Can Sweetgreen’s Salad Evangelists Get America to Finally Eat Its Vegetables?
At Ward’s Berry Farm, 30 miles south of Boston, the first day of May dawns cloudy and cold, with a spitting drizzle that renders an umbrella more annoying than helpful. It’s a bad day to plant tomatoes. “Tomatoes really don’t prefer to be below 50 degrees very often,” says Jim Ward, the farm’s proprietor, who has a hardier constitution than his plants: He’s wearing a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up and no jacket; his ruddy cheeks are the only indication that he might be cold. But Ward’s crew is improvising, putting “row cover,” a biodegradable tarp, over the seedlings as they go from the warmth of the greenhouse into the damp chill of the ground. “There’s compost down there that will give us a little heat,” he says. “You’d be surprised, when you trap it in with the row cover, it’s pretty nice down there.”
Good for the tomato plants, cozy under all that compost, but they don’t really have a choice. They have to go into the ground today so that come July, the fruits will be ready for the thousands of Sweetgreen customers in the Boston area who will bite down on the juicy little orbs, once informed—through the salad chain’s email newsletter or smartphone app (or, if they know anything about produce seasonality, common sense)—that the tomatoes are at their peak of ripeness. And to help Ward make these tomatoes extra tasty—though he knows what he’s doing, as he’s been farming for more than three decades—there’s something of a secret weapon lodged in the center of the one-acre patch: a bright orange hexagon that sits atop a baseball bat–shape stake. Inside the contraption are Wi-Fi-enabled sensors that, every 15 minutes, measure more than a dozen factors that could be affecting the tomatoes: like air temperature, humidity, light, precipitation, wind speed. The bat-shape portion extends 36 inches into the soil, where sensors measure soil temperature and moisture as well as levels of phosphorus, potassium, pH, and nitrogen. That data gets uploaded to the cloud and onto a blockchain—a sequence of data that makes the tomatoes easily traceable throughout their journey from fledging plant to salad bowl. From there, the information can be accessed, at any time, from a smartphone app developed by “blockchain of food” startup Ripe.io.
For Ward, having that instantaneous data at his fingertips is a revelation. “For my whole life as a farmer, any data I ever got about nitrogen, which is something you need in the highest quantity, was gathered by taking a soil sample, sending it out, and waiting a few weeks for the results. By which point it was usually too late to do anything,” he says. “To have it in real time, it changes everything.”
This is the second year Ward has partnered with Sweetgreen and Ripe.io to, as the lingo goes, put his tomatoes on the blockchain. Sweetgreen, a 95-restaurant salad chain that’s become a darling of health-conscious urban lunchers, has installed the sensors in 20 farms to date. It fronts the tech cost—a few hundred dollars in Ward’s case—and the farmers use the data as they see fit. Ward says the technology has enabled him to take immediate action when, say, nitrogen levels are flagging and the patch needs an intervention, and it provides feedback that may change the way he fertilizes going forward. (Bye-bye, fresh chicken poop!) The data has also challenged some of his long-held farmer’s wisdom, like the idea that tomatoes taste best immediately after they’re picked (turns out, they actually peak three to five days later), and confirmed other beliefs (“Despite anything I can do, when the temperature drops below 50 degrees at night, the flavor drops off”).
Of course, technology has its limits. Ward looks up at the clouds and shrugs. “The main ingredient is sunlight. That’s one of the things you guys determined,” he gestures to the four Sweetgreen employees who have traveled from the company’s Los Angeles headquarters to check in on the farm, “and that’s one of the things I can’t control.”
“We’ll get there!” one of them chirps.
By most indications, the concept of salad originated in ancient Rome, and since then, it’s been largely an ancillary dish, an opening act to sit through before the main event (often, a slab of meat) arrives. On the rare occasions that salad is eaten as an entrée, it’s typically accompanied by a sense of martyrdom: “I’ll just have a salad.” Salads have long come in myriad forms, from leafy and green to mayonnaise-y and off-white, but in recent years, thanks largely to shops like Sweetgreen, they’ve become increasingly gourmet. Caramelized portobellos instead of raw button mushrooms, trendy kale instead of iceberg, roasted sesame tofu instead of … did the salad shops of yore even offer tofu?
But salads have never been sexy. They haven’t had their Carl’s Jr. moment—Paris Hilton gnawing on them on the hood of a Bentley—or that money shot of mozzarella stretching from a slice of steaming-hot pizza, the pools of grease so lubricious they’re practically pornographic. Perhaps that’s why Sweetgreen and its competitors tend to shun the “S-word”—“vegetable-forward meals” and “real food” are their terms of choice. But whether the produce they serve is leafy and crunchy or roasted and warm, the goal of the current generation of greens crusaders is the same: Turn vegetables into objects of desire.
“When you optimize for flavor, it creates that stickiness, that craveability. It’s what gets people to desire the product,” says Nic Jammet, one of Sweetgreen’s three cofounders. He and Nate Ru and Jonathan Neman—the trio are all 34 years old—met as Georgetown University undergrads and launched the chain in 2007. (The trio are among those featured on Fortune‘s 2019 40 Under 40 list.) “We can’t tell people to eat our food because it’s healthy,” says Jammet. “That’s never going to work. You should want to eat this because you enjoy it, because it physically makes you feel good, because you desire the actual experience.”
Feel-good food is a booming business. Food-industry tracking firm Technomic estimates that American salad shops saw sales of more than $686 million in 2018, up from $300 million in 2014. Sweetgreen, whose bowls cost an average of $12 each, is leading the sector with 2018 sales of $158.2 million, according to Technomic. (Sweetgreen declined to comment on sales, as did the rest of the salad makers mentioned in this story.) Also near the front of the pack: Chopt, which slings finely minced salads (2018 sales were an estimated $98.1 million); Tender Greens, which scoops up executive chefs from fine-dining haunts like Gramercy Tavern ($94.2 million); and Dig Inn, which operates a farm that also serves as a produce-innovation lab ($37.8 million). “It’s all about this path to purity,” says David Portalatin, food-industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm. “Consumers want foods that are real, authentic, minimally processed. These companies are meeting those needs for consumers and making it convenient.”
But while the salad market is growing, greens are still no match for burgers and fries. Consider McDonald’s, whose 2018 U.S. sales were nearly $8 billion—or more than 10 times the annual sales of America’s top 14 salad shops combined. In that context, it’s perhaps unsurprising that, despite people saying they care about things like eating healthfully and locally, as a majority of respondents did in a recent National Restaurant Association survey, their spending habits don’t always line up. “We see consumers increasingly talking about local, organic, non-GMO, grass-fed, cage-free,” says Portalatin. “They don’t necessarily understand what these terms mean.”
America’s flagging appetite for eating out presents a second challenge. According to the NPD Group, the average American ate at a restaurant 185 times last year, down from 209 times in 2008. If that trend continues—as it’s expected to do—the salad slingers will need to steal more “share of stomach” from other types of eateries if they want to expand.
The third prong in this fork of foils: Growth creates significant problems for any business, but especially for one that peddles perishable, bacteria-vulnerable goods. “ ‘Fresh’ is the most bankable word in food service, but there’s a huge challenge in scaling fresh ingredients at national levels,’ ” says Aaron Allen, a consultant whose firm has worked with more than half of the world’s 400 largest restaurant chains. Case in point: Chipotle, whose quest to bring healthier, ingredient-centric Mexican food to the masses was nearly derailed by a multistate E. coli outbreak in 2015 and 2016. There’s also the possibility that, in the rush to expand, a unique, locally focused brand like Sweetgreen loses some of the quirks that made it special in the first place, says Allen.
In November, Sweetgreen announced $200 million in new funding, which boosted its valuation to more than $1 billion. The company is expected to grow to 110 restaurants by the end of the year and operates an additional 120 or so “outposts,” shelves in co-working spaces and offices regularly replenished with salads ordered online. In June, Sweetgreen announced its first acquisition, Galley Foods, a Washington, D.C.–based meal-delivery service specializing in fresh dinners. The deal is expected to provide Sweetgreen with additional tech and logistics expertise—and could eventually help the chain extend its allure beyond the lunch hour. But while the 12-year-old company is growing like a weed (which, by the way, it repurposes: Jammet is currently fixated on recipes for purslane, a meaty weed with teardrop-shape leaves), the founders know they can’t win by land grab alone.
Enter blockchain. While the technology is often associated with Bitcoin and its ilk, at its core, a blockchain can offer a permanent record of time-stamped, unfungible information that is maintained across several computers and can be used to track money, identity, and, yes, food. So while in the context of lunch, invoking “blockchain” may feel like tech buzzword overkill, the ability to offer that unfiltered window into what exactly you’re about to put in your mouth has the potential to fill an actual consumer need. There’s the option to track vegetables for peak flavor, certainly, but also the ability to pinpoint problems—like the source of an E. coli outbreak. And with that visibility comes the power to grow without compromising the company’s devotion to all things small and local. As Jammet puts it, “If we can build real-time traceability and tracking into the infrastructure, it allows us to completely scale but keep working with farms of different sizes, so we can find 10 other Jim Wards”—i.e., farmers Sweetgreen knows and trusts.
While the company is still in the early stages of letting salad fans in on a direct view into its supply chain, that’s where the cofounders want to go next. Sweetgreen plans to build its own version of Domino’s pizza tracker, in which a progress bar chronicles an order’s journey down the assembly line and out the door. “Instead of ‘John’s flipping your pizza. It’s on its way!’ our tracker will say, ‘Hey, you like the tomato kale caesar. We know because you’ve ordered it before. These tomatoes were planted two months ago with this kind of seed, there was a lot of rain, and because of that, they’re super sweet. They’re great for the next two days, order now!’ ” says Jammet.
In the meantime, Sweetgreen is relying on its email newsletters—it sends an average of six per month—to keep devotees apprised of the latest on its local broccoli leaves and organic carrots and to introduce customers to the dozens of small farmers who provide those salad fixings. In April, its “Open Source” newsletter waxed poetic about the beets grown on Faurot Ranch in Watsonville, Calif., by Arturo Sanchez, “who crossed the border in 1983 from Mexico” and is now “a proud U.S. citizen and ranch co-owner, working to convert his fields from conventional to completely organic.”
Do hungry office workers really want an inbox full of salad missives? Sweetgreen cofounder Nate Ru thinks so. “Our consumers want to double-click one layer deeper into where the food’s coming from, or the farmer that’s involved, or soil health,” which is “something our customers are getting savvy about,” he says. As evidence, he points to a recent series of surveys the chain conducted with more than 7,000 customers, which returned results affirming that, yes, soil health is apparently top of mind.
“That’s why we went so hard with the messaging around the koginut,” says Jammet, referring to the new breed of squash Sweetgreen grew in partnership with chef Dan Barber. Last fall, Sweetgreen mailed 100 of the auburn volleyball-size squashes to loyal customers as part of a ploy to generate buzz around the gourd, which features a “built-in ripeness indicator for peak flavor.” (In other words, it changes color when ready to be picked, like many things that grow.) “We wanted to create the same kind of excitement that’s created around major consumer brands, like, ‘Let’s create as much hype for a vegetable as a Nike shoe because the vegetable is more important in the long run,’ ” says Jammet. “We want to connect this food to happiness, to joy, the way that brands like Pizza Hut and McDonald’s have done for years.”
To that end, the company is launching a new customer satisfaction metric that will ask customers to rate every Sweetgreen salad they eat. “Like Uber or Lyft,” says cofounder Neman. “Imagine being able to correlate that to the farms and to which ingredients get higher ratings based on flavor. You’re able to start to understand: Do certain farms and ingredients create happier customers?”
Sweetgreen may have cornered the market on making vegetables traceable and trendy, but customers also care about convenience. And while Sweetgreen boasts the largest national footprint of any salad chain, it’s not everywhere—namely, in the center of the country, where population density thins, local produce can be harder to source, and people may be less willing to pay $12 for a bowl of lettuce. This is where Daily Harvest, a company that takes a very different approach to selling the veggie-centric lifestyle, comes in. Daily Harvest founder Rachel Drori offers vegan, subscription-based meals featuring vegetables that are flash-frozen, packaged in individual serving cups (prices range from $6.99 to $7.75), and shipped directly to customers, who typically heat the bowls up in the microwave. So while she and her competitors on team Sweetgreen agree that produce should be more accessible, Drori does not believe a made-to-order salad can hit that mark.
“In a major urban area, it still takes Postmates an hour to deliver my salad,” she says, leaning into a conference table in Daily Harvest’s downtown Manhattan headquarters. “And if you don’t live in a major urban area, by the time you leave your home or office and drive somewhere, forget it.”
I have to agree with her. Prior to our meeting, hungry and with 15 minutes to spare, I attempted to order a salad from a nearby Sweetgreen. I used the app to customize a “spring burrata bowl” with asparagus and sugar snap peas, thinking I’d breeze by the mobile pickup counter, grab my $14 salad, and scarf down enough of it to quell the growls. Then I got to the payment screen and saw that the salad wouldn’t be ready for 45 minutes (at least). Drori nods knowingly through my story and offers me Daily Harvest’s cauliflower rice and kimchi bowl, a grain-free spin on kimchi fried rice that, in addition to fermented napa cabbage and finely diced cauliflower, includes kale, carrots, green onions, and dulse (a protein- and mineral-rich seaweed). Four minutes later, I am hangry no more.
While Sweetgreen caters to an urbanite willing to pay a price and time premium for an Instagram-worthy salad, Drori describes her company’s market as “those who want to but can’t—those who want to go to the farmers’ market and meal prep and make these delicious dishes but can’t because they don’t have time.”
Daily Harvest works with farmers around the world, arming them with nitrogen tunnels that freeze produce within hours of harvest. The process is called individual quick freezing, or IQF, and it enables Daily Harvest to eschew the preservative bombs that constitute traditional frozen meals. Like Sweetgreen, the company is trying to optimize farming, though its strategy is different. “We’re able to say, ‘Give us what you’re not going to use this year, and let’s test something together,’ ” says Drori. One farmer was looking for a way to get more yield from his celery crop, she says: “Now we have the only frozen supply chain for celery root.”
Drori worked for the Four Seasons, American Express, and Gilt Groupe before starting Daily Harvest in 2014, fed up with the routine of postponing lunch and bingeing on break-room birthday cake at 3 p.m. She’s since raised $43 million in funding and ships to more than 100,000 subscribers nationwide, some of whom live in rural “food deserts” not served by Sweetgreen and its ilk. She says the breakdown of subscribers closely mirrors the U.S. population in terms of urban vs. rural vs. suburban, and that Daily Harvest’s customer base is growing in all three areas.
“You can’t buy kelp noodles in suburban Arkansas,” says Drori. “We’re serving people who’ve heard of kelp noodles, but they can’t try them because, even if they buy them on Amazon, they’re going to spend $60 on a bag and not know what to do with them.”
Dig Inn, founded in 2011 by former investment banker Adam Eskin, is similar to Sweetgreen in that it operates urban restaurants (28, mostly in New York and Boston) but shares Daily Harvest’s focus on cooked produce. Eskin estimates that Dig Inn will sell up to 9 million pounds of vegetables this year, with leafy greens representing “a very small percentage. A much larger percentage is broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes.”
About 200,000 pounds of vegetables come from Dig Inn’s own farm, a 16-acre plot of land in the “black dirt region” of Chester, N.Y. Eskin calls the farm his “agricultural lab.” “We can test different seeds, different varietals: We’re testing new types of squash, peppers, beets, snow peas,” he says. A skunkworks, but for produce. It’s an embodiment of Eskin’s commitment to change how vegetables are grown and consumed. “Our vision of how to rebuild the food system and have an impact over the next few decades is one word: vegetables,” he says. “If more of us had greater access to vegetables, we’d all be better off.”
If there’s one thing these competitors can agree on, it’s probably that ethos: more vegetables, for more people. And while the blockchain, IQF, and ag experimentation may play a role in which version of the veg-centric future wins out, the ultimate arbiter remains eaters’ taste buds. Even Sweetgreen’s Neman will allow that means “creating relevance beyond just salad.” Menu expansion is a top priority for the chain, he says: “Today, already, half of our food is warm. Last year we tested sides,” like broccoli tater tots.
Back at Ward’s, the farmer passes around a photo of a sit-down dinner the farm hosted for Sweetgreen fans five years ago, long before there were blockchain sensors in the soil. There was wine, there was bread—there was more than just salad.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify Sweetgreen’s partnership with Dan Barber.
A version of this article appears in the July 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “Sweetgreen: Can These Salad Evangelists Persuade America to Finally Eat its Vegetables?”
This article is part of the 40 Under 40, our annual selection of the most influential young people in business. Click here to see the additional 2019 coverage of these disruptors, innovators, rebels, and artists.
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