Northern California restaurant chain Fresh Choice, known for its salad buffets and farm-to-fork ideals, has shuttered the last of its stores after failing to appease creditors and overcome a mountain of debt.
But before faithful customers could properly mourn the end of a salad-bar era, Fresh Choice was rebranded and reborn at two Bay Area locations. A few rounds of bankruptcy weren't lethal enough to kill owner David Boyd's mission to prove he could serve up a farm-fresh lunch and turn a profit doing it.
Boyd opened California Fresh, a more a la carte sandwich and salad eatery, in the former Fresh Choice restaurants at Bayfair Center in San Leandro and Vallco Shopping Mall in Cupertino this week. Boyd hopes he can reopen many of the 30-plus Fresh Choice locations under the new name. His plan is to make California Fresh more sleek and customized than Fresh Choice -- he's talking about a menu with baked potatoes with all the toppings, cappuccinos and a wine list. And while customers can buy salads by the pound, forget about the all-you-can-eat buffet -- an outdated and costly menu offering that contributed to Fresh Choice's nose-dive over the past four years.
"It's a terrible thing that happened with Fresh Choice. It's the end of an era," Boyd said. But "I'm doing my best to see if we can resurrect some of the stores."
But bringing Fresh Choice back from the dead will be a messy and trying ordeal. The Emeryville-based company attempted to reorganize after filing for bankruptcy in July -- the second time in eight years it filed for Chapter 11. Boyd, who bought Fresh Choice in 2007, tried to salvage his most profitable stores, but the process dragged on and attorney fees piled up.
"Perhaps they waited too long to reorganize. It was too much to overcome," said Oakland attorney Basil Boutris, who represented Fresh Choice.
With debt mounting, Fresh Choice filed for Chapter 7 -- liquidation -- in November, when Boyd locked up the remaining 20 or so stores.
"I didn't know what I was getting into," Boyd admitted. "I couldn't pull it off at the end."
Boyd says he's working to pay back some of the rent he owes, the bulk of Fresh Choice's economic woes. The company also has tax debt to deal with -- bankruptcy documents show more than $1.7 million in unpaid taxes to the IRS.
Like so many restaurants, it was the recession that started Fresh Choice's downward spiral. And despite its name, Boyd said the restaurant grew stale, and in recent years its customer base became predominately older diners who tended to spend less.
But what customers Fresh Choice had were loyal -- and distraught to hear the company had folded. Readers responded to the news with more than 50 comments on this newspaper's Facebook page, many of them positive and ranging from nostalgic praise for the restaurant's Chinese chicken salad and organic selection, to exclamations of "We need it!" and "I am definitely bummed."
Outside the former Fresh Choice in Walnut Creek on Friday afternoon, a once-bustling spot on South Main Street where patio furniture now lay abandoned, a string of disappointed customers tugged on the locked door before turning around dejectedly and heading to find lunch elsewhere.
Elaine Shingleton and Veronica Gosling met outside Fresh Choice for their monthly lunch date, only to be greeted with a torn sign reading: "Fresh Choice is closed. There is no scheduled date to reopen."
"This is a surprise," Shingleton said. "It hurts."
The longtime friends liked Fresh Choice because they could linger over their salads and talk for hours, said Gosling, a retiree from Orinda. Now, she said, they'd have to find a new lunch spot.
Offered Shingleton, "There's always Panera."
Contact Heather Somerville at 925-977-8418. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.