It’s been ten years since the fast food “farm-to-table” chain Sweetgreen opened a location in Manhattan in 2013, and this day-tripper to the Big Apple enjoyed a delicious “Seasonal Salad” soon after its opening. That quick and easy (and healthy) lunch at Gotham’s Sweetgreen location required some “rethinking” of the post-World War Two American phenomenon of “fast food” started by McDonald’s.
Users of this website know that we’re big supporters of the Slow Food movement. And this local and organic food advocate carefully avoids patronizing any of the 201,865 “fast food restaurants businesses” in the United States (as of 2023) other than Chipotle.
But as noted in the review of lunch at the Sweetgreen in Manhattan back in 2013, this fast food business with its “commitment to sourcing ‘local and organic ingredients from farmers we know’ and its focus on sustainability” had prompted a change in tune.
Just before the pandemic changed life in America, in a post dated November 18, 2019, we noted the expanding possibilities for healthy and locally sourced fast food as Sweetgreen added locations nationwide.
Back in 2007, three graduates of Georgetown University in Washington, DC founded Sweetgreen and opened its first location in that historic and trendy Georgetown section of the capital. Six years later as Sweetgreen opened its first location in Manhattan in 2013, the business was also operating fast food restaurants in Maryland, Virginia Pennsylvania, and several in Washington, DC.
And in November 2019, a couple months before the pandemic struck America in early 2020, Sweetgreen was operating over 100 locations in the United States including 29 in New York City (27 in Manhattan and 2 in Brooklyn), 21 in California (in the Los Angeles metro and San Francisco Bay Area), 19 in Washington, DC, 13 in Massachusetts (in the Boston metro area), 8 in northern Virginia, 5 in Pennsylvania (in the Philadelphia metro area), 5 in Illinois (in Chicagoland), 4 in Maryland (in the DC suburbs and one in Baltimore), and 1 in Houston, Texas.
In November 2019, during a trip to California to celebrate the wedding of the daughter of a close friend, Sweetgreen’s Berkeley location was the perfect destination for a delicious salad for lunch. As in all Sweetgreen locations, a chalkboard in the Berkeley Sweetgreen specified the farmers we know & partners we trust as the sources for its food. Dozens were named and a particular listing on the chalkboard bore an asterisk if the ingredients were “organic.” It was also noted on the chalkboard that Sweetgreen “ingredients are organic and locally sourced wherever possible.”
In that period before the pandemic struck, in late 2019, in addition to the rapidly expanding number of Sweetgreen restaurants, the healthy fast food chain had successfully rolled out a delivery program called Outpost that delivers customized orders to kiosks located in corporate headquarters, WeWork locations and places like Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art and the Bloomingdales flagship department store for their employees only.
An article on this creative delivery program by Alicia Kelso, Sweetgreen Pilots No-Fee Delivery Service to Corporate Offices (9/18/18) in Forbes, quoted Jonathan Neman, one of the three founders of Sweetgreen and its CEO, as saying the fast food chain’s aim is to get to more than 2,000 in place by the end of 2019.
But the pandemic had a surprise for many of the “best-laid plans of mice and men” (in 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns’ words) including Sweetgreen.
Earlier this year in an article by business reporter Sarah Kessler in the New York Times, Shift to Remote Work Puts Pressure on Chains Like Sweetgreen (1/19/23), it was reported that Sweetgreen’s “stock has fallen more than 60 percent (emphasis added) in the past 12 months.” Kessler noted that “the effect of the shift to hybrid working practices” and in the words of Sweetgreen’s chief financial officer, the “erratic urban recovery” had resulted in a decline in earnings. And last year, Sweetgreen laid off 5 percent of its work force. Kessler also spotlighted “inflation” which “is also making its already premium-priced salads even more expensive, pushing the cost of a Cobb salad to around $14 in Manhattan.” (But in the case of fast food salads, it must be said: “you get what you pay for!” )
Nonetheless, Kessler noted that “analysts are still bullish on the company because it has moved to build digital sales and loyalty.” According to her reporting in the New York Times, “60 percent of Sweetgreen’s orders were made through online channels, compared with 37 percent at Chipotle and about 40 percent across Yum Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, etc.), and Sweetgreen is piloting a subscription service.”
The extraordinary expansion of Sweetgreen from one location in the Georgetown neighborhood established by three recent college graduates was the result of the capital investment of $22 million by Stephen Case and his Revolution Fund. And the focus on the ups and downs of its stock price makes it seem that Sweetgreen’s founders might be on a Starbuck’s type path, with the potential negatives that result from becoming too big. (Note well our pride in supporting community-based artisanal coffee roasters who mindfully source their coffee!)
Nonetheless, on a recent visit to the Washington, D.C. area, we made an effort to lunch at the Sweetgreen location in the Georgetown neighborhood, just a few blocks from its original location where three college graduates began the business. And the Sweetgreen “Harvest Salad” remains a delicious and healthy fast food meal!
(Frank W. Barrie, 3/10/23)