And for that matter, for a theme we care deeply about, which is that we should all be putting more thought into the food we eat, and how it is packaged.
The market is rewarding those companies paying attention to these themes:
The chain that made salads chic, modular and ecologically conscious now wants to sell you a lot of other stuff.
On a Wednesday morning last fall, several executives at Sweetgreen, the fast-casual salad chain, gathered around a conference table at their headquarters here. They were discussing a new store format, called Sweetgreen 3.0, that had recently been introduced in New York City after two years of planning. At Sweetgreen’s other 102 locations, customers brave queues that, at peak lunch, can make T.S.A. lines look tame. Up front, employees assemble Harvest Bowls, Kale Caesars and infinite customized variants from a spread of freshly prepared ingredients, in a ritual that has become a hallmark of the modern midday meal.
At 3.0, to increase efficiency, the action had been moved offstage, to a kitchen in the rear. Customers give orders to a tablet-wielding “ambassador,” if they haven’t done so ahead of time with their smartphones, retrieving their salads from alphabetized shelves. While they wait they can mull adding one of the Sweetgreen baseball caps or $37 bottles of olive oil on display to the tab.
Many of the changes being tested at 3.0 seem crucial to realizing the ambitious plans of Sweetgreen’s co-founder and chief executive, Jonathan Neman. With its prescient mobile technology strategy, the company hopes to become something bigger — much, much bigger — than a boutique urban chain serving arugula to health nuts and yoga moms.
Two weeks into the experiment, sales had beaten projections, and according to Timothy Noonan, Sweetgreen’s vice president of research and development, there were “a lot of positives about how customers are able to engage with the brand.” Visitors seemed to love the store’s “analog” (printed) menus, added for a touch of class — the covers were already showing wear — and the soft lighting and cushy banquettes in an upstairs seating area encouraged them to linger at dinnertime.
With the theater of salad assembly removed, a section of the restaurant had been dedicated to free tastings, and a line graph illustrating how this had boosted sales of some of the brand’s less popular bowls was greeted with murmurs of delight. “Have you seen the movie ‘High Fidelity’?” Nathaniel Ru, the company’s soft-spoken 34-year-old co-founder and chief brand officer, asked the room. “When John Cusack puts the record on, and he’s like, ‘Watch me sell this record?’ It’s kind of like that.”
Still, the format was hardly a conclusive success. Behind the scenes, the kitchen was having trouble assembling orders accurately, and there was a higher-than-normal volume of complaints. “The biggest pain point right now is the pickup experience,” Mr. Noonan said. “It’s a bit of a bottleneck.” A digital leader board, meant to indicate when orders were ready, had put up some customer names too early or too late. (The experience “channels about as much tech-centric mindfulness and simplicity as Penn Station after a power outage,” wrote Ryan Sutton, the chief New York food critic for Eater.)
Touch-screen ordering kiosks had been delayed, and perhaps that was for the best. “We were so excited about this grand vision of this new store that we brought in like 10 new things at once,” Mr. Neman had said earlier that day. “If we were to redo it, we would have still done all 10 things, but one at a time.”
In a little over a year, the company has raised $350 million in private capital, bringing its valuation to $1.6 billion. It is the only restaurant unicorn. “There’s an enthusiastic investor class that’s more interested in them as a business than just any restaurant chain selling salads,” said David Henkes, a senior principal at Technomic, a food service consultancy. “Salad as a differentiator is just not that exciting. The exciting part is the technology they offer. They’re on the digital frontier.”
With a mountain of cash on hand and extensive investments in technology, marketing, and infrastructure underway, spreading the Sweetgreen Gospel across America is no longer a distant aspiration, but a mandate. “We can’t stop now, because this doesn’t work at 100 restaurants,” Mr. Neman said. “The next stop is 1,000.”…
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