These days, opting for a salad at lunch isn’t just a healthy choice, it’s a great way to impress your friends over Instagram. Colorful and packed with ingredients, big salads have become standard fare in office breakrooms and on brunch menus. But there’s one snag: they can be super expensive!
According to Business Insider, the cheapest salad available at popular chain Sweetgreen is $11, and that’s a no-frills kind of order. The heartier options with more toppings can be as pricey as $20. For that price, you could probably buy two or three meals from McDonald’s.
Let’s take a look at why salad is so expensive at restaurants.
Image of Success?
In 1997, the United States declared obesity to be a national epidemic, mostly because of the foods we were eating at the time. Fast food chains had become go-to options for professionals and families alike, but their greasy, manufactured fare was doing terrible damage to our health. That’s why the early 2000s saw the rise of fast-casual salad shops, like Chopt in 2001, Just Salad in 2006, and Sweetgreen in 2007.
These chains aimed to get young, working professionals to switch from greasy fast food to fresh, healthy salad. But in order to differentiate themselves from the cheap burger joint competitors, these salad chains set higher prices. Busy urban professionals looking for a quick takeout lunch near their office felt like paying more money for a healthier option was the proper adult choice. Hence, setting high prices was a marketing ploy to create a successful, I-can-afford-that kind of image. They made the argument that the ingredients and manpower that go into such salads justify the higher price.
Better Ingredients, Higher Prices
Hans Taparia, Clinical Assistant Professor of Business and Society for NYU, explains that the quality of ingredients at these chains is why salad is so expensive.
“The big change has been around the types of ingredients and the flavors we’re using in salads,” Taparia says. “Falafel, and tofu, and lentils. Plus a combination of interesting flavors, and that’s made it possible for a salad to become a complete meal.” Add to that chicken, beef, or avocado, and you’re looking at a filling, wallet-busting salad.
Moreover, many of these chains go out of their way to prove that they have the freshest ingredients in the market.
“Fresh is key,” Taparia says. While salad chains Fresh & Co and Dig Inn have both purchased their own farms to source ingredients, Sweetgreen works with over 500 farms for their fresh veggies. And they’re not afraid to mention it.
And while customers like knowing exactly where their food comes from, farm-to-table carries a price. Then add that most of these chains make salads on-demand, requiring hard-working staff to prepare your bowl in a snap. By the time you get your bill, all these expenses have added up.
Chains like Sweetgreen aren’t just selling lunch, but an entire lifestyle. Sweetgreen customers love eating clean, exercising, and working high-paying jobs. In fact, most locations are in or around major business districts. In New York, for instance, most Sweetgreen and Chopt locations are in Midtown or Lower Manhattan, where they attract a well-paid clientele.
They also curate their spaces far more intricately than, say, a McDonald’s. A Sweetgreen might have broad glass windows, potted plants, and modern furnishings as opposed to nightly colored plastics at a fast-food chain geared toward kids or families.
All of this is an attempt to build a brand identity of total wellness—an identity that doesn’t come cheap. The price of rent and décor for their stores also ends up in the total price of their meals.
How to Save
For all these reasons, you can expect to pay a pretty penny for a salad from a big chain. But there are ways to save some money. Consider buying a pre-packaged salad at the supermarket. It might not be custom-tailored to your taste, but it will cost you a whole lot less. Or, of course, you can buy your own ingredients and make a giant salad at the top of each week, which you can enjoy in the days to come.