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This wildly popular organic start-up should make fast food chains nervous

Hollis Johnson

Oct. 19, 2015, 5:24 PM

Hollis Johnson
Investors are pouring serious amounts of green into Sweetgreen – but is the food worth it?

Fast-food is getting healthier, fast – and legacy chains are getting left in the dust.

The likes of LYFE Kitchen, Freshii, and Sweetgreen have introduced the concept of healthy meals to the fast-food industry, leaving iconic chains struggling on how to compete.

Washington, DC-based salad chain Sweetgreen is one of the leaders of the growing farm-to-table fast-food movement.

With the company's marketing espousing sustainability, local suppliers, and healthy menu items, the chain has captured the imagination of health-conscious urbanites who are wary of what they eat. 

And it seems the chain has captured the attention of investors as well, raking in $35 million in funding for this year's third quarter.

Three Georgetown grads started Sweetgreen in 2007, and it has exploded to 31 restaurants across the country with more on the way.

I've heard stories of the famous lines stretching outside at the New York City Sweetgreen locations, so I had to find out for myself if this chain deserves its organic cult status.

There are five Sweetgreen locations in NYC – I visited this one on 28th Street and Broadway in the city's NoMad neighborhood. I expected a line ...

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... and I was not disappointed. Yikes. The lunch time rush is in full swing – I arrived right around noon.

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The space is decorated with lots of wooden tables and seats, with painted brick walls. It's a clean look, yet not sterile; you can tell they sell healthy food just from the decor.

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You can order online as well, or on your phone through their app. Beat the lines and pick it up at the counter! Ten minutes into waiting in line, I'm wishing I did just that.

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On the wall are giant photos, showing their first location in DC, as well as shots from Sweetgreen's own annual music festival, Sweetlife. No, seriously, they have an actual music festival.

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Source: Sweetlife

There are a handful of prescribed salad choices, as well as the option to make a custom salad. You can choose proteins like chicken, bacon, shrimp, cheese, and falafel, as well as other throw-ins like avocado and quinoa. And don't forget the dressing!

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Your salad is prepared in front of you as you scoot down the line. Once you actually get to order, the process is shockingly fast. If only I didn't have to wait 15 minutes! Ordering online is seriously worth it if you want to eat lunch here often.

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The salads are expertly mixed so you don't have to, and they come with bread if you want it. They even ask how much dressing you prefer: light, medium, or heavy.

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There is a bevy of beverage options – all healthy, of course. Above the drinks is the company's manifesto. I think it's a little weird for a restaurant to have such a quasi-spiritual edict, but that's just me.

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At last, my meal. I ordered an "Avocobbo" salad with egg, bacon, raw corn, roasted chicken, tomatoes, avocado, and blue cheese dressing on a bed of romaine and kale. I also went for the cranberry pear fresca drink, a seasonal specialty.

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The drink isn't as sweet as I expected, which is rather refreshing. The cranberry juice adds a slight tang to the drink, and I can taste a hint of ginger in it as well. For $3, it's not bad – plus you can refill it.

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I immediately realize that the salads here are enormous. This is one impressively deep bowl of green and healthy goodness. The tomatoes are bright and juicy, and they taste perfectly fresh.

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Every forkful has the perfect amount of ingredients. There doesn't seem to be any skimping on meat or veggies – there's a ton of lettuce, but there's just as much chicken and everything else.

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Halfway through, and I'm starting to feel full... Imagine that, a filling salad? The kale lends a bitterness to every bite that brings clarity to the buttery avocado and egg, and perfectly compliments the strength of the blue cheese dressing.

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Finally, I'm done. That salad was huge, and seriously satisfying. Although, of all their salads, it probably has nearly the highest calorie count at 705. And at $12.85, it may be reasonably priced for a NYC lunch, but that's just plain pricey elsewhere.

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While running on the expensive side, Sweetgreen's healthy lunch under the guise of fast-food should make the fast-food giants really think twice about seriously revamping their approach. And if the lines are any indication, diners are willing to pay more for a truly healthy and quality meal.

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