Meet Sweetgreen 3.0, the Higher-Tech Salad Innovation No One Asked For

Photo: Stocksy/Ivan Solis
Here’s how this is going to go: Your eyes are going to roll way back into the darkest depths of their sockets as you decide you hate me, and then I’m going to win you back—promise. Two weeks ago, Sweetgreen 3.0 personally victimized me and my lunch, and I'm still not over it. (Yes, this is when you hate me.)

Allow me to explain: Sweetgreen 3.0 is the newest concept from the customizable-salad eatery that I’ve come to rely upon when I have $12 to $17 to burn on a healthy yet satisfying lunch. That’s not something that happens so often, so when I splurge, it’s to treat myself to a lunch that's more exciting than the tired options in my meal-prep rotation. Which is why I was so enraged (I’m not being hyperbolic here) when I stepped into the new store a few days after its October 28 opening and enjoyed exactly zero percent of my experience. There was no assembly line of employees tossing greens and cheeses and proteins into lunch art. Rather, Sweetgreen 3.0 uses what it calls concierge ordering, wherein you order ahead, from an on-site kiosk, or from a iPad-armed staffer. Your order is prepared in a kitchen that's not visible to you and when it's ready, your name is called for pickup.

The company's founders, according to the Wall Street Journal, envisioned this as being "a cross between an Apple store and a farmers’ market” designed to address existing consumer complaints about long lines. But this...isn't what we asked for at all. At a farmers' market, I can select my own food based on what looks freshest and tastiest on a given day—and I can select as much of it as I want and get it immediately. Not the case at Sweetgreen 3.0, where you get what they give you, and that's that. At Apple, I can test products on the sales floor and then buy the exact same model via stockroom supplies. But, as anyone who knows their way around an avocado can attest, you can't compare produce with a short shelf life to a MacBook Air.

See, Sweetgreen OG is great largely because of its assembly-line production system, which allows for optimum customization down to the last drop of dressing and grind of pepper. Lines get long, but in my experience, they tend to move quickly; if there's a holdup, customers can see exactly why. (Replenishing the romaine! Getting more dressing from the back!) This production system lets customers see exactly how the sausage gets made—and in the case of designer salads, those of us shelling out $15 on a salad truly want to see how it’s made.

Without seeing the process, I can't make a last-second order tweak to not add on the avocado because it looks a tad too brown. I can't ask for just a few more cucumbers because that scoop looked quite small to me. And I can't monitor the dressing situation, which is a make-it-or-break-it moment differentiating crudités from salad from soup. Yes, this critique is implicitly high-maintenance, but at this premium price for salad bowl, haven't Sweetgreen's customers earned that right?

There's also the human-interaction component we're missing out on at Sweetgreen 3.0 (and with similar "innovation" concepts, like Starbucks' new pickup-only location and Uber's Quiet Mode cars). Research has shown that face-to-face interaction with people, even people with whom we have no relationship, can give way to increased happiness. By talking with the person making my meal as we walk together from greens to toppings to proteins to dressings, we take part in a back-and-forth that might well be passive, but is still engaging. Even a simple "How's your day going? Great! And yours?" can yield a smile, which can help boost happiness. In a time when loneliness is reaching epidemic levels, shouldn't we be trying to talk with each other more rather than streamline "low-stakes" conversations out of our day?

When I finally received my lunch 20 minutes after ordering, I couldn't even inspect it—I was late for a meeting and had to run out the door. Upon lifting the lid when I had the chance to eat, I discovered a not-full mix. Atop the paltry bed of greens, there were zero beets, though I had asked for beets instead of the tomatoes that typically come in the particular salad I ordered. (That said, at least the tomatoes I didn't want were also not in the salad.) I also didn't get the slice of bread I asked for, which made me feel judged (let a gal have her bread, okay!). By the time I finished hate-eating this poorly made, expensive lunch, I remained hungry and vowed to never return to the location.

If you won't take my word for the lacking service model, consider the location's nearly-all-awful Google and Yelp reviews noting long waits, incorrect orders, and a desire to see the salads be made. Even Sweetgreen itself seems iffy about the whole situation. When asked to comment on how the company feels the new concept is being received, a Sweetgreen rep shared this statement: "Our store at 32nd and Park is currently in a pilot phase and our focus at this time is on learning and refining the customer experience." So basically, regarding the possibility that this whole nightmare might end up as a failed experiment… they're saying there's a chance.

I can get behind a desire to innovate and improve, but this attempt by Sweetgreen seems to be doing nothing more than frustrating and alienating the customers who love what they know—and pay for it. So, SG: Can we just return to our regularly scheduled program and order our salads directly from the humans who are making them?

Feeling inspired to DIY your own salad? Here's how to build a high-protein bowl, and meal-prep a big batch salad that'll stay fresh for days.

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