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The New Power Lunch Is Sweetgreen

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A sad bowl at your desk, but maybe slightly less sad

Tom’s First Bite review for 9/27 on Sweetgreen in Georgetown Photo by Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Last month, when famously grumpy Post columnist Steve Cuozzo mourned the death of the power lunch, he was swiftly scorned for blaming its end on millennials. Though ludicrous in his description of an entire generation, he was right in one way: New York’s old ideas about the power lunch are over. But power lunch isn’t dead. The new power lunch is just a $15 bowl of Sweetgreen, at your desk, hunched over your computer, fueling the increasingly digitized needs of capitalism.

My colleague Matt Buchanan wrote about this in 2015, arguing that the power lunch for “modern knowledge workers, who can no longer escape the confines of their cubicle for more than fifteen minutes before someone might notice that they are potentially not being productive “ is a chopped salad. By 2016, restaurants even started naming their fast, nutrient-rich bowls “power bowls.”

But now, nearly five years later, a winner has emerged as the power lunch symbol for the new worker, and it’s Sweetgreen.

Sweetgreen fits all the needs of today’s laptop-chained workers: It’s in a bowl and thus easily eaten while reading and sending emails. It’s fast, it’s filling, and it’s carb-light and vegetable-heavy, fitting into proliferating ideas around “wellness.” The salads and bowls are also pretty tasty.

More importantly, though, Sweetgreen has won the branding battle.

They’ve adopted the language of the tech workforce, telling journalists that they believe in the need to “disrupt yourself” and naming their newest location “Sweetgreen 3.0.” They’ve leaned into aspirational lifestyle marketing plays: Fitness companies cater events with Sweetgreen salads, and hip chefs like Danny Bowien team up to make special bowls. In an era where consumers want to see companies be ethical, Sweetgreen donates proceeds on opening days of every location to charity and includes sustainability as part of its core mission.

And in a particularly savvy play, Sweetgreen changed the shape of its bowls, which now boast a distinctive hexagonal shape. Today, an office worker who brings a Sweetgreen bowl back to their desk is signaling not only that they are culturally relevant and hold progressive values, but also that they have the salary to spend $15 on a beautifully composed bowl of raw vegetables.

In the meantime, the company — which started in D.C. in 2007 but has since moved to the more “wellness” brand-aligned city of Los Angeles — has managed to raise nearly $500 million in the last decade. It now has a valuation of $1.6 billion.

The company has its problems, of course. It contributes to the broader problem around wellness as being synonymous with thinness and whiteness, plus the Western-centric idea around salads as the ultimate health food. It claims to be a progressive company that’s mission is to “be convenient and accessible to everyone,” but it mostly opens in wealthy and predominantly white neighborhoods, even as it uses hip hop as cultural cache in its marketing.

Still, there are reasons for Sweetgreen’s emergence as a power lunch to be heartening.

It’s expensive, but a Sweetgreen bowl is still way cheaper than a steak-and-martini lunch. Its limited edition bowl Beets Don’t Kale My Vibe, named after a Kendrick Lamar lyric, was a collaboration with the artist, and proceeds went to nutrition education nonprofits. And its website and Instagram show customers and employees who don’t fit the mold of the predominant wellness narrative — thin, white, blond — with promotional materials featuring a famous plus-sized model and a popular food blogger who is black.

But the bigger problem surrounding the end of traditional power lunch remains bleak. Demands on people and workers are higher, and true hourlong lunch breaks are practically nonexistent. Those who even have time to wait in the long lines at Sweetgreen — versus those who order for pick-up on the app — seem to have some sort of luxurious amount of time that the rest of us don’t have. Meal prep and grocery shopping during our brief time off is its own form of exhaustion, while there’s more and more pressure to eat healthy not just for one’s health but also as a signal of being a better person. There’s no more power lunch because the modern office worker just doesn’t have that much power.

In the brief moments we actually have to leave our desks to feed ourselves, choosing Sweetgreen sometimes feels like the most power we can have.