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Work from home killed the sad desk salad

July 18, 2022, 7:31 PM UTC
Girl eating sandwich
Working from home appears not to include sad apartment salads.
Getty Images

Work from home just claimed another victim. 

To the list of things that now belong to the before times you already have the commute, the water-cooler talk, even the work friend. Now remote work has come for a Midtown Manhattan pastime: the sad desk salad.

Hale and Hearty, which has provided NYC office workers with soup-and-salad lunches for 20 years, closed all of its 16 locations as of July 1, according to signs posted in its storefronts. 

The “contact us” form on Hale and Hearty’s website resulted in an error message. 

Opened in 1995, the local chain operates stores mainly in Midtown and FiDi, where office workers on their lunch breaks made up the majority of traffic. With everyone working from home, sales plunged when the pandemic all but eliminated the lunchtime rush. 

The history of Hale and Hearty overlaps with that historical era, maybe now over for good, when the “sad desk salad” phrase came into widespread use. Bloomberg’s CityLab examined the history of rushed work lunches in 2015, writing that the sad salad consumed at one’s desk was a particular hallmark of 2010s corporate culture. The next year, the Wall Street Journal commented on the rise of “bowls,” a wellness-affiliated trend that seemed to come from millennial-friendly Instagram.

These now appear to belong to the last decade as financial reality bites for bowl- and salad-centric work-lunch chains. Hale and Hearty, in particular, is currently being sued by the landlord of one of its FiDi locations for $400,000 in unpaid rent and by one of its vendors Baldor Speciality Foods for just under $60,000. 

While Hale and Hearty struggled to rebound from the declining sales that plagued the entire restaurant industry, some of its competitors were able to navigate the pandemic more successfully. 

For example, Chopt secured its “largest ever capital” raise last summer as it secured cash injections to help it ride out the COVID-19 induced sales slump. Sweetgreen updated its app to offer customers exclusive items and incentivize mobile orders for either pickup or delivery. 

The financials of Sweetgreen, which went public well into the pandemic, in November 2021, shed a light on the lunch-salad business model’s struggles. The chain’s net loss had ballooned to $153.1 million as of December 2021, compared to just $68 million at the end of 2019, with most of the pain coming from higher operating costs. At the same time, it has persevered, increasing its new restaurant openings to 31, compared to 15 the previous year.

Sweetgreen said the pandemic had hurt its business much more in urban than suburban areas and highlighted the particular risk from work from home: “If the shift toward remote work continues even after the COVID-19 pandemic has abated or ended and workers do not return to offices in urban centers, or work from those locations less frequently, our business, financial condition, and results of operations could be adversely affected for an uncertain period of time.”

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