Sweetgreen occupies the upper echelon of the office lunch offerings. It’s an aspirational order, the (shaky) promise that warm roasted portobellos or za’atar breadcrumbs offer more nutrition, or just more sophistication, than a Panera sandwich. As Serena Dai wrote for Eater New York in 2019, Sweetgreen is the new power lunch: “Today, an office worker who brings a Sweetgreen bowl back to their desk is signaling not only that they are culturally relevant and hold progressive values, but also that they have the salary to spend $15 on a beautifully composed bowl of raw vegetables.”
But workers are increasingly pushing back on having to go to offices, in no small part because that $15 price tag hits different in whatever our economy is up to now. So naturally, bowl restaurants are expanding their offerings in an attempt to make sad desk lunch an anytime food. To that end, in a press release, Sweetgreen announced a line of new “protein plates,” aka warm meats over grains, as part of a “long-term strategy to appeal to more customers at dinner.”
In the release, co-founder Nicolas Jammet said that “around 35% of our customers order Sweetgreen for dinner,” and that more customers said they would if there were heftier options. There are three new offerings, all available beginning today at Sweetgreens nationwide — miso glazed salmon, hot honey chicken, and southwest chicken fajita, served over grains and vegetables, with familiar Sweetgreens dressings. This all sounds like pretty standard lunch-chain fare, like what you’d find at Cava or Dig or even Chipotle, the bowl brands expanding and contracting on each other like dying stars.
But being Sweetgreen, there is also an element of cultural cachet to this expansion. The launch party in New York featured Calvin Eng of Brooklyn hotspot Bonnie’s, and paired the plates with natural wine from Vivanterre. Jammet is well connected in the New York restaurant scene (his mother, Rita Jammet, is a respected restaurateur), and previously, Sweetgreen has partnered with other “cool” chefs, including Danny Bowein, Luciana Giangrandi, and Missy Robbins, to create bowls, as well as with food girlie brands like Gohar World and Susan Alexandra. In an email to Eater, Jammet said Eng is a regular Sweetgreen customer, and that more collaborations with chefs are in the works.
But as cool and progressive as Sweetgreen positions itself, the company has its problems. The dinner addition comes as 10 former Sweetgreen employees, all of whom identify as African American, are suing the company, alleging racial discrimination. Among other instances, a manager of the Gansevoort Street location in New York is alleged to have regularly used the N-word and called Black employees “monkeys.” The plaintiffs also say they were passed over for equal compensation opportunities.
A spokesperson from Sweetgreen told Eater New York, “We take these accusations seriously and do not tolerate any form of harassment, discrimination, or unsafe working conditions.” This isn’t the first time Sweetgreen employees have spoken up against the company; in 2020, a former employee sued Sweetgreen, alleging sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and employees sued the company at least three times between 2014 and 2017, according to Inc.
Sweetgreen moving into the dinner space is yet another example of the eroding lines between fast casual and fine dining, indie and mainstream. Instagram recipe developer Nasim Lahbichi partnered with Cava. Carbone is a chain. You can get Levain and Milk Bar cookies at the grocery store. Van Leeuwen made Hidden Valley Ranch ice cream. Highbrow is going lowbrow and lowbrow is going high, because everyone is trying to capture every bit of the market they can. It’s the perpetual growth model venture capitalists continue to vie for, creating a world in which brands must be omnipresent just to survive. One stop for your three square bowls a day.