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Everywhere in Salad Chains

America runs on lettuce

Before me there is a salad. Well, let’s clarify: before me there is a bowl. Dun-colored, taller than it is wide, and made of what appears to be some kind of reconstituted pulp, a superior cardboard. A clear plastic lid allows me to examine the salad’s contents with clinical distance: a hectic mash of lettuce and unidentifiable knobs coated in a pale, opaque emulsion. Pressed against the lid, each severed fragment of romaine looks like a pair of drowning arms thrown out in despair from a still-conscious spine, screaming for help, pleading to be set free. I remove the lid. The salad does not stir.

Around me, in this Manhattan location of the fast-casual salad chain Chopt, are several other diners. It’s a little after the lunch rush; a gentle, masticating silence prevails. I begin to poke at the bowl’s contents with a recyclable fork. The salad is densely packed but aggressively non-geological: every section looks the same. The bowl is deep, but the salad has neither layers nor secrets to impart to its eater. Strings of red cabbage, swatches of lettuce, pads of spongy chicken, buttons of radish and carrot, and pins of pickled onion: together the salad’s elements suggest a kind of vestiture, but the sweet granite paste of their dressing leaves them somehow unstitched, and they slide off each other with loose abandon, succumbing to the fork only when impaled.

The eating of the salad proceeds by a sequence of short stabs. The promised dance—fast and casual—turns into a dull trudge. A salad, a good salad, can be a thing of immense beauty: crackly, acidic, herbal, and bright, a truly uplifting experience. But in the mouth, this one feels every bit as stiff and gray as the material of its enclosure, simultaneously bland and over-seasoned. As a salad, this is less a vehicle for the stimulation of sensory pleasure than a physical challenge, a boot camp for the mandible. How could something so wet taste so dry? By the time the bowl’s bottom first appears through the oozing thicket, my jaw feels thoroughly bullied. I give up and abandon the bowl to the recycling bin. My fellow salad eaters all wear the same expression, pinched and dark. Hunched over their bowls, they spear, chew, and swallow with the tragic determination of people who understand this is all for their own good. Leaving Chopt, I pass a rival salad chain. Written across its window are the words, EAT WITH PURPOSE.

These are, supposedly, dark days for the corporate salad. In New York, the pandemic forced the two locations of Danny Meyer-backed salad venture Tender Greens to close. Sweetgreen recently shuttered a branch in Tribeca; according to a report from the New York Times, the popular salad chain is “feeling the pain” of the post-pandemic shift to working from home. That pain, one imagines, is shared among Sweetgreen’s many rivals: a paucity of worker-commuters in the nation’s business centers means fewer potential customers for the big salad chains. On my recent wanderings through New York, I’ve found little evidence to support this claim. Indeed, my unscientific survey suggests the opposite: from Chopt and Sweetgreen to fresh&co, Just Salad, and Avocaderia, the lines remain long, the add-ons plentiful. If anything the salad appears to have emerged from the pandemic stronger than ever, a dominant culinary form for a nation freshly reminded of the shifting environmental and health risks that a leafy diet can help repel. Despite dire warnings, the people of New York are still fiends for leaves.

In New York, since many bodegas have salad counters with pre-chopped, fresh ingredients, the salad bowl is omnipresent but distributed according to a strict geographical hierarchy. The big salad chains—disseminators and defenders of the corporate salad—are clustered in Manhattan, whereas bodegas occupy the periphery. In other big cities across the country, the story is different, and the diffusion of the corporate salad is much wider: Sweetgreen, the most ambitious of the chains and the only one to list as a public company, recently opened a “pull-through” branch in the northwestern Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, complete with a drive-through “sweetlane” for order pickup. The Schaumburg Sweetgreen, a flat-roofed box with ample natural light painted in neutral creams and grays, hews to the design template of the modern fast-casual strip mall restaurant. The pandemic has caused not a retrenchment of salad culture but its intensification; blurred boundaries between domicile and office have opened up new space for “eating with purpose,” securing the branded salad’s entry into the home. The corporate salad is becoming fully suburbanized, colonizing the territory once controlled by the more humble deli salad, and there’s no reason to think this expansion will slow. Sweetgreen, whose CFO said in August 2022 that its new businesses would be “over 85 perfect suburban,” has plans to expand to one thousand locations across the country by the end of the decade, from just under two hundred today. For new developments, the salad chain is close to the ideal tenant, a clearinghouse for healthy bodies and the greens that fuel them with a proven record of market approval.

Already America is one nation under the green goddess. In years to come its cities will be encircled in salad chains, imprisoned in the name of health. The airy hangar slinging Feisty Fiesta bowls will be as ubiquitous as the neighborhood bank, another developmental weapon to sterilize the old salmagundi of urban life.

Cold Herbes

Historically, the salad is a dish of astonishing variety. Though the Ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed raw vegetables dressed in vinegar, oil, and herbs, the salad—or the European idea of it, which still guides our global understanding of the dish today—did not really enter the lexicon of European cookery until the Renaissance. The earliest use of the French word salade, drawn from a vulgar derivative of the Latin sal, meaning salt, dates from the fourteenth century, but the salad—as a combination of raw vegetables with some kind of dressing—seems to have become a fad in western Europe by the late Middle Ages. Written around 1390, the recipe collection The Forme of Cury contains the earliest reference to salad in English; Thomas Elyot’s The Castel of Helth, an influential treatise on medicine and nutrition published in 1541, recommended that “yonge men. . . shell eate . . . salades of cold herbes.” From there, the salad’s rise, like the global expansion of variations on its basic form, has continued largely uninterrupted.

The salad appears to have emerged from the pandemic stronger than ever, a dominant culinary form for a nation freshly reminded of the shifting environmental and health risks that a leafy diet can help repel.

Under the salad’s capacious definitional tent you’ll today find—among many other adaptations—the Alsatian Wurstsalat’s tart marriage of sausage and onion, the briney crown of the Balkan shopska, the meaty threads of the horta and the naryn, the acetic assault of the Malaysian acar, the milky ferment of the larb. The corporate salad takes this rich history and reduces it to a relentlessly boring bowl of greens and grains. The presentation of the salad in a bowl serves a practical purpose but also emphasizes control; no longer is the salad a wanton assembly of unbound ingredients spread laterally across the plate, threatening always to violate the geometric order of its table, but a realm of compression, enclosure, finitude. If the traditional salad has some of the spatial irresponsibility of a Dutch still life—peels unspooling, leaves and meats thrown casually along the plate, a libidinal tangle of unmoored seeds and spilling liquids—the corporate salad has all the predictability of a Bored Ape NFT. The salads of Sweetgreen, Chopt, and the rest are all designed to satisfy a standard set of textural requirements: there must be crunch, a certain amount of nutty chew (warm wild rice is a favorite addition), perhaps a few mushy, warm bits—a roasted squash, say, or some crisp root vegetable reduced to Play-Doh. The dressing, ideally, will evoke a certain comfort, a sense of creamy wonder, while also offering the stern discipline of citrus. In seeking balance, these salads impose a kind of uniformity: the same combination of crunch, acid, fat, raw, and cooked holds from bowl to bowl.

The corporate chain borrows from the proud salad lands beyond America’s shores, but to universally anodyne ends. Japan struggles to be heard in the ginger-sesame whisper of the Sweetgreen Miso Bowl, while Just Salad’s Modern Greek Crunch bravely suggests the existence of an Ancient Greek Crunch that may take us closer to the reality of Greece than its own woeful pairing of romaine and pita chips. Avocaderia gets the easy business of offending Mexico out of the way early with its name, then uses its menu to infantilize Thailand via the My Thai, a bowl centered around baby spinach. The Tahini Bliss and Harissa Market Salad are a Bush-era neocon’s dream of the Middle East, offering the romance of the souk and delivering something closer, in culinary terms, to Baghdad’s Green Zone. (The soft discrimination of the chain: Japan, Mexico, Greece, and Thailand are all worthy of having their traditions stripped for the corporate bowl, but China, India, Vietnam, Peru? Too weird, too unclean.) In the salad chain, these appropriations mingle happily with a kind of profit-seeking identitarianism: Just Salad, for example, allows customers to filter the menu by “lifestyle,” according to whether they’re keto, vegan, gluten-free, paleo, or climatarian.

For those unhappy with these choices (and who can blame them?), the salad chain offers the option of the individualized bowl. Experience here, as in the many other corners of society captured by the tech-wellness alliance, is encouraged to be seen as modular and customizable. But the promised freedom of the build-your-own salad bowl is invariably an illusion; though they may appear endless, the permitted additions are in fact tightly circumscribed, and however combined they always end up tasting the same as the house bowls listed on the menu. The law of crunch, acid, fat, raw, and cooked remains inviolate. The motto of Sweetgreen’s business model is “intimacy at scale,” a suitably ugly expression that captures the corporate salad’s guiding paradoxes: taste without flavor, freedom without personality. In the society of the salad, choices abound but true difference is always elusive; individuality is just another way to conform.

“Intimacy at scale” is not only a contradiction, it’s also a sign of corporate delusion. In the clammy, throbbing air of the salad chain, intimacy is the last thing on anyone’s mind. That’s because something else usually is: work. The corporate salad is usually eaten in a numb rush in the hour or half-hour of daily freedom given to the white-collar crowd; it’s become popular because it’s so uniquely suited to the harried, self-important nature of modern work. Unlike many other foods, the salad has resisted digital fetishization. No one—or no one I know at least—is showing off their salad online, except maybe as a joke. The salad exists in the social media shadows, a purely utilitarian food that requires neither advertisement nor celebration. The reason for this has something to do with the salad’s incorporation into the world of work, its transformation into a corporate totem.

Bullshit Food, Bullshit Jobs

Before steam, coal, and oil took their place, breakfast, lunch, and dinner provided the raw material to power economic growth. Food was the fuel of the early modern economy in Europe and North America, which required robust bodies to perform the agricultural labor that powered commercial exchange. As the birthplace of industrial capitalism, England offers the richest terrain to understand the dynamic historical connections between diet and labor. Industrialization would later make fossil fuel the chief energy source of the economy, but in the years prior to the Industrial Revolution, the marriage of two distinct ethics of work and consumption created what historians have called an “industrious revolution.” The link between these two ethics was food: since the preindustrial modern economy was reliant mostly on human and animal power, it was fully organic, meaning the main source of energy came from food production. Historian Craig Muldrew has estimated that laborers in the eighteenth century required more than four thousand calories to complete an eight-to-ten-hour working day; the modern norm for a middle-class male, by contrast, is about 2.9 thousand calories. Meat, bread, dairy, and beer were the foundations of the early modern diet. Throughout England the eating of beef was seen from the eighteenth century as a source of national distinction. In The Gate of Calais or O the Roast Beef of Old England, completed in 1748, painter William Hogarth depicted a huge side of British beef being carried to an English tavern in the French port town of Calais; French soldiers look on covetously over bowls of thin gruel, while other locals scratch together puny meals out of skate, onion, and carrot.

If the traditional salad has some of the spatial irresponsibility of a Dutch still life, the corporate salad has all the predictability of a Bored Ape NFT.

Despite the bias in favor of meat, vegetables were still an important component of the early modern diet: contemporary English observers listed leeks, melons, pumpkins, gourds, radishes, parsnips, carrots, cabbages, navews, and turnips as some of the many that were consumed. Salads were also widely eaten, according to Muldrew, and drew on a range of plants far beyond what you’ll find in a modern corporate bowl. Other than lettuce, spinach, and arugula, they included fennel, parsley, mint, beets, sorrel, thyme, artichokes, cucumbers, cress, endive, mustard seed, tarragon, peas, basil, chamomile, lavender, marjoram, tansy, and dill. Meat, bread, cheese, beer, and salad: all these foods were thrown into the gullet of an economy that desperately required calories—and lots of them—to function. These caloric needs decreased with the advent of mechanization. Machines, which ran on coal rather than beef and peas, made the economy less reliant on human power, and humans as a result required less food to get through the working day.

The salad’s modern rise has coincided with physical labor’s declining economic importance, mirroring shifts in our shared biophysical metabolism. Hydrocarbons and renewables are, of course, the petrol of today’s society, the fuel sources that keep the lights on. But in another sense, simultaneously more straightforward and more metaphysical, the economy of a place like America—a so-called “knowledge economy,” built on emails, marketing, scrolling, engagement, vaguely defined “services,” and endless verbalization—runs on bullshit. Measured, unobtrusive, easy on the stomach, and light on flavor, the salad bowl has become the ideal food for a society in which so much labor is meaningless, a digestive ornament to a workday requiring no real exertion of the body or brain. In every precisely counted 370-calorie Modern Greek Crunch (will you be tempted to add the yogurt cucumber dressing for an extra 35 calories?), there’s the germ of a life commuting nonsense across a screen.

Like the laborer’s food of the eighteenth century, today’s corporate salad is a kind of technology, a caloric factor of economic production. The Chicago restaurant R.J. Grunts claims to have invented the salad bar—or at the very least, introduced it to America—in the early 1970s. Even in its earliest iteration, the self-service salad bar was an invitation to human labor, with its profusion of tongs, spoons, and scoops wedged into each ingredient pan. The basic form of that early salad bar is reproduced in the delis and chains that constitute the core of salad culture today. Indeed, the assembly line is one of the great draws of the modern chain, functioning as a window through which each side of the transaction—the salad eater and the salad assembler—can enjoy a rare moment of coordination. In every corporate salad chain, you’ll see the same ritual unfold, a line of office workers shuffling down the assembly line in mute appreciation at the shoveling, chopping, squirting (“Light, medium, or heavy?”), squeezing, tossing, and packaging that’s required to wrestle the salad from counter to consumer. There’s no more satisfying theater than the spectacle of other people doing work, and in the knowledge economy, hospitality labor—made visible through the open kitchen, the window grill, and the salad assembly line—has become among the most satisfying spectacles of all, a clarifying encounter between essential and trivial work.

The terrorists of tech come for everything, though, and the salad chain’s assembly line appears destined for a swift death. It is a profoundly embarrassing thing to present before a fellow human and articulate, out loud, a desire for something called “Beets Don’t Kale My Vibe.” Digital orders, which protect consumers from the unloveliness of their own preferences, offer a way around this exchange; soon the humans on the receiving end of the orders will evaporate too. In 2021, Sweetgreen bought Spyce, an automated kitchen startup known for its “Infinite Kitchen” technology, a conveyor belt with robotic ingredient dispensers. The salads of the future will be prepared by machines and administered to a clerical class whose labor, already pointless, will eventually become wholly redundant, made dispensable by robotics and “artificial intelligence.” Can the corporate salad survive the transition to a world without white-collar work? Will society’s future ex-professionals, in their moments of tech-assisted leisure, recline with bowls of Tokyo Supergreens, lifting wet leaves into their mouths like the ancient symposiasts? The salad executives are bullish. Sweetgreen CEO Jonathan Neman has said that the Infinite Kitchen represents a “huge opportunity” for growth, but the one thing that won’t be growing is Sweetgreen’s workforce: already the chain has opened several outposts across the country that offer a glimpse of the corporate salad’s glorious future, and on the evidence so far, that future involves vanishingly few humans.

Arriving at the Infinite Kitchen’s New York laboratory, on a stretch of Park Avenue in the dead zone between Midtown and Murray Hill, I’m greeted by the metallic tundra of an empty counter and depopulated kitchen. Alone with my own thoughts and hunger, I’m left to contemplate the vast digital screen displaying the menu. Is this intimacy at scale? Eventually a human materializes, and I place an order for a Super Green Goddess salad. The Infinite Kitchen will be designed for machines, but its prototype is a mechanical Turk and still staffed by humans, for now at least. The robotic conveyor belt is not yet in operation, but the assembly line has been removed; salads here are prepared backstage by invisible employees. A grid of shelves holds the finished salads awaiting pickup. My salad, when it arrives, is tough, strangely gritty, and decorated with a ranch dressing that has the consistency of grout. I eat it in the upstairs seating area, two booths over from an equally solemn diner, in a spirit of shared, silent misery. Some traditions, at least, survive.