Buffet chain Souplantation will permanently close all locations because of the financial effects of COVID-19. It is the first national restaurant chain to shutter due to the pandemic.

Parent company Garden Fresh Restaurants, which founded the chain 42 years ago in San Diego, announced last week that its 97 restaurants throughout the country will not reopen. Like all restaurants, Souplantation dining rooms have been closed since mid-March.

The closures will affect 44 locations in California, including those in Palmdale, Valencia, Camarillo and the Porter Ranch Town Center. None could be reached by the Business Journal for comment.

The chain specializes in soup and salad bars and is known as Sweet Tomatoes outside of Southern California. In a statement on its website, Souplantation says it has about 4,400 employees, all of whom will lose their jobs.

To blame for the closures is the chain’s buffet-style service model. The Food and Drug Administration recommended that restaurants discontinue self-serve stations upon reopening, and many states have expressly prohibited buffets from reopening even as they roll back restrictions on restaurant dining rooms and other non-essential businesses. That has left Souplantation in a tight spot.

In an interview with the San Diego Union Tribune, Garden Fresh Chief Executive John Hayward said: “The regulations are understandable, but unfortunately, it makes it very difficult to reopen. … And I'm not sure the health departments are ever going to allow it.”

Souplantation was struggling to stay relevant even before the pandemic. The company filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors in 2016 amid declining foot traffic, and was subsequently purchased by Perpetual Capital Partners, a private investment firm in Washington, D.C.