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News / Business / Clark County Business

Sweet Tomatoes may beef up its menu

Vancouver location offered meat items for free as part of trial run

By SHELBY SEBENS for The Columbian
Published: March 30, 2016, 5:24pm
3 Photos
A sign notifies Sweet Tomatoes guests about that the Vancouver restaurant is a test site for adding meat items to its menu (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)
A sign notifies Sweet Tomatoes guests about that the Vancouver restaurant is a test site for adding meat items to its menu (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Vancouver’s Sweet Tomatoes restaurant on Wednesday became a test kitchen for the California-based chain’s trial run of new meat sandwich and entree options aimed at attracting more new and repeat customers to the all-you-can-eat venue.

The company’s one-day offer of free food brought out a large crowd of eager diners. Customers lined up along the salad bar brimming with broccoli, shredded cheese, assorted greens and more just 15 minutes after doors opened at 11 a.m.

Known for its offerings of fresh fruit and vegetables, Sweet Tomatoes is studying how its customers will respond to meat options.

“We wanted to try and give them a chance to try some new offerings,” said Josh Clark, the company’s director of business development, who was working the lunch hour behind the restaurant’s focaccia station.

The new options, which also include combos, will stick around in Vancouver for a while and could spread across the Portland region if they go well. The menu in Vancouver could also be added to or changed, Clark added.

“It’s basically going to be driven by what our guests want,” he said.

John Morberg, Sweet Tomatoes’ CEO, said in a phone interview that the company conducted focus groups in San Diego before bringing the test to Vancouver. Sweet Tomatoes’ parent company, Garden Fresh, operates 124 company-owned restaurants in 15 states.

“We found over and over again that the opportunity to have animal-based proteins was very important to our guests,” he said.

Morberg, whose uncle lives in Boring, Ore., said the Portland area’s reputation as a great food market was one reason for choosing it as a test location.

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“I just think there are really foodie-type folks up there,” he said. “It gives us a good indication of the offering we’re providing.”

Until now, the company has focused mainly on soups and salads with meat protein in some of the soups and focaccia but not as a central focus of a dish.

“We never wanted to create a buffet like Hometown Buffet where you have a lot of protein sitting under heat lamps,” Morberg said.

The new menu instead lets customers pick sandwiches or entrees that are cooked to order and can be ordered as a combo where they pick two for $9.99 or three for $12.99, choosing from the salad bar, soup/dessert/pasta bars, entrees and sandwiches. The salad bar alone is $7.99, or $8.99 with soup, bakery, pasta and dessert bars.

Sweet Tomatoes fans found the free food offer irresistible. The restaurant at 12601 S.E. 2nd Circle opened at 11 a.m. and by 4:30 p.m., it had served more than 500 guests, with a line outside the door and some entrees no longer available.

Even before the official lunch hour, about 150 people had entered the restaurant.

“This is a nice crowd,” Jim Ruggiero, the company’s guest relations manager, said as he quickly greeted and sat families, couples and people of all ages.

Customers’ reactions

As customers made their way through the service line, cashiers asked what they would like to try and how much they would like to donate as an optional contribution to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., As of 4:30 p.m., the restaurant had raised more than $3,300.

Ron and Sarah Rippey of Vancouver had never been to Sweet Tomatoes but Ron Rippey got an email about the event and the couple decided to try it out. They had eaten at the chain’s sister restaurant, Soup Plantation in San Diego.

“So far, I love it. Everyone has been really friendly,” Sarah Rippey said. “The salad bar was beautiful. It was like a work of art.”

The couple tried roast beef and salmon and liked it. Other guests agreed.

“I’m glad they’re finally adding meat,” Kathy Schue of Vancouver said as she ate lunch with her friend Kathy Gardenhire of Gresham, Ore. “There have been times when I don’t come because they don’t have meat.”

John Kujatla and Edward Day eat lunch at Sweet Tomatoes every Wednesday and prefer to just stick with the soup and salad bars.

“Some people like sandwiches. We just like to eat the soup and salad,” Day said. But, he added, he was OK with the menu change as long as it doesn’t up the price of the salad bar.

Company officials said the salad bar prices have not and will not change.

Morberg said the company will evaluate how the test is going at the Vancouver restaurant over the next 90 days and go from there.

“We’re very excited about the test. We’ll learn a lot here very soon,” he said.