Remembering Bay Area suburbs’ fanciest buffet: Fresh Choice

If you grew up in the bay area suburbs in the 1990s, you probably remember Fresh Choice.

I do. It was my favorite restaurant in the world. For much of my childhood, it was my go-to birthday dinner. Fairfield didn’t have many places that felt opulent, but when I walked into Fresh Choice I felt like a fucking Tudor.

My hometown Fresh Choice was sleek white with a long salad bar in the front. I still remember the warmth of the moist beige trays stacked at the top of the salad bar. You’d take one, and a thick plate, and start piling on the veggies (but not too much, because a world of carbs awaits). At the end of the salad bar was a puddle of dressings, inevitably spilled all over the place no matter how carefully you squint, and the cashier. My dad would present a coupon cut from a shipper (remember that?), and we’d be on our way to bottomless soups.

It wasn’t until I became an adult that I learned that Fresh Choice, which felt as ubiquitous as the neighboring McDonald’s, was a short-lived phenomenon in the Bay Area. The chain was founded in Sunnyvale and, despite my loyal patronage when I was 10, never really made a big splash financially.

The first Fresh Choice opened in the Cala shopping center in 1986. It was born in the age of diet food and jazzercise. Unlike other buffets, Fresh Choice did not serve heavy protein. There was the marquee salad bar, low fat soups, muffins and a pasta station with a handful of noodle types and sauces. “That kind of fare attracts well-to-do yuppies and aging baby boomers who promise to cut meat and fat from their diets,” restaurant analysts told the Oakland Tribune in 1993.

The original Sunnyvale Fresh Choice was a smash hit, with queues regularly stretching out the door during peak meal times. Exuberant about their concept, the team behind Fresh Choice began the rapid expansion that would soon become their downfall. He opened more than two dozen new stores throughout Northern California and in the early 1990s even had a public stock offering. In 1993, he took the $20 million raised and invested it in expanding into the Seattle and Dallas markets.

“These cities promise a lot of the ‘high-tech’ type customers that Fresh Choice restaurants are serving in the Bay Area,” the Tribune wrote at the time.

A Bay Area retail analyst has raised concerns. “I just wonder if once you saturate the West Coast, are people in the Midwest going to eat at a salad bar?” Tom Mudge told the Fresno Bee. “I’m just not convinced. It seems geared more towards the granola crowd.



There was at least some truth in Mudge’s mistrust. In 1995, the booming restaurant chain was already experiencing its first closures; that year, it announced that 10 Fresh Choice locations would be closing permanently. To combat his struggles, he introduced new items, such as “reggae chicken salad,” which I don’t recall eating or timing as culturally questionable, and… more colors.

“We’re adding a lot more fun and more color,” chairman Bob Ferngren told the Roseville Press Tribune. “It’s 1996, it’s time to change and upgrade.”

Unsurprisingly, this misguided kingpin did little to turn the company’s situation around. Two years later, the San Luis Obispo Tribune reported that few Fresh Choice locations were serving the 575 customers per day it needed to break even. He cited “the poorly executed expansion [which] forced the company to reduce costs and quality” for the fact that Fresh Choice was losing money almost every quarter.

“Now hopes are pinned on a new $2 million multi-media ad campaign that most analysts and outside administrators believe will finally restore Fresh Choice to health,” the newspaper reported.

Unfortunately, my search for said advertising campaign failed, even though I discovered an absolutely unbalanced employee training video from 2006. Apparently, it was common practice to encourage employees to answer the phone not with a “hello”, but with a “Come try our apple turnovers!” »

Fresh Choice quietly folded in 2012, by which time many of its suburban locations had already been vacant for some time. Today, only one still exists – sort of. The Fresh Choice in Gilroy was able to keep the name but moved to private ownership; However, photos on Yelp still show its distinctive Fresh Choice signage. The Fresh Choice in my hometown has become a Bag O’ Crab, perhaps the least appealing name for a restaurant I’ve ever seen.

The change happened while I was in college; I never had the chance to have a last salad for the road. If I ate it today, it would probably be a standard one-note buffet, so maybe those memories are best left hidden in my childhood.

The thing I’m probably nostalgic for, however, isn’t the Italian dressing. That’s the feeling I got as I walked in, coupon in hand, knowing the food was endless. It was that effervescent moment when I felt, just for a moment, opulent.



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