At Sweetgreen, Seeing the Way forward for Work in a Desk Salad

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What can desk salads tell us about the state of the pandemic?

Sweetgreen, which has sold $ 10-15 salads to office workers for more than a decade, says the end is in sight.

“Covid is over,” said Jonathan Neman, CEO of Sweetgreen, recently in a Zoom interview from Culver City, California, where the company is based and where employees are being asked to return to the office on July 19th, point it goes just about getting people back in. “

Sweetgreen, which operates 129 restaurants in more than a dozen states, is among the companies that obsessively tracked numbers of coronavirus cases on sites like Axios and The New York Times during the pandemic. It also monitored car traffic and OpenTable reservations to measure consumer activity.

The company and its meals are linked to the status of urban office workers, particularly Millennials and Generation Z. Sweetgreen has raised more than $ 450 million in funding since its inception in 2007 and has cultivated a loyal following thanks to its fresh ingredients , digitally savvy and sharp branding that extends to the design of its stores and celebrity partnerships with the likes of tennis star Naomi Osaka. But it has also bet heavily on serving many employees in cities like New York and Los Angeles, a once ubiquitous slice of urban life turned on its head by the pandemic.

“It was definitely a challenge, especially in the cities that have had a complete shutdown,” said Neman.

Prior to the pandemic, he said the company set up more than 1,000 “outposts” – the name given to salad pick-up locations in places like corporate offices and hospitals. Sweetgreen now has around 250 in operation.

“We’re definitely not quite back from an office perspective,” said Neman, but added that the company’s business has grown steadily since many mask mandates were dropped in May and Memorial Day weekend.

“You start to see these really nice increases as people slowly return to the office,” said Neman. He said he plans to look for a similar bump after July 4th, although Labor Day “will be a very big moment”. Many companies have signaled that they will be bringing most employees back to the office for at least part of the week in early September.

With more than 30 locations in Manhattan and many customers who order salads digitally, Sweetgreen has insight into the movements of its customers, even if they are not quite eating at their desk yet.

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July 2, 2021, 3:27 p.m. ET

The company has seen neighborhoods “like the Upper East Side and Upper West Side really light up,” Neman said. “The real Midtown office was the slowest to return, so we have a store in Rock Center, Bryant Park, the kind of area that was definitely the slowest.”

Sweetgreen is also starting to open more out-of-town restaurants in areas such as Westchester County and around Greenwich, Connecticut, as well as regions of New Jersey and Long Island.

“There are definitely some subsequent customers in your distribution,” said Mr. Neman. The company had planned to expand to the suburbs prior to the pandemic, but it is accelerating those initiatives.

Although Sweetgreen said it was isolated from some of the shocks of the past year because of its online ordering capabilities and robust delivery service, the future of work matters to its business. The company was recently valued at $ 1.78 billion and has filed for an IPO in confidence, according to a report from Axios. Sweetgreen does not share its financial data, but has indicated that its 2019 revenue exceeded $ 300 million.

Third research firms have found the company is still recovering from last year. Sweetgreen’s transactions in the New York subway market were down 20 percent in May 2019, according to Earnest Research, a data analytics firm that tracks millions of debit and credit card payments in the United States.

“As the higher vaccine markets drag on, the impact of the lunch break going back to the office is likely to be a key factor in this IPO, especially as fewer people are returning from the urban escape,” said Zach Amsel, senior data Analytics Director at Earnest Research.

Mr. Neman expects companies to be back to work three or four days a week, especially after Labor Day.

“The office is not dead – I think sitting behind a screen all day resulted in burnout,” he said. “I end up a little more in a temperate world, where the world is probably not 100 percent back where it was, but I also don’t think the world works entirely from home.”

As for Sweetgreen’s plan for returning to the office this month, the company said it had encouraged vaccinations but would not require them for employees. The subject has been tense as companies like Saks and BlackRock require vaccines for employees who return in person and others are reluctant to set those guidelines.

“These decisions are so burdened these days,” said Neman. “We try to find the balance, to create a place where everyone feels safe, but also not to exceed with regard to purely personal decisions.”