New York City in December is a magnet with its museums, theaters and urban attractions decked out for the season. In less than 3 hours, the Amtrak train was a pain free way to travel south the 140 miles along the Hudson River from my hometown of Albany in upstate New York to meet up with a friend for lunch in the big Apple and a matinee of Waiting for Godot, with Ian McKellen as Estragon and Patrick Stewart as Vladimir. (The stars would play for laughs and win the affection of the audience, as they awaited the arrival of a mysterious Godot in Beckett’s post-apocalytic world.)
To meet for lunch at Sweetgreen’s newly opened location in Manhattan before the show was an easy decision. It was an unhurried walk from Penn Station, through Macy’s flagship store at Herald Square (which sadly has been tarted up in a $400 million dollar renovation in 2012 that has erased the beauty of its formerly elegant high-ceilinged, street-level floor), out to Broadway and then seven short blocks south, along a not yet gentrified section of the fabled avenue, to Sweetgreen’s first restaurant in New York City. A couple of months ago on a visit to Washington, D.C., I was bowled over by the excellent Sweetgreen “Seasonal Salad,” described on the menu as “crafted each month with seasonal ingredients from farms nearby,” at the chain’s Bethesda location. I looked forward to sharing this praiseworthy fast food operation with a Gothamite, who is a connoisseur of Manhattan dining, at Sweetgreen’s new Manhattan location.
Edible and healthy fast food is almost always a contradiction in terms, but the Chipotle chain and now the growing Sweetgreen operation is requiring me to rethink the possibilities of this American phenomenon. With a bagged lunch prepared at home of, say, peanut butter and honey on whole grain bread, a piece of fruit, and a water-bottle of excellent Albany tap water, I avidly avoid fast food. But not this day, and Sweetgreen came through with flying colors.
At 12:45PM on a Wednesday afternoon, a line of nearly 100 people went out the door demonstrating that Sweetgreen has found a recipe for a successful fast food operation. The line moved fast, service was friendly, and with many bagging up their lunch for take-away, we found a table for ourselves in the not-too-noisy and surprisingly stylish space.
Like my earlier visit to the Sweetgreen branch in Bethesda, I ordered the “Seasonal Salad” (which changes each month and is made with “seasonal ingredients from farms nearby” ). This time the seasonal salad ($9.00) boasted warm quinoa grains atop the local ingredients of roasted cauliflower (perfectly and lightly flavored with curry), arugula, cilantro, dried cranberries, and roasted chicken. A dressing of cucumber, basil yogurt accented the wonderful ingredients without overpowering other tastes. (I passed on the option of adding sriracha, a hot chili sauce, to the salad.) I also enjoyed a seasonal lentil soup, which was nicely flavored with turmeric and pepper, and included chickpeas which added a heartiness (and extra protein). My lunch companion thoroughly enjoyed his Misoba Signature Salad ($8.85) consisting of organic mesclun with soba noodles, avocado, raw corn, carrots, raw seeds (organic flax, sunflower & sesame) and cilantro and topped with a miso sesame ginger vinaigrette. With his more adventuresome tastebuds, he opted for a squeeze of sriracha, the hot chili sauce.
Sweetgreen offers seven other “Signature Salads” as well as custom made salads. The easy-to-order-from menu specifies a choice of 6 “bases” for the salad: arugula, mesclun, baby spinach, chopped romaine, shredded kale or warm grains (quinoa and farro). Options for add-ons to the “base” include dozens of vegetables, nuts, cheeses, as well as chicken, shrimp, eggs, bacon, tofu, and falafel. A chalk board listed local farms and specified the seasonal ingredients available on the day of my visit. Of note, Migliorelli Farm, the source for apples and cilantro used at the Manhattan location, has implemented a comprehensive integrated pest management system (IPM) to “drastically reduce” the use of pesticides on its crops grown on its farm in Tivoli (Dutchess County, NY). Coach Dairy in Ghent (Columbia County, NY), “faithful to the traditional methods of the French farmstead cheese maker,” was listed as the source of the restaurant’s artisinal goat cheeses, and upstate New York sources were also noted for kale, sweet potato, cauliflower, maple syrup, and honey. Many ingredients were designated organic on Sweetgreen’s menu including arugula, mesclun, baby spinach, basil, cilantro, carrots, broccoli, spouts, black beans, chickpeas, quinoa, soba noodles, roasted tofu and flax seed; much appreciated. Maria Rodale’s passionate Organic Manifesto has convinced me that, in her words, choosing to eat organic foods is “not a fashion or lifestyle choice but a responsible health and environmental choice.”
In addition to salads and soups, Sweetgreen also offers wraps, yogurt and organic juices. My friend enjoyed a bottle of Sweet Green’s 100% organic pressed juice of apple, ginger, grapefruit, romaine, mint, bok choy and chard. This healthy concoction could empower Popeye for days, in lieu of his typical helpings of spinach.
Greg Lafauci, the personable manager of the Manhattan Sweetgreen location, showed pride in his company’s commitment to sourcing “local and organic ingredients from farmers we know” and its focus on sustainability. For example, Sweetgreen uses 100% plant-based compostable packaging for its bowls, cutlery, and beverage cups. According to Mr. Lafauci, Sweetgreen has plans to add four additional stores in New York City as well as additional stores in the Boston area, where it now operates one store in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston. (Other Sweetgreen restaurants are located in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C.) Founded in 2007 by three Georgetown University graduates, Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru and Jonathan Neman, Sweetgreen recently captured the eye of investor Stephen Case, who founded AOL. On the New York Times’s Deal Book blog, William Alden in “Revolution Fund Invests in Sweetgreen Salad Chain,” reports that Mr. Case has announced an investment of $22 million in the business. Mr. Case is not simply a smart investor: his financial support of Sweetgreen meshes well with the Case Foundation’s focus on corporate responsibility and investing in “people and ideas that can change the world.” Sweetgreen’s success in the Big Apple seems certain.
[Sweetgreen (Manhattan), 1164 Broadway (between W28th & W27th Streets), 646.449.8884, Salads, Wraps, Soups, Yogurt & Organic Juices: Mon-Sun 10:30AM-10:00PM http://sweetgreen.com]
(Frank W. Barrie, 12/18/13)