian.

So what was it that caused me to be dissatisfied in the first place? They were minor issues, and mostly related to challenges the restaurant has with specific items. For instance, I complained about the quality of their chicken noodle soup. It turns out that the chicken noodle soup is the single most difficult item to keep fresh in the restaurant. Once they put out a pot, it can be “bad” within ten minutes. He said that in some areas, where there is a significant Asian population, they tend to scoop off the broth to drink it, and leave the ingredients in the pot, causing a thick layer on the bottom and making the “soup” too dry for others. In other restaurants, people tend to stir the soup and fish out the chicken, leaving thin content of noodles floating in broth. Since the noodles are home-made, they tend to break up quickly when stirred a lot by the fishers and – alas – bad soup in the pot.

Another item I had complained about was the sourdough bread, one of my favorites. It turns out that bread is one of the few items that they don’t bake themselves, but buy already made. Sometimes it lies under the warming light too long and gets stale.

I don’t want to belabor my complaint points, but I found out that the items I had issues with were the more challenging ones to maintain, and the restaurant management knows it. The solution is for the customer to speak up. If the soup is no longer good, let the attendant know, and they will always refresh it, and bring a bowl to your table. If the bread is stale, ask for fresh. The restaurant walks a thin line of balancing between wasting good food by throwing it out too early, and upsetting customers by leaving marginal items on the counter too long. Their muffins are only good for about 20 to 25 minutes, so if they don’t get eaten, they need to decide whether to leave them and risk complaints, or waste them by throwing out 25-minute-old muffins.

The answer: Communicate with the staff. They want us to be happy.

I am sure not every complaining customer gets a two-hour tour and lunch from the CEO of the company, but I did, and I can tell you, it made a huge difference to me, I learned so much, I appreciate the quality of the food, and I am incredibly impressed by the commitment to customer service of the Souplantation.

I am ready to go back!

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