Salad Sales Wilted During The Pandemic, But Some Chains Are Recovering

Fast casual spots that catered to commuters are slowly making a comeback.

In an essay from her 2019 collection Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, Jia Tolentino writes that Sweetgreen "feels less like a place to eat and more like a refueling station." The fast casual build-your-own salad concept is a "marvel of optimization," she says, and goes on to set the scene for the reader who might be unaware of the Sweetgreen model:

I go to Sweetgreen on days when I need to eat vegetables very quickly because I've been working till 1am all week and don't have time to make dinner because I have to work till 1am again, and like a chump, I try to make eye contact across the sneeze guard, as if this alleviated anything about the skyrocketing productivity requirements that have forced these two lines of people to scarf and create kale caesars all day, and then I "grab" my salad and eat it in under 10 minutes while looking at email.

It's a scene that might be familiar to those who work in large office buildings in urban centers—but for many of us still working from home, this description of consuming salad lunches at breakneck speed in a bustling downtown feels so 2019. And that's certainly what Sweetgreen's sales figures indicate, too—it has only just begun the long road to post-pandemic recovery.

Location data analytics company has released a report on salad chain recovery in 2021, looking at a few of the major players—Chop't, Sweetgreen, Honeygrow, Tender Greens, and Saladworks—to chart larger trends in the health food space. All of these chains started off the year with significant decreases in visits compared to the same period in 2019; Tender Greens, a restaurant I was mildly obsessed with when I lived in Los Angeles, was down a crushing 71% in January 2021.

Slowly but surely, customer traffic has been trending upward since then, with numbers still in the negative range, but inching closer to breaking even with 2019. In June of this year, three of the five salad chains (Sweetgreen, Chop't, and Honeygrow) posted increases in monthly visits over 2019, perhaps an indication that as workers return to centralized offices, they need a healthy lunch option to go with it. Tender Greens is still hurting the most with traffic down 31% in June (vs. June 2019), which can only mean customers haven't discovered the Salt and Pepper Chicken with a side of Caesar salad yet. Order it now, you fools, while you still can!

It will be interesting to see which of these chains can hang on long enough to weather commuters' prolonged return-to-office plans. Once workers are back at their downtown desks, can we assume they'll want to sink back into the routine of ordering what Tolentino describes as "a bowl of nutrients that ward off the unhealthfulness of urban professional living"? I, for one, am certainly missing the Sweetgreen Harvest Bowl these days and hope to be reunited with it soon.