I Ate 30 Meals in a Row at Sweetgreen (2024)

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

It’s not too late to change your mind, I tell myself, staring down at a Big Mac under the fluorescent lights of a McDonald’s dining room. You don’t even like salad. I claw hot fries in clusters from inside their red sleeve until my fingertips are wrinkled and caked with salt. My stomach is already gurgling from the slurry of high-fructose corn syrup and special sauce churning around in my gut. Enjoy it now while it lasts. I keep chewing.

Twenty years ago this month, the documentary Super Size Me chronicled filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s monthlong experiment eating McDonald’s for three meals a day, exposing the dangers of fast food. Like many who viewed the film at the time, I never looked at McDonald’s the same way again. Yet two full decades after the film was released, McDonald’s is still the most valuable fast-food company in the world.

So what has changed? Fast food, for one, gave birth to “fast casual’’ — a more holistic approach to quick service meals — and the restaurants themselves, which now not only sell food, but a multipronged brand identity built around lifestyle. I pondered all this on a mustard-colored stool under the Golden Arches when, with a fist full of french fries, I made the bold decision to reenact Spurlock’s experiment, but with a chain more representative of this new generation, one that bills itself as the antidote to Spurlock’s McDonald’s: Sweetgreen. The trendy salad chain claims to be reimagining fast food around farm-fresh ingredients delivered with the algorithmic efficiency of a tech company. At a time when McDonald’s has become synonymous with evil, Sweetgreen is selling us on the idea that fast food can be virtuous. I was ready to live the Sweetlife.

In public appearances and interviews, Sweetgreen’s founders aren’t ashamed (somewhat ironically) of their ambition to become the McDonald’s of their generation. “What if every McDonald’s was a Sweetgreen?” asked Jonathan Neman, one of the company’s co-founders and currently its CEO, on the How I Built This podcast in 2020. “How would agriculture be different? How would the environment be different? How would people’s health be different? That’s what gets me really excited.”

Joylessly devouring the last of my Big Mac, I imagined a world filled with Sweetgreens. There are currently over 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants across the United States — more than triple that amount globally — versus only 227 Sweetgreen locations. With such a comparatively small footprint, can this salad chain, which began as an upstart founded by three Georgetown University graduates 17 years ago, be McDonald’s heir apparent?

What would eating nothing but Sweetgreen for every meal like Spurlock did with McDonald’s teach me about the present state, and potential future of, fast food? There’s only one way to find out. Salad-size me!!

Compared with about 250 McDonald’s locations, New York City has 37 Sweetgreens, including four locations within a one-mile radius of my apartment. The stores are strategically located where income is most disposable, near Lululemon stores and Equinox gyms in neighborhoods where designer salads are considered necessities not luxuries. An entire month of Sweetgreen — two meals a day at an average price of about $16 per salad — would cost roughly $1,000, so I settled on a truncated version of the Super Size Me experiment, adjusted for saladflation. Instead of a full month, I would consume 30 straight meals, or 15 consecutive days of an all-salad diet.

Like Spurlock, I laid out a few basic ground rules: 1) I would never eat at the same Sweetgreen; 2) I would never order the same menu item twice (I’d have to customize my own salads when I ran out of options); 3) Since Sweetgreen doesn’t have a breakfast menu, I’d dine there for lunch and dinner without snacking in between meals (breakfast would be limited to salad-like bowls of yogurt, cereal, or fresh fruit to limit any variables).

The first day of salad-sizing, I sauntered into my local Upper East Side Sweetgreen with the confidence of someone who just joined a fancy gym with nothing but the adrenaline of a New Year’s resolution. It’s peak lunch hour, the line is about 15 to 20 people deep, and I question my place among the greens-motivated crowd. Everyone looks serious about salad. A guy in a Dartmouth hoodie starts doing quad stretches, which I’m quite certain I’ve never seen waiting in line at McDonald’s.

The menu is divided into three basic categories: salads, bowls, and protein plates. Salads are the cornerstone of the menu. A bowl is basically a salad with the addition of warm grains like wild rice or quinoa. Protein plates eschew lettuce in lieu of larger portions of protein like herb-roasted chicken or miso-glazed salmon.

To avoid a protracted wait, I left my place in line and ordered a Chicken Avocado Ranch bowl for pickup using the Sweetgreen app, which I’d downloaded the night before. (Most Sweetgreens have a secondary salad prep line with staff dedicated to fulfilling takeout orders.) Eight minutes later, I walked out with my food, smiling at the Pilates aficionados in pastel Athleta gear all still waiting to order.

The base of the bowl is romaine lettuce and white rice with mashed avocado, tortilla chips, apples, pickled red onions, chunks of blackened chicken, and a green goddess ranch dressing that tastes like high-tone Hidden Valley spiked with dill. Gwyneth Paltrow might disapprove, but I found the dressing gave the salad a nice springy kick.

After a few delicious bites, I flashed back to Spurlock’s euphoria at the beginning of Super Size Me. In the film, he described his consecratory meal as “every 8-year-old’s dream”— marveling over a picture-perfect Big Mac that looked as good as it does in advertisem*nts. A few days later, he was throwing up outside his car window. To monitor his health throughout the experiment, he’d enlisted a battery of doctors — including a cardiologist, a nutritionist, and a gastroenterologist — who helped measure the deleterious effects of his McDiet, like high blood pressure and decreased libido. (It’s worth noting that Spurlock later admitted to battling alcoholism during the film’s production, which calls the authenticity of some of his claims into question.)

My Salad-Size Me experiment is every 8-year-old’s nightmare, but I’m optimistic that it won’t require any medical supervision. My ecofriendly, hexagonal Sweetgreen bowl was overflowing with crisp, nutritious vegetables, ingredients that were grown on real farms, by real people. I am certain of this because there was a giant chalkboard hanging on the wall inside the Sweetgreen that told me so in handwritten script. Compared with the Big Mac combo meal I’d eaten the night before, my Sweetgreen bowl fills me with something resembling hope. Also, a lot of lettuce.

Sweetgreen isn’t just a place to order salads. Sweetgreen is a way of life. The company is obsessive about food sourcing, prioritizing sustainability through the use of regenerative ingredients like kelp and steelhead trout. Signs inside the restaurants with slogans like “Follow Mother Nature’s Lead” are there to remind you that your $15 Sweetgreen salad is not only better for you, but better for the planet.

In recent years, Sweetgreen’s astronomical growth has been fueled by its appeal among millennials and Gen Z, who embrace the brand’s socially conscious ethos. In 2019, Serena Dai wrote for Eater about the company’s rising popularity as a destination for young professionals looking to cram more nutrition into their shrinking lunch hours. “The new power lunch is just a $15 bowl of Sweetgreen at your desk,” she wrote, “hunched over your computer, fueling the increasingly digitized needs of capitalism.” By convincing young consumers to buy into the company’s progressive mission, Sweetgreen rebranded salad as a mindful alternative to other fast-food options like McDonald’s.

I Ate 30 Meals in a Row at Sweetgreen (2)

But what makes Sweetgreen especially appealing to millennials and Gen Z, according to Eve Turow-Paul, author of Hungry: Avocado Toast, Instagram Influencers, and Our Search for Connection and Meaning, is how the brand placates their need for control, community, and purpose. “The millennial generation has been the catalyst for customization,” she says. “We’re the generation that grew up at Starbucks. We like to be able to mix and match and make our own things.”

Sweetgreen’s popularity is also tied closely to how young people express identity and personal branding through their food choices. “Some of the growth around Sweetgreen might be associated with the social capital that comes from signaling being a part of the club,” says Marie Bragg, an assistant professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine who researches social and environmental factors associated with obesity, food marketing, and health disparities. “It’s the idea that you come back to the office with your Sweetgreen bag and the logo signals that you care about your health or that you’re up on the latest trends.”

That progressive image is also reflected in the company’s work culture. Every workday at Sweetgreen begins with a “Sweet Talk,” a ritual the company describes as a chance for employees to come together on a more human level. “What we do here is more than food,” a team leader preaches to his colleagues in a promotional video. “It’s about leaving people better than we found them. And it’s hard work, but we do it with passion and purpose. And that’s how you live the Sweetlife.

But for a company that so fervently champions the value of human capital, it’s notable that Sweetgreen is actively plotting to replace jobs with automation. The company recently launched a pilot project called Infinite Kitchen that incorporates automation technology it acquired with the purchase of Spyce — a robotics startup backed by high-profile chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud —for $50 million in 2021. The salad-dispensing robots that power Infinite Kitchen can increase throughput to over 500 bowls per hour. Early returns from its two pilot locations indicated that Infinite Kitchen increased the average check by 10 percent, and profit margins by 7 percent, while significantly reducing mistakes. The Spyce acquisition piqued interest on Wall Street, where Sweetgreen has traded publicly since 2021, because restaurant companies don’t typically acquire tech startups. But Sweetgreen isn’t a typical restaurant company — it’s a lifestyle brand with a Silicon Valley growth mindset.

I Ate 30 Meals in a Row at Sweetgreen (3)
I Ate 30 Meals in a Row at Sweetgreen (4)
I Ate 30 Meals in a Row at Sweetgreen (5)
I Ate 30 Meals in a Row at Sweetgreen (6) Adam Reiner

Four of the writer’s roughly 30 Sweetgreen salads consumed during the course of his experiment.

The brilliance of Sweetgreen’s menu is how it shuffles around the same basket of ingredients (55 to be exact) in a way that creates the illusion of variety. Salads and bowls are given minimalist names that sound like they belong on paint swatches, like Hummus Crunch, Guacamole Greens, and Shroomami. The BBQ Chicken Salad contains the same blackened chicken that comes with the Chicken Avocado Ranch Salad I ordered the first day, which are both also served with the same green goddess ranch dressing (the former also comes with a honey barbecue sauce). The Sweetgreen hustle is a giant game of farm-to-table three-card monte.

But, of course, everything is customizable. In a recent interview, Sweetgreen CEO Neman said he wants to create a “Spotify for food,” leveraging data to deliver personalized salad “playlists” to customers within its digital ecosystem. The problem is that reshuffling the same ingredients, even when they’re tailored to your personal preferences, can still make you feel like you’re listening to the same salad over and over.

Last fall, the company introduced “protein plates” to energize its dinner business. But none of the ingredients seem very new, except the herb-roasted chicken served with the Southwest Chicken Fajita and Hot Honey Chicken Plates — bland slabs of boneless chicken thighs that tasted more like a poorly executed sheet-pan chicken recipe than a respectable proxy for dinner. To put it less kindly, Sweetgreen’s protein plates reminded me of my days working in restaurants when the kitchen staff would put up mismatched remnants of unsold food at the end of the night. The ravenous staff, starving after a long shift, would eat it, but only because we had no better options.

Even though the protein plates felt slapdash, I ordered one on almost all of my dinner visits, because within days, I was already sick of eating greens. I sampled a few newer menu items like the Italian Chopped (a zhuzhed-up take on the old-school antipasto salad with chunks of salami) and the Chicken Pesto Parm (a clumsy mashup of a caprese salad and a chicken parm).

By Day 7, I’ve eaten through almost the entire Sweetgreen menu. So, one late afternoon at a location on 32nd Street and Park Avenue, I customized a salad with roasted chicken, wild rice, arugula, apples, almonds, and blue cheese. Quietly munching away and admiring my bespoke creation, I looked over at a Sweetgreen employee wearing a hat that read “Regenerative Food Systems Club Est. 2007” sitting across from me eating a giant slice of pepperoni pizza on her break. I’m guessing she was as sick of eating Sweetgreen as I am.

A week in, my diet has become overly optimized. There’s a carefully engineered sameness to Sweetgreen meals that begins to feel very McDonald’s-like after a while. Even though I finish every bite of every salad, bowl, and plate, I still feel hungry all the time. Eating at Sweetgreen regularly is like going to the same restaurant every night and leaving before the main course arrives. Aside from my digestive system rewarding me with regular bowel movements, I’m quickly learning that for a fair-weather vegetable eater like me, two straight weeks of Sweetgreen feels like a deprivation diet. A few people comment that I look healthier. I tell them that I’ve been trying to eat better.

On Day 10, I passed by Raising Cane’s — a chain restaurant famous for its chicken fingers — on my way to the Sweetgreen on Astor Place a few doors down; like many of the trendier downtown locations, it resembles a day spa with towering windows and potted foliage. Raising Cane’s had a line of generationally wealthy Gen Zers out the door all glued to their iPhones, while the Sweetgreen was virtually empty. Healthy salads might reign supreme in midtown during office hours, but, on this weekend afternoon, chicken fingers were eating Sweetgreen’s lunch.

I ordered the Crispy Rice Bowl with a few modifications (omitting cilantro, substituting tofu instead of blackened chicken, and adding avocado). When I dug in, the crispy rice tasted like stale Rice Krispies, and the salad was horribly overdressed. I wondered if a robot would’ve made a better one. When I walked by Raising Cane’s again on my way home, I stared through the window longingly at the throngs of 20-somethings gnashing away at strips of greasy fried chicken. At that moment, I would’ve traded a year’s worth of Sweetgreen salads for one chicken finger.

By Day 15, I couldn’t look at another salad. I took the subway to the lone Queens branch of Sweetgreen in Long Island City, situated next to a cluster of luxury high-rise apartments and office buildings, and customized an Elote Bowl with cucumbers and chipotle crema. The herbed quinoa tasted like bird feed, and the cucumber skins were thick and bitter. Sweetgreen relies on fresh produce from a network of over 200 domestic farmers and producers, which makes McDonald’s level consistency near impossible. While the company’s commitment to ethical sourcing and sustainability is admirable, consumers don’t patronize chain restaurants for nuance. They want consistency.

I Ate 30 Meals in a Row at Sweetgreen (7)

I asked a supply chain expert with more than 20 years of experience whether she thinks Sweetgreen is equipped to become the McDonald’s of our generation. “On the very highest level, no,” says Karen Karp, who founded KK&P, a consultancy that advises companies like Pret A Manger on food sourcing. “The main reason is that everything except for maybe coffee grounds and milk in the McDonald’s supply chain is a nonperishable product or frozen. It’s a product that is manufactured in some centralized place and shipped to thousands of franchises.” Because Sweetgreen’s business model is predicated on highly perishable food, it can’t benefit from the same protracted shelf life of processed foods like McDonald’s does.

“Our food system is not built to support Sweetgreen,” says Bragg. Government policies that subsidize corn and soybean production favor processed foods like carbonated sodas made with high-fructose corn syrup and relegate organic vegetable farming to the margins. “If Sweetgreen is going to have any chance at all to compete with some of these junk food brands, they’re going to have to leverage all the tools like operational efficiency and scale that made those brands possible.”

Another big obstacle to Sweetgreen’s expansion might be America’s complicated relationship with salad, a food that has typically been associated with diet culture and deprivation. In her 2016 article “The Sad Ballad of Salad” for The Atlantic, Julie Beck wrote: “‘Salad,’ as a word, as an image, as a category of food, is a shorthand for ‘healthy eating,’ but also a shorthand for ‘joyless healthy eating.’ It evokes diets and weight-consciousness in a way that no other entire category of food does.” Joy would certainly not be the first word I would choose to describe 15 days of unadulterated Sweetgreen.

Unlike McDonald’s food, salad still carries the stigma of being “good for you.” There may not be enough Peloton owners who value the benefits of a vegetable-forward diet — or enough people who can afford an expensive salad habit — to propel Sweetgreen into the McDonald’s stratosphere. Its only real chance to conquer the fast-food world may be to start offering fries on the side.

I Ate 30 Meals in a Row at Sweetgreen (8) Adam Reiner

The day after I finished my final Sweetgreen meal, I’m back at McDonald’s. After studying the nutrition facts — a lingering legacy of Super Size Me — on the glowing kiosk, I do the math: It would take three basic Sweetgreen salads to reach the caloric threshold of the Double Quarter Pounder with cheese and bacon combo meal I just ordered. At a time when most Americans are struggling with the shrinking value of their dollars, choosing affordable calories over designer nutrition is often an easy, and necessary, decision.

At its core, McDonald’s is a microcosm of America — unapologetically itself and resistant to change. By now, most of us understand that consuming McDonald’s as a primary source of nutrition is unwise. But despite Spurlock’s warning two decades ago, our undying loyalty to fast food fueled the company’s $25 billion in annual sales last year.

On the walk over, I could feel my pants slipping down off my waist a bit. Though it wasn’t my end goal, I’d shed about five pounds on my Sweetgreen diet, dropping one full notch on my belt. Over the course of Super Size Me, Spurlock gained five times that and claimed to have developed serious health problems as a result. But while the physical results of my experiment were very different, I can’t say I felt fundamentally better — or more virtuous — either.

Reflecting back on the lessons of the past two weeks, I remembered something Sweetgreen’s CEO Neman said on an episode of the Recode Decode podcast from 2018. “We see us as building a food platform,” he told host Kara Swisher. “Restaurants are content creators.” He said it proudly, but I wondered if, at the intersection of food and technology, Sweetgreen might be caught in a rut between integrity and optimization.

When you strip away all the virtue signaling and lifestyle propaganda, I’m skeptical that Sweetgreen is all that different from McDonald’s. Even if they have significantly different approaches to feeding people, both companies want to hook customers on fast, convenient meals and keep them locked into their ecosystem. After 15 days and 30 straight meals on the “platform,” I’m unconvinced that turning salad into “content” is the key to changing our relationship with food. A Kale Caesar is nice once in a while, but it doesn’t make you smarter or happier, and it can be just as uninspiring as a Quarter Pounder if you eat one every day. The secret to living the Sweetlife can’t be found at the bottom of a $15 salad bowl. As Spurlock and I both learned the hard way, the secret is much simpler: everything in moderation.

Adam Reiner is a freelance food writer based in New York City. His first book The New Rules of Dining Out: A Guide To Enjoying Restaurants is due out in fall 2025.
Adam Mazur is an award-winning illustrator based in Montréal that enjoys drawing (and eating) all things crispy, crunchy, saucy, steamed, grilled, and delicious.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Cynthia Puleo

I Ate 30 Meals in a Row at Sweetgreen (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Merrill Bechtelar CPA

Last Updated:

Views: 5765

Rating: 5 / 5 (70 voted)

Reviews: 93% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Merrill Bechtelar CPA

Birthday: 1996-05-19

Address: Apt. 114 873 White Lodge, Libbyfurt, CA 93006

Phone: +5983010455207

Job: Legacy Representative

Hobby: Blacksmithing, Urban exploration, Sudoku, Slacklining, Creative writing, Community, Letterboxing

Introduction: My name is Merrill Bechtelar CPA, I am a clean, agreeable, glorious, magnificent, witty, enchanting, comfortable person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.