Business Overview (Introduction)
Garden Fresh, originally founded as Souplantation Incorporated, was started in 1978 by Michael Mack, a San Diego businessman who, while possessing little background in the restaurant industry, saw great potential in the development of a fast-food chain with a health-conscious twist. Souplantation presented itself from the beginning as an affordable, healthy alternative to other chains, with prices kept well below the cost of a more traditional restaurant meal. It was not only low prices which initially drew customers to the business: Souplantation also offered a tremendous variety of condiments, vegetables, soups, and breads, all of which were laid out on two long buffet tables. During the time Souplantation was founded, 'all-you-can-eat' buffets were becoming increasingly popular, and the restaurant took advantage of this trend by offering its own version: for a fixed price, a customer could without limit choose as many meals as he or she desired, with the added incentive that, unlike more traditional buffet restaurants, what was being offered was beneficial to the customer's health.
The idea took off, and Souplantation in the 1980s began to grow rapidly in the San Diego area. The restaurants featured two buffet tables of approximately 55 feet in length located at the center of an open dining area. The company's attempt at uniformity in its look and quality was necessary to establish customer recognition and loyalty, especially as other, similar chains began to establish themselves during the course of the decade.
Competition became increasingly intense in the 1980s, as what the local San Diego papers referred to as the 'soup-n-salad' wars began to heat up in southern California. California consumers were among the first in the nation to popularize health food trends and, with that region's notoriously frenetic lifestyle, it was natural for that trend to be tied to fast-food and takeout restaurants. By the middle of the decade, San Diego had three chains competing against one another, with each offering similar fare at similar prices. The companies Soup Exchange, Fresh Choice, and Souplantation found themselves in a neck and neck battle for customers, and had to find some way in which to distinguish themselves from one another.
In response to the threat of Soup Exchange, a regional franchise, and Fresh Choice, Souplantation tightened its focus on its menu selections, concentrating primarily on salads and soup. While Fresh Choice and Soup Exchange experimented with other menus and pricing systems, Souplantation kept its fare and price packages simple and uniform. The company maintained such basic simplicity in its menu in an effort to refrain from confusing customers, with the notion that reliability and quality would win out over novelty. The strategy proved sound, as Fresh Choice's stock began to tumble at the end of the decade, and Soup Exchange, after revamping its image several times, saw its sales plummet.
In 1990 the company took the drastic step of bringing in a new CEO who would have enough experience and understanding of the restaurant industry to turn the company around. After an extensive search, Souplantation finally brought in industry veteran John Bifone, an executive who had in the past year turned the 160-unit chain of Bojangles restaurants from a doomed company losing $9 million a year to one that was back in the black by over $1 million in 1989. Bifone had positive instincts about the company's future, saying to the San Diego Business Journal soon after taking over that 'What I really liked about the business was that I thought the Souplantation concept was a brilliantly positioned concept for the 90s and the turn of the century.
Immediately upon taking the helm of Souplantation, Bifone began to systematically alter some of the more glaring problems at the company. First, he increased the company's focus on making its locations more uniform in appearance and quality. During the company's expansion at the end of the 1980s, some of its sites had, due to poor or misguided management, grown sloppy in their appearance and menu preparation. Bifone solved this issue by instituting a new training program whereby all Souplantation employees were given instruction over everything from food presentation to sanitation, with the most important emphasis being quality control and keeping each Souplantation location similar to the others.