Remembering the best buffet in the Bay Area suburbs: A fresh take

If you grew up around the Bay Area in the 1990s, you probably remember Fresh Choice.

I do. It was my favorite restaurant in the world. For most of my childhood, it was my first birthday meal of choice. Fairfield didn’t have many places that made you feel rich, but when I walked into Fresh Choice, I felt like a damn Tudor.

My hometown Fresh Choice was bright white with a long salad bar out front. I still remember the warmth of the wet beige trays piled atop the salad bar. You’d grab a thick plate and start piling on the vegetables (but not too many, because there’s a world of carbs ahead). There was a puddle of dressing at the end of the salad bar, which inevitably spilled everywhere no matter how carefully you poured it, and the cashier. My dad would present a coupon clipped from the mail (remember those?) and we went for bottomless soups.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that Fresh Choice, as ubiquitous as a nearby McDonald’s, was a short-lived Bay Area phenomenon. The chain was founded in Sunnyvale and never really became a financial sensation, despite my loyal patronage as a 10-year-old.

The first Fresh Choice opened in 1986 in the Cala shopping center. It opened in the age of health food and jazz music. Unlike other buffets, Fresh Choice did not serve heavy proteins. There was a marquee salad bar, low-fat soups, muffins and a pasta station with a handful of noodle varieties and sauces. “Such fare attracts wealthy yuppies and aging baby boomers who have vowed to cut meat and fat from their diets,” restaurant analysts told the Oakland Tribune in 1993.

The original Sunnyvale Fresh Choice was a rousing success, with lines regularly stretching out the door during peak dining times. Excited about their concept, the team behind Fresh Choice embarked on a rapid expansion that would soon become their downfall. It opened more than two dozen new stores throughout Northern California and even had an initial public offering in the early 1990s. In 1993, he took the $20 million he had raised and invested in expanding into the Seattle and Dallas markets.

“These cities promise the large number of ‘high-tech’ customers served by Fresh Choice restaurants in the Bay Area,” the Tribune reported at the time.

A Bay Area retail analyst pointed to his concerns. “I wonder if you feed the West Coast, will people in the Midwest eat at the salad bar?” Tom Mudge told the Fresno Bee. “I’m just not sure. It seems to be aimed more at the granola crowd.

There was at least some truth in Mudge’s caution. By 1995, the thriving restaurant chain was already experiencing its first closures; announced the permanent closing of 10 Fresh Choice locations that year. To combat his struggles, he introduced new ingredients like culturally questionable food or “reggae chicken salad” I don’t remember the time, and … more color.

“We’re adding more fun and more color,” President Bob Ferngren told the Roseville Press Tribune. “It’s 1996, time to change and improve.”

Not surprisingly, this ill-advised pivot did little to change the company’s fortunes. Two years later, the San Luis Obispo Tribune reported that several Fresh Choice locations were serving 575 customers a day. He cited “poorly executed expansion.” [which] forced the company to cut costs and quality,” Fresh Choice was losing money practically every quarter.

“Hope now rests on a new $2 million multimedia advertising campaign that most analysts and outside directors believe will finally bring Fresh Choice back to health,” the newspaper reported.

Unfortunately, my search for the ad campaign in question came up short, though I did discover a 2006 employee training video. It seems that employees do not say “hello” to the phone, but “Taste our apple turnover!” it was standard practice to encourage them to respond by saying

Fresh Choice quietly folded in 2012, by which time most of its suburban locations had already been vacant for some time. Today, only one still exists – one of a kind. The Fresh Choice in Gilroy got to keep the name, but went into private ownership; Photos on Yelp still show its distinctive Fresh Choice sign. The Fresh Choice in my hometown was Bag O’ Crab, perhaps the least appealing name for a restaurant I’ve ever seen.

The change happened when I was in college; I didn’t get a chance to eat one last salad for the road. If I were to eat it today, it would probably be one-note, standard buffet fare, so maybe it’s best that those memories remain in my childhood.

It’s probably not Italian clothing that I feel nostalgic about. It was that feeling I walked in with coupon in hand knowing the food was endless. It was that hot moment when I felt rich for a moment.

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