My Obsession with Souplantation

When I was a teenager, my cousin Sunny took me to a Souplantation for dinner, or maybe it was brunch. It was the very first time she and I had a meal together all by ourselves. My parents had always told me Sunny was the epitome of a good daughter, you see, and I was so happy when she asked me out, as if some of her perfection might rub off on me. Or maybe I thought that her asking me to a meal suggested that she thought I was worthy of her company, even though she’d never suggested anything different. (Sunny always believes the best in people. Even as a teenager I understood that.)

I can’t remember what we talked about. I just remember the whole thing felt very adult. Until then, Sunny and I had only ever had meals together when our families were involved — our brothers and our parents all together.

Lunch with Sunny that day was just the two of us, and it became a benchmark of sorts for me: from then on, I could see Sunny as someone I might go out to the movies with, or shopping.

We didn’t ever really do these things together — we may have gone shopping once after that, and I’m pretty sure we never went to the movies— but I always remembered that we went to the Souplantation, and that I had liked it a lot: Big salad bar: you got to go through once and load up your plates. And then endless soups and breads and a softserve machine, if you wanted.

Much, much later, after seventeen years away from California, I moved back with my husband, to be closer to my aging parents. And one day, on the way to some local mountain biking trails, I spotted a familiar sign. “Holy shit, it’s a Souplantation,” I said. “We should go there after our ride.”

We spent three, four hours in the hills that day, and when it was over, we exchanged our bike cleats for some normal shoes and put on clean unsweaty tops and waddled in our bike shorts through the double glass doors. There were 90 Souplantations by then, and I hadn’t been to any in the years between my meal with Sunny and the day I re-discovered it, but I already knew I’d love it just as much as I did before: the bright stainless steel rails for pushing your tray along while you piled up with salad greens, nuts, beans and olives; the little red bowls for scooping soup into; the cozy booths and pale-wood chairs and tables in the sunny dining room.

That day, our legs weary and coated in a fine film of trail dust, we took our time and left feeling full and happy. I left having sampled most of the soups. (The Souplantation’s ladles are three ounces, just right for one or two tastes, and they conveniently label everything with calorie count, so you can be smart about your sampling.) I don’t even know if we hit the focaccia bar or the desserts that first time. Our muscles were depleted, and we were on the hunt for stodgy calories of the cream of mushroom soup variety. My husband sampled the pastas, though. They were, he said, okay.

The next time, we brought friends, and we discovered the dessert bar. Eventually, we started dragging my parents along to one closer to us. (My dad left the salad bar with a plate full of garbanzo beans. And when my mother discovered the baked potatoes and sweet potatoes, well, ‘nuff said.)

There are a lot of reasons for me to like the Souplantation. The people who ran the salad bars and the soup bars were always friendly; the folks who worked the dining rooms work in collared, logo’ed shirts, and they always seemed to be happy to be there. Empty plates and bowls are cleared with speed, and they provide little signs at every table to signal whether you’re all done or you’ve just left to get more.

But when I go there, or think of going there, I’m flushed with a totally outsized sense of anticipation and joy. It’s just a buffet, after all. There’s a lot of iceberg lettuce, and the chicken noodle soup always seems to have more noodle in it than chicken. Overall, there’s way more carb than protein, and I’m the type to always choose toothsome protein over mealy carbs.

Is it the memory of that first meal with Sunny that casts such a warm glow over the Souplantation? Is it the happy servers, the bright layout, the sense of plenty? The newer memory of a hard ride followed by a good meal?

It quite possibly has everything to do with Patrick Warburton’s voiceovers for their radio commercials, or even the friendly, colorful coupons they sent me for 20 or 30 percent off a meal.

Now that Souplantation is another victim of Covid-19, I’ve been thinking that my love for the place has nothing to do with what’s beneath the sneeze guards. I think it has everything to do with the diners around me.

People who go to the Souplantation don’t come by themselves. They come with their families. It wasn’t unusual to see three generations enjoying a meal together. I loved watching people help their kids or grandkids to navigate the soft-serve machine, or pick out some toppings for their potatoes. Or watching kids help their parents or grandparents to ladle hot soup, or slide a warm brownie or pizza slice onto a plate.

People go to Souplantation with their friends. We’ve seen a couple of birthday parties, and some groups that had clearly come straight from church to have lunch together.

You never lack for conversation at a buffet. “Oooh, what’d you get this time?” is always a great segue if there’s some dead space in a conversation. And sometimes, you don’t even have to say anything at all. The noise around you, of people enjoying food and each other’s company, might be enough.

I miss the Souplantation a lot, but it’s not a stretch to say that maybe what I’m mourning the most is the act of communal dining.

When this is over, I’m hosting a big potluck at mine. Sunny and her family are invited, and my parents, and my brother and his kid, and all the cousins. My neighbors will come, and my friends from high school and beyond, too.

And then maybe I won’t miss the Souplantation as badly as I do now.

D&I educator. Author: Pin Ups (9/20). ShelterBox Response Team member. Columnist @The Writer mag.

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