Carmel Valley Souplantation the first of many to see renovation, menu additions

By Claire Harlin

Believe it or not, it can be a little challenging for a restaurant to have a loyal customer base. Or so says Tammy Bailey, chief market officer for Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., which operates nearly 130 Souplantation stores.

“People almost love it too much,” she said. “They don’t want it to change.”

While many have grown up creating their own fresh salads and indulging in fresh-baked muffins at their local Souplantation — and they like it just the way it is — the brand is still due for an update, said Bailey, and Garden Fresh executives chose the thriving Carmel Valley store, located at 3804 Valley Centre Drive, to be the first of many to undergo what they call a “freshlift.” On Feb. 19, the store closed its doors and brought in crews for two days, working around the clock to implement sweeping upgrades that customers have been enjoying since the store reopened on Feb. 22. And on Feb. 28, the eatery will hold a formal grand opening event, featuring samples of new menu items, a live cooking demonstration, live music and gift giveaways, with 10 percent of sales that night benefiting the Boys and Girls Club of San Dieguito.

Souplantation’s loyal customers may remember the traditional, black cafeteria-style dishware, laminate tables and booths divided by tall glass partitions. Now, the Carmel Valley store is sporting modern stainless steel dishware, contemporary wood tables, open spaces and communal eating areas for those dining solo or looking for a social experience.

The restaurant’s outdated style hasn’t prevented customer retention — more than 1.5 million guests are in its loyalty club database — but Bailey said the company wants to pull in more new customers.

“It’s an interesting dilemma,” said Bailey. “Many people come in six or seven days a week because there’s an abundance of choices and you can have a different meal at the same price every day. But we want to do what we do even better to bring in more customers while not alienating our current ones.”

After conducting a number of extensive surveys and focus groups, Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp. found that the needs of two types of guests in particular were not being fulfilled — those looking for a hearty protein-filled meal, and those looking for a healthy lean protein to round out their meal. So the company installed a station that serves marinated beef and chicken kabobs hot off the grill for an upcharge. Bailey said this feature allows guests to add healthy meat to their meal if they wish, but doesn’t force the vegetarians to subsidize it.

Another striking menu change — pending current permit approval — at the Piazza Carmel location will be the addition of local beers and wines to the menu. Bailey said she hopes that feature will also bring in new customers who would have previously sought out an eatery with a bar.

Bailey said that a major emphasis of the renovation is communication with the customer — taking down obvious labels that used to clutter the buffet lines and adding only minimal signage when positive communication is necessary, such as letting the customer know a food is organic or locally sourced. While Souplantation has always been dedicated to buying local, that aspect was not communicated for years.

“It just wasn’t trendy at the time,” said restaurant spokeswoman Katherine Randall.

Bailey said another major effort is to appeal to the senses, and customers may therefore smell the bread baking more often or see fresh rosemary sprigs adorning their table. And those after-dinner “cookie runs,” in which employees bring customers fresh-baked cookies to their table, won’t be going away, even though a few new dessert options will be added to the menu.

The employees of the restaurant, which opened its first store in San Diego in 1978, are also sporting a new shirt, which reflects the message that the store hopes to achieve with the “freshlift” — “fall in love with Souplantaion all over again.”

“As a mom, I know that Souplantation is a great place for kids to try new, healthy foods with low risk,” said Bailey. “We have a big family focus and people in Carmel Valley are representative of our future guests …. This is the flagship, and we are hoping to expand changes across the entire company.”

For more information about the event on Feb. 28, contact, and for more information about the company, visit