Why the Future of the Lunch Salad Is Up in the Air

After two-plus years of upheaval, the office lunch routine is trying to find its footing.

tossing a sweetgreen salad
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Much has been written about the “sad desk salad”—that compostable bowl of chopped greens that you, eyes fixed on a screen, quickly puncture with a fork and gobble up in-between emails. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic for pre-pandemic life, or am choosing to ignore the throes of American capitalism, but I miss those work salads.

In my former office life, I’d start to fantasize about organic cherry tomatoes as early as 10 am, deciding which dressing I might opt for that day, just itching to embark on a jaunt of fresh air and ask a human being for a side of bread.

The magic—if there ever was any—of the fast-casual salad joint is no longer there. The lines of office workers that once wrapped around Sweetgreen during peak lunch hour are now replaced with fully stocked, digital pick-up shelves. Those urban farming tables, once crowded with antisocial patrons scrolling their feeds, are no longer occupied. If there was something sad about the routine of it all, there’s something even more sad about the lack thereof.

The pandemic has killed the sad desk salad—for better or for worse. In response, fast casual chains are pivoting to creative all-day concepts, expanding into the suburbs rather than city centers, or, like Sweetgreen, veering closer and closer to digital-only spaces.

The fact that more and more people are working from home is an obvious explanation for these shifts, as it’s much easier to prepare lunch in our own kitchens. But “lunchflation” is also playing a role. According to Square Data, we can anticipate spending 11% more on salads this year, a result of labor shortages and supply chain issues.

For those working remotely, that price tag might be too high to warrant an excursion out of the house, and for those that are returning to the office, an expensive lunch salad is just one of the many things one must adjust their budget for, in addition to the increased costs of commuting, daycare, parking, etc. 

There’s another possible explanation for ghostly salad shops, which is the idea that, in a semi-post-pandemic life, consumers are preferring on-premise dining offering more unique experiences. It’s a concept similar to “revenge travel,” where people are willing to spend money to make up for two years of isolated takeout.

According to Yelp’s 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry report, many restaurants are experiencing an increase in reservations, as consumers lean towards experience-focused dining, such as conveyor sushi, supper clubs, and themed cafes.

The report also reveals that, while consumers are experiencing near-record menu price inflation, many of them continue to seek out higher-priced dining experiences, “which could mean that, while conscious of inflation, they want to spend their money on high-quality experiences.” So perhaps people are not as happy to spend $17 on a lunch salad, but they will ball out on an omakase dinner.

“In DC, for example, I’ve noticed there are a lot of locations with large offices that are now fully remote, and it’s been interesting to see some of the restaurants in those areas only offer evening service for dinner instead of lunch,” says Tara Lewis, VP of community expansion + trends at Yelp. “I can see why somebody might opt for either making lunch at home and taking it into the office, or figuring out other solutions so they can spend their money differently.”

Dig, the fast casual dining chain known for its vegetable-centric bowls, has tapped into this preference for sit-down dining with a brand new restaurant concept, Dig on 4th. It’s an all-day cafe where you can enjoy a self-serve coffee bar in the morning, or stop by later for a dinner of nostalgic classics, like broccoli melts and beer—a complete diversion from the rise in digital ordering and drive-thrus that we’ve seen over the past two years.

dig on 4th menu items
Menu items at DIG on 4th | Photo by Nico Schinco

According to Kay Teo, director of innovation at Dig, the idea came from the observation that, after two years of isolation, people are looking for human connection. “I was there the first few days of opening,” she remembers. “We saw people who were waiting in line and were like, ‘Can we help you?’ And they were like, ‘Oh, we’re just waiting for a friend actually.’ And that was really awesome, because would you ever be like, ‘Hey, can we meet at Chipotle for lunch and hang out?’ Not really.”

DIG on 4th’s welcoming dining space, with zinc countertops and French bistro chairs, allows visitors to stay a while, to pull out a laptop or enjoy happy hour. It’s a smart way to make up for the dwindling lunch rush. Plus the $2 bottomless drip coffee and $4 beers are enough to counter rising prices. “I think that fast casual is going to start to blur with all-day cafes,” Teo adds.

Coinciding with this move, Lewis is especially interested in the Yelp data point that themed cafes are up 75%, which relates to her own habits of finding coworking spaces for a change of routine and a sense of community.

“Working from home, I don’t get out as much, but I do look out for cool and interesting cafes to pick up coffee or a light breakfast. It might not be the whole office lunch outing with colleagues, but it still feels special,” she says. “I’ll perch there for hours and will still be spending, whether it’s on coffee or snacks. So salads and sandwiches might be on the decline, but I would expect that local cafes will evolve their menus based on the kind of foot traffic they get.”

And then there are developments like WoodSpoon, which further blur the line between takeout and the unique experience that a restaurant, or dinner party, might provide for you. The delivery platform offers homemade meals, prepared in the homes of neighborhood chefs. “Every one of our home chefs is hand-picked and has a unique story to share with you,” the website boasts, emphasizing a human touch.

Sweetgreen is moving in the opposite direction. The salad chain is piloting its first, digital-only pickup location, opening on the first of August in Washington DC’s Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood. The space, which will not have an inside dining area or front-service line, is a grab-and-go experience, designed to meet customers where they are. (Sweetgreen declined to comment for this story.)

“I’ve seen this happen with so many places in DC,” Lewis says. “Businesses are evolving based on foot traffic, operational costs, and anything else that will make them work smarter with limited resources.”

The continued shut-down of urban offices has also influenced fast casual salad chains to try their luck in the suburbs, where many employees are working from home. Chopt chief executive officer Nick Marsh told Bloomberg, “The desk salad is a home desk salad now.”

The website reports that “Chopt will open 40 more restaurants in the next two years, Marsh said, with 80% in the suburbs. In April, the Mediterranean chain Cava, a more suburban brand, announced it had raised $190 million to support its expansion. Just Salad, which closed an approximately $20 million funding round in July, said it will double its location count in the next two years, with an emphasis on the suburbs. In July, The New York Times reported on Sweetgreen’s own suburban expansion; the chain filed confidentially for an IPO in June.”

According to Lewis, the fast-casual pivots to all-day cafes, digital-only spaces, and suburban dwellings were only bound to happen, but the pandemic accelerated these shifts.

“A lot of the innovations that I saw throughout the pandemic were things I expected to see, just sped up,” she says. “So maybe these things were the future, but a lot of businesses were forced to look at them dead-on as a solution versus a thing to explore down the road.”

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.