Sweetgreen, whose sustainable ethos and quinoa kale bowls have pushed valuation estimates past $1 billion, is technically just a salad chain. But according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, a weeks-old experimental location is supposed to be something much grander: “a cross between an Apple store,” an institution famous for its absence of checkout queues, “and a farmer’s market.”
Here, on Park Avenue South, a patron can order via an app, walk in, approach a giant green shelf system, find their custom $15 Thai chicken bowl, and leave without interacting with a single human. Those ordering at the store, by contrast, will check in with a so-called “concierge” with an iPad, and then wait for salads to appear on shelves. There is no slow moving assembly line where custom salads are painstakingly built in front of patrons, Chipotle-style. There are, however, nice electrical outlets to charge one’s phone, free samples of hummus, a digital message board detailing events with local suppliers (and Andy Baraghani), cushy benches, and two giant selfie mirrors, complete with backwards lettering so it shows up the right way on an Instagram.
It is, in theory, a frictionless culinary experience. But if a regular Sweetgreen is an orderly albeit slow and mundane affair, this incubator location, at peak lunch, channels about as much tech-centric mindfulness and simplicity as Penn Station after a power outage.
Just before 1 p.m. on a recent Monday, a DMV-like line snakes its way through the front of the space as folks wait to speak to one of those tablet-wielding “ambassadors.” This is the absolute opposite of an Apple Store. In the back half of the room, throngs of patrons mindlessly stare at the green shelves, waiting for their food to appear. A digital board shows 60 names waiting for fresh, crisp salads. But unlike restaurants that announce tables via text message, or chains that use portable buzzers to call out orders, the Startup Gods at Sweetgreen rely on an expeditor who shouts out names, some of them repeated four times in ear-piercing succession. This is what you listen to while you eat. It is is profoundly jarring.
A staffer tries to corral those waiting deeper into the pickup zone, because that mob is getting in the way of people trying to order in the first place. “Can we please just move in?” one of them says with their arms spread out, as if this were crowd control before a Black Friday shopping event.
An expeditor, who calls out orders from behind the shelves, finally shouts out my name. In the five seconds it takes me to walk over, the staffer moves on to other patrons, so I peer through the shelves, and converse with someone behind that edifice to locate my order. Dear Sweetgreen: Putting workers behind a grid-like metal structure that rises toward the ceiling and having them chat with patrons through the grates is… bad.
My salad includes a ramekin of tahini sauce that had all the flavor of honey mustard, hummus that tasted like gritty old vegetable stock, and “warm” falafel that was lukewarm and gravely; the balls could legitimately trigger a bike flat if discarded on a highway shoulder. I try to throw it out after a few bites, but unfortunately Sweetgreen’s first floor garbage can doesn’t boast an opening large enough to accommodate the trash. I walk upstairs and try to find a suitable waste receptacle, and it still doesn’t fit. The garbage hole is hexagonal, like the shape of the bowl, and one must align it precisely to let it drop.
The experimental new Sweetgreen is a psychiatric test designed to measure adverse reactions to stress.
It is generally agreed that Sweetgreen has emerged as the king of the white collar salad chains, if not by quality, then by measures of cultural capital and popularity. It is the dubious new power lunch for the cubicle class. The company already features airline-style rewards programs on its app, used by over a million people, with status upgrades at the $100, $1,000, and $2,500 levels.
Sweetgreen also offers its “just pick it up from a shelf” options at most Manhattan stores — and at posh offices, from Bain Capital to Conde Nast to WeWork. To be clear about the latter scenario: The chain sets up so-called “Outpost” shelves in those buildings as an alternative to traditional delivery. Workers order via a designated time, head downstairs at lunchtime, and retrieve their salads. Think of it as a never-ending pop-up corporate cafeteria, a level of integration with everyday office life that’s light years ahead of Shake Shack or Fuku.
What gives the experimental Sweetgreen so much potential, however, is the potential to offer some of this VIP treatment to customers who don’t work for a prestige company, who don’t use the app, and who simply want to swing by and feel like they’re being treated better than cattle class. There is no “someone’s cutting the line” problem here, where pre-order folks pick up from a separate, quieter portion of the store. Everyone retrieves their salads from the same place.
Unfortunately, this Sweetgreen seems to be struggling with the very basics of hospitality, service, common sense, and making good ingredients not taste terrible. Good luck finding the price of a tin of loose jasmine tea, which is on sale in a section called “the market.” As at a chic department store, prices for expensive goods aren’t located on the product themselves but rather on small, hard-to-read placards. Downstairs, the front door wouldn’t close, so gusts of wind and cold air blew in as folks waited for their $14 burrata bruschetta bowls.
Do not order the burrata bruschetta bowl, exclusive to this location. The cheese, which should be intensely milky in its ideal state, packs the flavor and texture of a bland vegan marshmallow. Another salad unique to Park Avenue South is the Greener Goddess, which included a slab of steelhead trout that was cooked to the texture of jerky. A few drizzles of the dill-laced buttermilk dressing helped turn the protein into something more edible.
Yes, the payments and pickup system is cool when it works; the Sweetgreen app puts any other online food ordering system to shame.
But here’s another, broader thought: One could walk into a good New York deli or one of the city’s countless gourmet markets and get something just as custom made, with proteins that are cooked with more care, and get in and out in less time than at Sweetgreen. That’s with no fancy app or line management system put together by McKinsey alums white-boarding in a conference room (or whatever). At a deli, there’s just a guy behind the counter who knows your order by heart and a cashier who can run your card faster than a Square transaction.
These are the institutions I love to see more of instead of billion-dollar chains that quote French existentialists on their walls (apologies, Simone de Beauvoir), that carve company values into wooden plaques (“Win, Win, Win,” and “Keep It Real”), and that makes its selfie mirrors more intuitive and reliable than its front door, which no one could seem to close as of yesterday, when it was 34 degrees.
But at least now there’s finally a working garbage can downstairs.