Souplantation, Sweet Tomatoes get new CEO

Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes

The new owners of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes have entrusted the chains’ turnaround to chain veteran and comeback specialist John Haywood.

The 53-year-old alumnus of Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana has assumed the CEO’s post at Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp. from Gene Baldwin, who had been serving on an interim basis since the company was sold last month to Perpetual Capital Partners and CR3 Capital for an undisclosed amount. Baldwin is a part of CR3.

The two private-equity firms had acquired Garden Fresh just seven months after the concern was bought as part of its emergence from bankruptcy protection by an affiliate of Cerberus Capital Management, the one-time owner of Chrysler. 

The deals have cleansed Garden Fresh of considerable debt and a number of bad leases. Souplantation features an all-you-can-eat spread of fresh produce and center-of-the-plate items. The concept operates under the name Sweet Tomatoes outside of its home base of Southern California.

Haywood comes to the job with two decades of experience in restaurant-chain management, most recently as an interim CEO or CMO for chains being revived by private-equity firms.

Earlier, he served as chief concept officer and CMO for what was then the Hispanic division of Carrols Corp., Burger King’s largest franchisee. The operation consisted of Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana, quick-service concepts that both specialized in Latin-flavored cuisine.

They were subsequently spun off into a freestanding company called Fiesta Restaurant Group, where they are currently the focus of a two-pronged turnaround effort.

Haywood also assisted in the launch of Bobby’s Burger Palace, the fast-casual concept of celebrity chef Bobby Flay, and served as an interim CEO of Don Shula’s, the steakhouse chain.

The California resident is one of the few restaurant-chain CEOs to rise to that level with a culinary background. Haywood is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

“John is the perfect guy to take our unique brands to the next level,” said Baldwin, who remains a director of Garden Fresh. “He has a keen understanding of consumer insights, culinary trends, and operations management in addition to the financial acumen it takes to succeed in today’s challenging environment.”

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