Earlier this month, buffet lovers mourned the loss of Sweet Tomatoes (or Souplantation, as the chain is known in Southern California), which permanently closed all of its restaurants due to financial pressures caused by COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, America’s buffet industry was already in dire straits. With diners flocking to more Instagrammable and health-conscious alternatives, many of the best-known chains — from Ponderosa to Hometown Buffet — have filed for bankruptcy and cut locations over the past decade.
Coronavirus might just be the final blow. After all, a self-serve, all-you-can-eat restaurant can’t easily transition to takeout and delivery, and most states, from Georgia to California, have told restaurants to discontinue self-serve food areas even after stay-at-home orders loosen. Speaking to the San Diego Union-Tribune, John Haywood, the CEO of Sweet Tomatoes’ parent company, wondered whether, moving forward, “health departments are ever going to allow” the model of service his restaurants were built on. It’s hard to imagine any buffet surviving in this environment.
The loss of these buffet chains hits especially close to home for a somewhat surprising group: Asian Americans from the suburbs of Silicon Valley, for whom these chains were a nexus of community and an unusual yet reassuring escape.
I grew up in Cupertino, a city with Apple’s headquarters and a population that is 63 percent Asian American (as of the 2010 census), during the 2000s. Beef noodle soup, refreshing naengmyeon, and delectable dosas were all minutes from my childhood home. Yet, every weekend, my Taiwanese-American family would drive 20 minutes to eat mediocre “American” food at our nearest Hometown Buffet, in San Jose. (After it closed in 2012, our weekend family dinners moved to the Sweet Tomatoes in Santa Clara.) On every visit, I’d fill at least three plates with rubbery mac and cheese, cancerously charred steak, and other not-so-gourmet favorites. A bowl of jaundiced chicken noodle soup would come after, topped off with a snickerdoodle surreptitiously swiped for tomorrow’s breakfast.
When meeting with other Taiwanese-American families with kids my age, my parents would almost always pick Hometown Buffet as the venue, and I’d regularly bump into friends from weekend Chinese school and my all-Chinese/Taiwanese Boy Scout troop. Why was this the case? In a heavily Asian community like Cupertino, “American” (aka “white people”) food seemed like a relative novelty.
My upbringing felt closer to “Bobalife” than Fresh Off the Boat. When I brought dumplings to school, other Asians would beg me to share — I never remember white classmates making fun of their smell. Nevertheless, the America I saw on TV still ate roast beef and apple pie. That made Asian kids like me curious. Buffet restaurants became a way for our parents to satisfy that curiosity in a palatable, reliable, and cost-efficient manner.
“Hometown Buffet was the only Western restaurant I could remember frequenting as a younger kid,” says Christie Lin, a Taiwanese American who grew up in Cupertino and now works for a startup in San Francisco. “It’d be inconceivable for our family to go to a New American or French restaurant, where we would have to decide on a single entree to order from a selection of unfamiliar, daunting flavors.”
Hometown Buffet, on the other hand, was like “Panda Express for non-Asians,” Lin says: “Its food had little personality and there were an infinite number of alternate dishes, so it was safe to eat. [It] was less like a representation of American dream, and more like a digestible version of America.”
Jamin Shih, a lecturer in critical race and ethnic studies at UC Merced, concurs: “There’s a safe boundedness to the buffet in a similar way that we might think of a theme park,” Shih says. “There’s variety, but it’s contained, and even picky eaters will eventually find something they can eat. Unlike a traditional sit-down restaurant, there is little risk of wasting money on an unfavorable dish, and that opens the possibility of trying something new in a low-stakes setting.” Because of this, buffets hit a sweet spot for Asian-American families who want to explore a sense of “Americanness” through food.
“To paraphrase Elizabeth Adams [a CSU Northridge professor who has researched buffets], the buffet is the meeting ground of the familiar and the foreign, the safe and the exploratory,” Shih says. “For many Asian-American immigrant families, the buffet allows children to indulge in copious amounts of pizza and hot wings, while Grandma can still eat her crab legs.”
Besides providing a “digestible version of America,” buffets like Hometown Buffet and Sweet Tomatoes filled another psychological need for second-generation Asian kids like me. In many of our communities, success tended to exist along a narrow path. I’d joke with friends that we had four career options: doctor, lawyer, engineer, or failure. It often felt like personal agency was in short supply, sometimes with tragic consequences.
The abundance of (mostly mediocre) choice that buffets embodied provided an escape from the high-pressure, exceptionalism-centered environments in which many of us grew up. We had far more than four options for dinner at Hometown Buffet, and nobody would scold us for picking spaghetti over mashed potatoes.
“I sometimes wonder if there’s a correlation between my continuing love of buffets and the fact that I’ve tended to choose less conventionally ‘Asian’ paths through life,” says Jordan Li, a 23-year-old Taiwanese American who studied military history in college and plans to become an Air Force officer. Li frequented both Hometown Buffet and Sweet Tomatoes during his childhood in Milpitas. “As cheesy as it sounds, at a buffet, I can be my true self.”
Sadly, future opportunities for Li to be his “true self” at buffets are looking grim.
When Sweet Tomatoes closed, my phone lit up with messages from friends lamenting the news — and wondering which of our other favorites might fall next. With no end in sight for the coronavirus pandemic, more buffets may follow Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation into permanent closure. Hometown Buffet has already culled most of its locations after two bankruptcy filings, and might be the next chain to fold for good. If more buffets shutter, Asian Americans in Silicon Valley — and beyond — will be among the many who lament.
Over the past few years, I’ve regularly recruited Asian-American friends from Silicon Valley to go on buffet nostalgia trips. We’d eat the same rubbery mac and cheese of our youth and bask in the feelings of safety and freedom that buffets evoked. Even as open locations dwindled and food quality deteriorated, we trusted that there’d always be an all-you-can-eat bounty somewhere, as long as you looked hard enough.
But now, reality has struck. Nothing gold can stay — not even the illustrious, all-American buffet.
Anthony Kao is an independent writer and the founder of the film publication Cinema Escapist.