Why do so many fat people eat at Sweet Tomatoes?

Maybe because it captures so perfectly the schizo American diet psyche. This is supposed to be a salad bar chain, right? But wait! I can waddle down the hot bar and indulge myself on a cup chicken tetrazzini that has 480 calories and 23 grams of fat. And let’s face it, a cup is about half the portion most folks eat.

This is not to mention the baked goods, sweet breads, cheese pizza, cream soups and yes, soft serve.

The use of the verb “indulge” is intentional. The word bounces into view in plus-sized letters on the Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes website home page. You have to wonder if it’s a clarion call to the buffet driven among us: “Come on in. Don’t be afraid. You’ll be able to eat all the fattening stuff you want; but you’ll be able to say you went to the salad bar restaurant!”

On the website’s nutrition link is the laudable mission statement: “We’ve always believed that eating fresh, healthy, wholesome food is an important part of leading a well balanced life. Farm fresh. Made from scratch. In fact, our restaurant was founded on this very idea!” (Bold the company’s, not mine.)

But what’s with all the fattening stuff then, even on the tossed salads menu? Easy. Sweet Tomatoes is a business, and noble deeds don’t always pay the bills.

In the 1980s, I covered the restaurant industry as a business reporter for a newspaper. One of the big stories I followed was the birth of a chain called D’Lites in Atlanta. I lived in Wichita, Kan., at the time, the heart of the Pizza Hut empire, and read with great interest about D’Lites. My interest was partly professional, partly personal. I was just a few years out of college, no longer walking to classes and beginning to feel that mid-20s bulge.

D’Lites was the creation of another young guy who apparently was fattening up nicely. His name is Doug Sheley. At 36, the former small college football player owned 18 Wendy’s franchises and, oddly enough, a health club. In a Time Magazine interview in 1983, he said he’d gotten the idea because “Every time I walked into the health club, somebody would say, ‘How many calories in your Frosty, Doug?'” (This was before chains disclosed such things; the answer is 340 calories and 9 grams of fat for a medium.) The chain featured healthy and light meals. Sheley envisioned it as a McDonald’s for the leg-warmer generation.

By 1987, D’Lites was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy court. And Doug Sheley? I found him commenting on a Facebook page devoted to the noble idea that failed. He says he’s been approached by folks who would like him to revive the concept. “Never know what might happen with our society getting educated on how important nutrition is for our lifestyles and health,” he concludes, clearly wistfully.

Was D’Lites merely ahead of its time, or too monastic in its approach. I never had the pleasure of eating at a D’Lites, so I can’t say for sure.

But I do understand why the folks at Sweet Tomatoes are not content to trod that same path to the poorhouse. They’ve decided to provide the options, leaving it up to us to decide responsibly.

I was responsible up to a point. I had salad with positively gray grilled chicken breast, no croutons or cheese and the fat free Italian dressing (surprisingly good, I thought). But I did have to take about a half-cup of a sweet broccoli salad and grabbed one 4-inch piece of foccacia on my way toward the door.

Life’s a compromise, I suppose.