A highly popular Lady Lake restaurant that relies on buffet-style service for its customers has become a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sweet Tomatoes, located at 508 U.S. 27/441 in the Lady Lake Crossing shopping center, had been temporarily closed as the Coronavirus swept across Florida and the nation. But late Thursday the chain officially called it quits because its business model goes against FDA recommendations that included eliminating self-serve stations.
John Haywood, CEO of parent company Garden Fresh, said with Sweet Tomatoes and its sister restaurants in Southern California, Souplantation, based on the self-serve concept of an extensive salad buffet, soup, potato, drink and deserts bars, reopening the eateries simply wasn’t feasible.
The closures will involve 97 restaurants and leave 4,400 workers unemployed. Haywood told the San Diego Union-Tribune that his company had worked for eight weeks to overcome financial challenges facing the chain but in the end it simply wasn’t possible. He said the closures are particularly difficult because the restaurant chain has a very loyal following, which certainly has proven true with the often-packed location just outside The Villages.
On Thursday, a sign on the door of the Lady Lake restaurant still said it was temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 crisis. The Sweet Tomatoes website offered the same message while also promising to update customers when more information about a possible reopening became available.
A decade ago Mark Morse, then serving as chief operating officer of The Villages, asked residents to contact Sweet Tomatoes and convince the powers-that-be at the chain to open a location within the boundaries of the mega-retirement community. Morse was onstage during the annual “Evening with the Developer” when he made the plea to the audience comprised mostly of members of The Villages Homeowners Association. At the time, The Villages and Lady Lake were locked in a heated battle to bring new commercial tenants to the local area.
Morse told the audience that Sweet Tomatoes wasn’t planning to open in The Villages and he implored them to send letters and emails to the president of the eatery’s parent company, Garden Fresh. Those pleas obviously didn’t fall on deaf ears but the company elected instead to place the restaurant just outside The Villages in the Lady Lake Crossing shopping center, where it was believed that their lease payments would be significantly less than if they were on Villages property but the eatery would be close enough to the sprawling retirement community to enjoy business from its many residents.
The Villages brass made a similar plea many years ago to bring a Kohl’s department store to the Buffalo Ridge area where Wal-Mart is located. The effort went so far as to have select Villagers get together and spell out “Kohl’s” with their golf carts for an aerial photo that was sent to the chain’s corporate headquarters. But like Sweet Tomatoes, the owners of Kohl’s shunned Morse and elected instead to also place their store in the Lady Lake Crossing shopping center.