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  1. Opinion

Sweet Tomatoes and the death of the American dream

Stephanie Hayes | Mourning the simple pleasure of the salad bar.

Remember how it felt to exit a Sweet Tomatoes? To find the strength to walk to the car? Man, that place would wilt a human being quicker than a head of lettuce on a stove top. It was glorious.

But now it begins, this phase of the virus that chips at our ways of life. It was oddly emotional to hear all 97 Sweet Tomatoes nationwide will close. The owners could not find a way forward. As a result, 4,400 people are out of jobs, and we will never again teeter to a table with a pyramid of salad on a tray.

I’ve eaten myself stupid at nearly every Tampa Bay Sweet Tomatoes. Growing up, we went after church or school, crumpled up coupons from the circular in hand. It was an affordable place to get really full, really fast. Even now, we took my stepdaughter at least once a month. She would scan the room and lock eyes with the other children being forced to eat spinach before going hard on the soft serve.

All kinds went to Sweet Tomatoes. Strip club impresario Joe Redner. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor. Police on dinner breaks. Little leaguers. Seniors. Fitness fanatics. Children of immigrants have been singing its praises on Twitter since the news, holding it up as a restaurant where their families felt comfortable.

The Palm Harbor location opened in 1990, the first Florida iteration of California chain Souplantation (a very bad name). Our food critic at the time aptly described the interior as “Thousand Island pink and green.” The walls these days were papered with photos of farms and fields, as if we weren’t sitting alongside U.S. 19.

The premise was health, but the truth was gluttony. First, a “salad” piled high with rotini, croutons, tuna tarragon, potato salad, Joan’s Broccoli Madness, ladles of honey mustard, shredded cheddar, bacon crumbles, boiled eggs and whatever else could fit on that unfeeling plastic plate.

Then, because you had eaten so light, you could move on to pizza, focaccia, chicken noodle soup, baked potatoes, chili, macaroni and cheese, muffins, bread and brownies. And since no meal is complete without dessert, you’d visit the ice cream machine and choose swirl — it had to be swirl.

The salad bar at Sweet Tomatoes. [Times (1999)]

Buffets are not an American invention, but they are American at heart. They symbolize consumption and choice. They require no compromise, no need for détente between Aunt Shirley and Uncle Joe who has recently gone keto. Enter for a fee and have anything you want. The food may be bland, but we have an implicit right to blandness.

Losing buffets feels like losing a rowdy cousin. But how can a concept that requires grabbing the same spoon and plunging it into communal food exist in a post-coronavirus world?

The buffet is seen inside the Palm Harbor Sweet Tomatoes Tuesday. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

Consider the Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Jamaican family buffets. Golden Corral, Old Country, Cicis. Bagel and waffle stations at hotels. Birthday burger bars, open house cookies, office cakes, tubs of movie popcorn, wedding carving stations.

Current state guidelines say salad bars and buffets should use sneeze barriers and have staff members handle utensils, among other routine suggestions. Maybe there’s an innovative way to make it work. Maybe not.

A cup is seen on a table inside the Sweet Tomatoes in Palm Harbor Tuesday. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

If this virus has taught us anything, it’s how to pivot. We will adjust what it means to be us, even if it requires giving up warm blueberry muffins spread with honey whip butter, creamy dredges extracted from a tiny paper cup.

But one more bite would have been nice.

Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes

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